Women in Early America: Women’s Rights

The “golden age” theory originating in the book by Elizabeth Anthony Dexter, Colonial Women of Affairs asserted that the condition of women in the colonial era was better than it was in the capitalist age (Dexter). According to this line of argument, women were scarce in the pre-industrial era, and all hands, irrespective of gender, were needed to uphold the growing settlements. Further high sex ratio gave women the bargaining power, which increased their value in the marriage market due to the natural need to procreate, consequently raising women’s social status. This account by Dexter and others of the equality women enjoyed in the pre-industrial era with their male counterparts brought about a suitable background for the study of nineteenth century domesticity of women. The stark contrast between the independent, self-sufficient colonial women with the docile, domesticated, oppressed, middle-class victim of industrialization has sparked debates in the American women’s history.

The favourable assessment of the women’s position in the pre-industrial era has been questioned by many scholars like Gerda Lerner (Lerner, p. 595) who believe that the golden age as described Dexter was not acceptable. Mary Beth Norton has argued that the argument that a “less complex social system automatically brings higher standing for women” is not true. It was more due to the needs of the immigrant settlers that the women’s position had changed. Norton clearly demarcates three stages in the development of the role of women in American society. First stage was the period of settlement of the migrant generation where American pattern of family were first laid down (1620s to 1660). Second, these patterns were challenged, transformed, and reinforced (roughly 1660 to 1750). Moreover, the third era was the American Revolution, which brought about the changes in the lives of women and altered the definition of their role in society (approximately 1750 to 1815).

In the early to mid seventeenth century, women were no longer required to devote their time to mere subsistence, so concentrating their attention on domestic work. Her role was considered more important as a mother, nursing their children and providing rudimentary education to them (Norton). By late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, women were no longer confined to such restriction and mid-eighteenth century women gained their autonomy. Thus, there are evidences of tension between genders due to the breakdown of the familial structure. The data of the 1890 census shows that women were entering the gainful economy rapidly thus changing the economic function of women from a homemaker to bread earner (Anderson). However, women had traditionally participated in household work and home run enterprises, which the statisticians found difficulty to conceptually associate or include in the newfound role of women in the labour market. Thus, there was a conceptual error in associating the labour market and the home economy (Anderson).

Industrialization brought about drastic changes to the American familial structure and brought about the first line of public role of American women (Norton). In the industrialized era, participation of women in the workforce increased but essentially in the services sector (Kwolek-Folland, p. 430). The women who worked were mainly employed in domestic work and personal services like “nursing, millinery, dressmaking, and hairdressing”. A statistical account of the women’s work in the nineteenth century show that women have been workers at home, or at household enterprises (Anderson). Before 1880s, women were mostly employed in the so-called household economy. It was only after 1890s that the women’s participation in the workforce was for their ‘gains’. Historians have suggested that the role of women in the service sector was very important (Kwolek-Folland), thus demonstrating the important role of women in the American industrialization.


  1. Anderson, Margo. “The History of Women and the History of Statistics.” Journal of Women’s History Vol. 4 No. 1 (1992): 14-36.
  2. Dexter, Elizabeth. Colonial Women of Affairs (2nd Edn.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931.
  3. Kwolek-Folland, Angel. “Gender, the Service Sector, and U.S. Business History.” Business History Review Vol. 81 (2007): 429–450.
  4. Lerner, Gerda. The Creation of Feminist Consciousness. New York: Oxford University Press , 1993.
  5. Norton, MaryBeth. “The Evolution of White Women’s Experience in Early America.” American Historical Review Vol. 89 No. 3 (1984): 593-619.