How Women Were Driven Away From Politics After the American Revolution

Historian Rosemarie Zagarri’s Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic reads like a sequel to historian Mary Beth Norton’s Liberty’s Daughters, the 1980 text that charted women’s leap into political activity in the 1760s and ’70s.[1] During the American Revolution, women debated politics, published editorials, and engaged in boycotts, protests, and other forms of disruptive action, which undermined gender norms but was nonetheless applauded by men as important to the cause.[2] Zagarri explores what came after: from the 1780s to the 1820s, a subset of women, called “female politicians,” continued their involvement in political activity, supporting newly formed parties and attempting to influence elections.[3] A wider debate arose over women’s role in society, with the ideals of the revolution such as natural rights and equality feeding a new ideology of “women’s rights,” which clashed with the traditional order of absolute male power.[4] With desperate times, the great battle for independence, in the past, there was less enthusiasm for an expanding feminine sphere. Those on this side of the debate pushed for women to return to the home and serve as “republican wives” and “republican mothers,” positive influences on husbands and sons, the helmsmen of the new nation, especially as partisanship threatened to tear the United States apart.[5] Women were considered more moral beings, who could restore rationality, civility, and peace among men.[6] By the 1830s, the “backlash” to women’s entrance into informal politics (or formal, in the case of female-enfranchised New Jersey) came to dominate American attitudes, and soon women “vehemently denied the political nature” of their words and deeds, and “distanced themselves from party politics and electoral affairs,” to avoid being attacked and “vilified.”[7] In positing that a significant feminine advance and evolving attitudes were swiftly hammered back, and rooting her explanation in changing societal realities (bitter partisanship, universal suffrage for white men, strengthening parties, scientific claims of women’s inferiority), Zagarri has made a substantial contribution to the field of early American history.[8]

Zagarri has also set the standard for bountiful evidence entwined with brevity of text. Indeed, Revolutionary Backlash is not even 190 pages. The George Mason professor of early American history has produced three prior texts on the era, all of them roughly the same length. The brevity, and clarity of writing, make Backlash accessible for a general audience. But the evidence is voluminous, and notably includes what one might call explicit “missing links.” For example, it is important that Zagarri demonstrates that men (and other women) pushed women to stay home and guide husbands and sons to be of wise character at the expense of engaging in the political arena themselves. Finding mutual exclusion in the historical record helps dismiss the possibility that women were asked to be republican mothers but were also tolerated in a new sphere, as they were during the revolution. True, the historian can track change by examining the available documents and noting the prevalence of an idea in one era (for instance, celebration of women’s political participation) and another idea in the next era (condemnation of the same), but it must be stressed that finding historical actors discussing — and creating — the shift itself can be exceedingly difficult. They would make any argument far more powerful. Here Zagarri has succeeded, unearthing explicit sources that connect old philosophies with new, musing over both, rejecting one, advocating the other. One speaker insisted that wives and mothers ought to guide and mold males to be “future Citizens, future Legislators, Magistrates, Judges and Generals” but would be ridiculed if they attempted to engage in political battles themselves.[9] A newspaper article declared, prescriptively, that party affiliations like “Fed. and Rep. and Demo. ingrate to woman’s ear,” rejecting the activities of female politicians, but stated women should work “behind the scene” to cool off feuds among men and raise children who cared more about brotherhood and freedom than party ideology.[10] These finds are triumphs, and the fact that there are very few of them cited, compared to a wealth of “unlinked” documents (discussing a woman’s domestic guiding role or the impropriety of political women, but not both), speaks to how difficult they can be to find and the depth of Zagarri’s research.

Zagarri largely uses primary sources throughout her work — newspapers, letters, memoirs, books, pamphlets, plays, and so on, many found in archives at the Library of Congress, Harvard University, and several state historical societies.[11] Included artwork is particularly interesting, including a circa 1815 illustration of a woman, holding an infant, trying to prevent male partisans from coming to blows, a visualization of women’s pacifying role.[12] Or a painting from that year, depicting a relatively diverse political gathering, compared to an 1852 painting of the same that featured only white males — politics, no matter how informal, was no longer an activity for women.[13] Zagarri uses secondary sources from historians, and others, such as political scientists and literary critics,[14] to supplement her eighteenth- and nineteenth-century works, but they are largely mined for their primary citations and rarely mentioned by name in-text.

Together, her evidence convincingly demonstrates that women were involved in informal and formal politics after the American Revolution (chapters 1-3), and that reactionary developments pushed them out (chapters 4 and 5), solidifying and codifying notions of male privilege and superiority. This restored a gender order that many men and women were afraid was collapsing. “As women are now to take a part in the jurisprudence of our state,” a New Jersey paper wrote concerning women voters, “we may shortly expect to see them take the helm — of government.”[15] When Elizabeth Bartlett was nominated for register of deeds in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, a pseudonymous woman wrote in a Boston magazine whether women would soon be “Governor, Senator, Representative[?]… I have some curiosity to know where we are to stop.”[16] The major factors the George Mason historian outlines put such fears to rest, eroding women’s progress and shoring up the gender hierarchy. Locating documents that explicitly demonstrated intentionality — showing that suffrage for white men and its laws that excluded female voters, that the entrenchment of the parties and end of “street” politics involving non-voters, or that essentialist science that questioned women’s mental capacities were consciously intended to drive women from the political sphere — would have bolstered Zagarri’s causal argument, but such sources are as difficult to find as “missing links,” if not more so.[17] The sources that show a push for women to avoid political disputes and instead quietly better the characters of males at home, to save a divided nation, come tantalizingly close, but never delivering the killing blow of stepping beyond happy, “circumstantial” developments for power to a place of explicit plans to take advantage of a polarization crisis and cast women out of politics. Still, the reader is left with little doubt that animosity toward female politicians fed the calls for women to terminate attempts at direct influence and shift to indirect, domestic efforts, and shaped the other oppressive developments as well.

In conclusion, Zagarri thoroughly accomplishes her aims. The reader will not soon forget the bold advocacy of early republic women, the debate over women’s rights, and the (other) dramatic societal developments that hardened attitudes against women activists and wrought stricter subjugation. Equally interesting is how female politicians continued working. Successfully driven away from the parties and any form of governance such as voting or elected office, the core of politics, women operated on the periphery, creating their own social reform organizations to advocate against slavery, prostitution, and alcohol.[18] They spoke, wrote, rallied, organized, boycotted, petitioned or lobbied public officials, and even tried to get the right candidates elected, all while fiercely denying their involvement in politics or interest in rejecting male authority over them.[19] They framed their activities as moral, not political, work. They were moral beings pushing for moral reform, which fell into the feminine sphere, not the male sphere of government.[20] They used the very ideology, moral purity, that precipitated their expulsion from the center of politics, a blow to women’s rights, to protect their continued advocacy, a bitingly clever and largely effective reframing, given how Americans understood politics in that age.[21] Revolutionary Backlash is must reading for anyone seeking to understand American women’s history, the political history of the early republic, creative resistance, or the fickle nature of progress.

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[1] Mary Beth Norton, Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800 (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1996). Rosemarie Zagarri, Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), 2.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Zagarri, Revolutionary Backlash, 5.

[4] Ibid., 4-5.

[5] Ibid., 5-6.

[6] Ibid., 124-134.

[7] Ibid., 4, 9.

[8] Ibid., 6-7, 180.

[9] Ibid., 132.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 231.

[12] Ibid., 131.

[13] Ibid., 162, 164.

[14] Ibid., 110, 180.

[15] Ibid., 78.

[16] Ibid., 79.

[17] These are similar concepts, but not precisely the same. A missing link shows how one idea replaced another. A finding of intentionality shows why someone did something. You might find the true motive of a historical actor but not see the bridge between old and new ideas; conversely, you might see a bridge but not a motive. Some sources, however, could be both a missing link and a finding of intentionality. A term for this is forthcoming.

[18] Ibid., 142.

[19] Ibid., 142-145.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 146 suggests women saw a hard divide between their moral crusades and legitimate political activity. Though this may be difficult to grasp today, Zagarri seeks to “analyze politics in the terms in which people at the time understood the concept” (page 8).