Women's status during America's grand experiment as the world's first democracy has undergone dramatic changes over the generations. The religious doctrine, written laws, and social customs that colonists brought with them from Europe asserted women's subordinate position. Women were to marry, tend the house, and raise a family. Education beyond basic reading and writing was unusual. When a woman took a husband she lost what limited freedom she might have had as a single adult. Those few married women who worked for pay could not control their own earnings. Most could neither buy nor sell property or sign contracts; none could vote, sue when wronged, defend themselves in court, or serve on juries. In the rare case of divorce, women lost custody of their children and any family possessions.
During the Revolutionary War, women contributed in virtually every capacity, from doing fieldwork at home to fighting on battlefields. But their pleas for rights under the new democracy were disregarded.
Women actually lost legal ground as a result of the new United States Constitution.
Sixty years later, in July 1848, a small group of women set about to change their second-class status. They launched a peaceful revolution that has since encircled the globe-the Women's Rights Movement. At the convention they held in Seneca Falls, New York, 68 women and 32 men signed a Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions. It described 18 areas of life where women's rights were denied and demanded an end to women's inferior status.
Opposition arose immediately, but these new pioneers had proposed a magnificent new America. Reformers began speaking passionately for women's equality in small-town forums and city halls. Annual women's rights conventions drew tremendous crowds. In time, no aspect of public life would remain untouched by this second, women's revolution.
Educational opportunities improved slowly as...