Reading the average American history textbook, it’s easy to “forget half the population of the country.” Women were largely invisible in public life, and they’re still largely invisible in histories of the early United States. Much like slaves, women were treated as biologically inferior to men. White women in the early days of the colonies were brought to America for one reason only: to bear children. Later on, some white women worked as indentured servants, and were often harshly treated. However, on the early American frontier, white women commanded some respect because they were needed to do manual work, as well as bear children. Surely black women were the worst-off of all people in the colonies. They were given the least food and treated with the least respect.
As in previous chapters, Zinn talks about how the experience of women in the early days of America was unique. However, notice that he also emphasizes some of the commonalities between women’s experiences and the experiences of other persecuted groups, such as slaves (e.g., both slaves and women had to endure condescending arguments about their “biological inferiorities”). Zinn makes a highly nuanced point in this section, simultaneously treating women as one cohesive group, as a combination of many distinct groups (for example, white women and black women), and as representative of persecuted people more generally.
All American women were “burdened” with the Christian ideals of marriage—in particular, the notion that women should be obedient to their husbands in all respects. Especially in Puritan society, women were punished for showing any signs of rebellion or disrespect. Thus, it’s amazing that any women found ways of rebelling. Anne Hutchinson, a Puritan mother, was tried twice for heresy; she was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and went to Rhode Island.
Like many of the persecuted peoples in Zinn’s book, women in the early colonial days found ways of rebelling against authority and injustice, even though ideological and economic forces urged them to remain passive and submissive.
During the Revolutionary War, many women were active in the fight against Britain: they formed patriotic groups, wrote articles, boycotted British goods. Most Revolutionary historians have ignored the contributions of working-class women—the few women they do discuss are genteel wives, such as Abigail Adams. The Revolutionary ideals of equality weren’t primarily intended to apply to women, but some figures, such as Thomas Paine, spoke out for equal rights for women.
It’s indicative of the class bias of most history textbooks that the most famous women of the Revolutionary era are upper-class women, such as Abigail Adams. In reality, working-class women played an active role in opposing British power in America. And even though Zinn admits that the Revolutionary rhetoric of equality wasn’t primarily intended to apply to women, it inspired some thinkers to argue for equal rights for women. In other words, even if the precise, economic reasons for Jefferson’s claim that “all men are created equal” had very little to do with women, other thinkers were able to co-opt Jefferson’s rhetoric and use it to argue for forms of equality (such as gender equality) that Jefferson himself never envisioned.
Between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, women’s roles changed in various ways. With the rise of industry, more women worked in factories, disrupting the expectation that women remain “in the house.” In part to push back against the changing roles of women in society, Zinn argues, early American culture stressed certain ideals that were designed to keep women subservient to men. Women were expected to be sexually pure, patriotic, and obedient. In all, this “cult of true womanhood” kept most American women subservient at a time when the country was going through radical changes.
Like many Marxist historians, Zinn takes a “dialectical” approach to the feminist history of the early 19th century: he explores some of the contradictory, oppositional ideas in American culture at the time. At the same time that economic forces were pressuring women to take roles outside the home, American culture seemed to compensate by reemphasizing the importance of obedience and domesticity in women.
In spite of the cult of womanhood encouraging women to be obedient, there were occasional outbreaks of radicalism among women in the early 19th century. In the factories of New England, for example, working-class women led strikes and riots to protest low wages and long hours. Also in the early 19th century, middle-class women began to “monopolize the profession of primary-school teaching.” In their new role as teachers, middle-class women educated themselves and learned about “subversive ideas.” By the middle of the 19th century, there were widespread antislavery and temperance movements led largely by women.
This passage is a great example of what Zinn meant in Chapter One when he wrote of the “brief flashes” of resistance in American history. Even if American women remained subjugated to men throughout the nineteenth century, they found some ways to resist. Thus, whether or not women’s strikes succeeded in providing higher wages is not the point: the point is that women asserted their intelligence, strength, and compassion—a victory in and of itself.
In the early 19th century, certain American colleges and universities began admitting women, further escalating the process of female education and empowerment. Many of the women who attended college in the 1820s, 30s, and 40s went on to become feminist activists. One college graduate, Sarah Grimké, wrote a series of articles in which she argued that women were wrongly trained to believe that their only purpose in life was to marry and have children. Grimké analogized the treatment of women with the treatment of slaves. Later in her life, she became a notable abolitionist. Across America, women were instrumental in the growth of abolitionism.
Although Zinn often criticizes the American university system for indoctrinating its students to accept the status quo and protect the Establishment, he also seems to believe that the university system can be an important site for rebellion against the structure of American society. Here, for example, he shows how universities trained women not for a lifetime of domesticity and obedience, but rather for a lifetime of resistance to sexism and misogyny.
In 1840, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott organized the Seneca Falls Convention, a milestone of American feminism. At the Convention, Stanton, Mott, and their colleagues spoke about the need for equality between the sexes. Women found ways to resist sexism and fight, not only for their own cause, but also on behalf of other people who were marginalized and mistreated in American society.
In this chapter, Zinn has described feminism and resistance to sexism in 19th century America. However, he is careful to emphasize that feminism wasn’t just about women protecting the rights of other women. Feminist activism encouraged women to participate in other populist causes, too, including temperance and abolitionism. This suggests, perhaps, a common bond between very different kinds of persecuted people, including, for example, women and slaves.