With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

The Power of Dependency in Women's Legal Petitions in Revolutionary America (Excerpt)

James Peale, "The Artist and His Family," 1795

Historians have spent decades investigating whether the American Revolution benefited women or provoked changes in women’s status. By and large, white women’s traditional political rights and legal status remained relatively stagnant in the wake of the American Revolution. In some ways, women’s legal status declined over the course of the long eighteenth century. Certain women’s private lives, however, did see some important shifts, especially in regards to family limitation and motherhood. Importantly, the Revolution politicized some women who participated in boycotts, contributed to and consumed Tory and Whig literature, and even acted as spies or soldiers themselves during the war. Women also carefully negotiated their political positions to manage the survival and safety of their families. In the postwar period, elite white women gained greater access to education, though ultimately in service of raising respectable republican sons and their worthy wives. In many ways, however, the lives of American women looked much the same in the postrevolutionary period as they had prior to the war. Despite Abigail Adams’s threat to “foment a rebellion” if women were not included formally in the new American body politic, there would be no great women’s revolution in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Asking whether the Revolution benefited women or brought meaningful changes in their social, legal, and economic statuses, however, cannot fully illuminate the war’s impact on women’s lives. In some ways, this framework is both anachronistic and problematic. Constructing our queries in this way asks too much from a historical period in which inequality and unfreedom were so deeply embedded in patriarchal law, culture, and society as to render such a sea change unlikely  at best. Likewise, this line of inquiry presumes that revolutionary-era women collectively desired what first- and second-wave feminists sought for themselves. It also judges the consequences of the Revolution for women from a set of expectations codified as masculine. Certainly, there were a few noteworthy women who sought rights and freedoms for which liberal feminists of the nineteenth and twentieth century fought, but the Abigail Adamses, Mercy Otis Warrens, and Judith Sargent Murrays of the American revolutionary era were few and far between.

This long scholarly conversation about whether the American Revolution was centrally a moment of change, stagnation, or decline in women’s lives has framed many historical investigations from the wrong perspective. Ironically, we have been studying patriarchal oppression, resistance to it, and attempts to overcome it from a patriarchal standard all along. We must seek to understand the impact of the American Revolution on women’s lives by framing our inquisition around women’s own worldview, their own needs, aspirations, and desires, even when doing so is uncomfortable to our modern sensibilities. What function did the Revolution serve in women’s lives? How did women interpret the rhetoric of the Revolution? How did they make the disruption and upheaval of this historical moment work to their advantage, with the tools already at their disposal? How did they use the apparatus of patriarchal oppression— namely, assumptions of their subordination and powerlessness—to their advantage? What did they want for themselves in this period, and were they able to achieve it? When the impact of the Revolution is investigated  with this shift in perspective, we are able to observe the ways in which women’s individual and collective consciousness changed, even if the Revolution was not radical enough to propel them from their unequal station in American society.

In Dependence asks these questions from a regionally comparative and chronologically wide-ranging perspective, focusing on three vibrant urban areas—Boston, Massachusetts; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Charleston, South Carolina—between 1750 and 1820, or what I refer to broadly as the “revolutionary era.” These three cities serve as ideal locations for a study of early American women’s experiences as their laws, social customs, and cultures varied significantly. Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston were three of the most populous cities in the American colonies and, later, the early republic, which provided inhabitants with access to burgeoning communities as well as the growing marketplaces of goods, printed materials, and ideas. Massachusetts’s, Pennsylvania’s, and South Carolina’s laws regarding marriage, divorce, and property ownership (and thus their demarcation of women’s rights and legal status) all differed a great deal during this period. I chose to focus my study on urban as opposed to rural areas so as to include in this work impoverished communities, whose members often turned for assistance to city almshouses and other local organizations. Women in each of these three cities had the opportunity to petition their state legislatures for redress, yet because of their varying experiences and racial and class identities, they did so for different reasons, with different access to seats of patriarchal power, and certainly with different outcomes.

The revolutionary era was a period in which ideas about the meanings of independence, freedom, and individual rights were undergoing dynamic changes. Dependence was a fact of life in colonial British America, defining relationships ranging from colonial subjects’ connections to the king to wives’ unions with their husbands. Both parties in these relationships had power—even dependents—and these relationships required a set of mutual obligations. Thus, dependence was not an inherently impotent status. The meaning of dependence shifted, how ever, with the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Dependence ceased to be a construct with positive connotations in the American imagination, and likewise became imbued with a sense of powerlessness. The newly independent United States required the allegiance of  its people, and adopted the concept of voluntary citizenship rather than  involuntary subjectship. Accordingly, the law recognized women’s personhood and, to a certain degree, their citizenship, but it also presumed their dependence, which codified them as legally vulnerable and passive. Dependence, then, became highly gendered, and feminized. Women’s  dependent status was likewise contingent on their socioeconomic status, their race, the legal jurisdiction in which they resided, and their relationship to men in power.

Importantly, dependence must not be observed as the ultimate foil to independence. These terms are not abjectly dichotomous to one another, but exist on a fluid spectrum. Situated on this continuum, women firmly asserted their dependence while expressing the “powers of the weak.” While a traditional understanding of “power” implies some form of domination of one party over another through possession, control, command, or authority, this conception obscures the meaning of the word itself while also negating the exercises and expressions of power that do not conform to these standards. If power is also understood as existing on a fluid spectrum, then, an analysis of women’s invocation of the language of dependence in their petitions to state legislatures, courts, local aid societies, and their communities becomes much different.

Notions of power and freedom in early America were contingent upon a person’s intersectional identities. Wealthy, white male enslavers, for example, had different understandings and experiences of freedom than did the Black women they enslaved, and because of the legal structure of the patriarchal state, these white male enslavers held a great deal of power over unfree, enslaved Black women. Like dependence and independence, freedom and unfreedom existed on different ends of the same spectrum. Race, gender, class, religion, region, status of apprenticeship,  servitude, or enslavement, and other elements of an early American’s  identity shaped their relationship to freedom and unfreedom. Notably, this continuum was deeply hierarchical. Even if enslaved women earned  or purchased their legal freedom from the institution of slavery, that free  status was still tenuous, as was the free status of any children they bore. Likewise, enslaved women would have viewed freedom differently than their white counterparts. Black women in particular often defined freedom as self-ownership, the ability to own property, to profess their  faith freely, and to ensure freedom for their families. Freedom for many  enslaved people was a matter of degrees, a game of inches, a process of  constant negotiation for small margins of autonomy and independence  in an otherwise deeply oppressive system. Even if they obtained documentation that declared them legally free from the institution of slavery,  that did not guarantee their perpetual freedom, and it certainly did not  grant them equality under the law; that freedom—even if it existed on  paper—was tenuous. Additionally, American freedom did not evolve  and expand in a teleological manner; in many cases, even in the revolutionary era, freedoms devolved and disappeared for certain marginalized groups of Americans.  We must always consider the ways in which  Americans’ experiences of their freedoms were not (and in many ways, still are not) equal.

Black women experienced multiple, layered dependencies that were compounded by their race and gender, and especially by the existence of the race-based system of chattel slavery that relied on Black women’s reproductive capacity to enhance the power of white patriarchs. Black women, therefore, were not endowed with the same legal protections, rights, and privileges as their white contemporaries were. Engaging with the sympathies of white patriarchs, for example, was not a functional or effective strategy for Black women, as it was for white women. In order  to fully understand how Black women exploited the terms of their intersectional dependencies, then, we must examine the unique experiences  of Black women from within these interlocking systems of oppression. The notion that women could—and can still—express power because of their subordinate status and the protection it offers indicates that women have never been completely powerless. Like other historically marginalized groups or individuals, women have been able to express  a degree of power, autonomy, and agency over their own lives while still being overtly suppressed by a controlling authority. Thus, dependents  expressed power in a variety of ways, including more subtle means such as claiming a public voice or becoming politically active via the submission of petitions. What is especially significant, however, is not that women found power through petitioning various authorities but that they found power in this way through public declarations of their dependent, unequal, and subordinate status.

This excerpt from In Dependence: Women and the Patriarchal State in Revolutionary America is published by permission of NYU Press.