Women history forgot (Part 1)

Today we embark on a series devoted to some forgotten women of American history and ask the question: Why are their stories important lessons to modern America in our struggle to achieve a more perfect union?

Innumerable women participated in the building of our country and their contributions have frequently gone unrecognized. We may recognize the names of a few (suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for example). However, focusing solely on them gives a misleading picture of the women who have, since The Mayflower Compact, been underrepresented in American history.

In the Mayflower Compact, all inhabitants of Plymouth Colony agreed to a system of democracy by pledging a “civil body politick for our better ordering and preservation … do enact, constitute and frame such just and equal laws …” For example, the historical record reveals that equal consideration of land ownership was given to Elizabeth Warren upon her husband’s death. Additionally, Mary Chilton, 11 years old when she traveled on the Mayflower, had parents who did not survive the first winter at the colony. In 1623, she received a land division that included one for herself and one for each of her deceased parents. The colony made sure these women were provided for, for the good of the community.

This approach did not prevail. Two hundred years later, laws across the United States not only did not provide security for widows and orphans, but systematically put women and children at a disadvantage.

Beginning in early 1776, before the Declaration of Independence, Abigail Adams’ letters to her husband John records for posterity her views that, along with independence from England, existing laws governing the position of women needed to be addressed. She wrote, “I long to hear that you have declared an independancy — and by the way the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors” (March 31, 1776). On April 14, John replied to his wife, “Depend upon it, We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems.”

On May 7, Abigail responded, “…whilst you are proclaiming peace and good will to Men … you insist upon retaining an absolute power over Wives. But you must remember that arbitrary power is … very liable to be broken … we have it in our power to not only to free ourselves but to subdue our Masters.”

We know the Declaration ultimately proclaimed “all men are created equal” but “the Ladies” were forgotten. Nor did it actually mean “all” men.

Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820) was a self-educated advocate of women’s equality, access to education and right to control her earnings. According to the National Women’s History Museum, Murray (publishing under the male pseudonym “The Gleaner”) argued that the success of the new nation required intelligent and virtuous citizens, and the education of patriotic sons rested with mothers, therefore women should be educated. She later contributed to the opening of the first female academy in the United States.

Another influential contemporary of Adams and Murray was British writer Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97). Her 1792 publication, “A Vindication of the Rights of Women,” argued that the education system deliberately trained women to be frivolous and incapable, and if girls were given equal access to education, they would produce not only exceptional wives and mothers, but also capable workers in many professions. Wollstonecraft’s publication became a strong influence for future women’s rights activists.

These are but a few of the women who voiced the need for equality in our country’s infancy.

In our next installment, we will review some state laws that suppressed women’s ability to survive or participate in American democracy. We will also examine the passage of the 15th Amendment and its exclusion of women. That exclusion had longstanding and, in our history books, frequently hidden consequences for the fight for suffrage, which ostensibly came about with the 19th Amendment in 1920.

The League of Women Voters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to promoting informed and active public participation in government. For more information, go to https://lwvwv.org/