Read an ExcerptWOMEN AND THE PRESS
THE STRUGGLE FOR EQUALITY
By Patricia Bradley
Northwestern University Press
Copyright © 2005
All right reserved.
Chapter One "ARE NOT WOMEN BORN AS FREE AS MEN?"
In 1773, at a time of bold statements, the Daughters of Liberty declared: "Woman is born a free and independent Being; that it is her undoubted Right and Constitutional Privilege firmly to reject all attempts to abridge that Liberty." Six years later, as the male members of the revolutionary circle prepared to elucidate the rights and responsibilities of the citizens of the new nation, Abigail Adams wrote a famous letter to her husband, John. "Remember the Ladies," she said. "If particular care and attention are not paid to the ladies we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound to obey any law in which we have no voice or representation." But John Adams "could not but laugh." Was it not enough that children, apprentices, Indians, and Negroes had been influenced by the struggle? Now, another discontented group "more numerous and powerful than all the rest," added its voice.
John Adams and his circle thought slightingly about women's political role in the new nation. The rhetoric of natural rights that fueled liberation for men came to be reinterpreted to mean obligation and duty for women. As Sara Evans writes, "The very language of the Revolution reinforced the view that political activities and aims were male." A character in a Charles Brockden Brown novel put it more strongly. The framers, said his Mrs. Carter, "thought as little of comprehending us in their code of liberty as if we were pigs or sheep."
However, the crux of revolution had given women, as men, the impulse to freedom, the logical step in a society where their contribution had made a new nation a possibility. In the preindustrial world of the colonial United States, women were needed on the farms and at the front counters and in the back shops of the businesses of the time, sometimes as partners with their husbands, often as widows, and occasionally as independent businesswomen. Between 1740 and 1775, more than 300 women retailers existed in New York and Philadelphia, not counting tavern keepers, boarding house proprietors, midwives, wet nurses, and schoolteachers. To take as example the artisan occupation of printing and publishing, the daughters in printing families were often employed in the back shop as compositors, and they sometimes married the male apprentices and helped establish a new branch of the family business. Women also conducted printing establishments on their own: Cornelia Bradford married the printer Andrew Bradford in the 1740s, continued to run the newspaper American Weekly Mercury after his death, and became the largest landowner in Philadelphia. Mary Katherine Goddard was publisher of the Maryland Journal and was the colony's official printer, bookseller, and postmistress. In Charleston, publisher Elizabeth Timothy was so well regarded that Benjamin Franklin loaned her money.
Moreover, colonial society was one in flux, with ambitious young men and their families moving up the economic scale when times were good. Wives of successful artisan husbands left the counters behind and into the new front rooms took with them an understanding of the wider world. White women were likely to have some degree of education, enough to read and write, if not well. Deborah Read, Benjamin Franklin's wife, laboriously maintained a correspondence with her husband during his lengthy absences, keeping him up to date on his various business interests. Books were imported from England and magazines were an increasing part of late colonial life. Elite homes produced educated women whose métier was the written word: playwright and historian Mercy Otis Warren; diarist Elizabeth Drinker; essayists Elizabeth Magawley and Judith Sargent Murray; versifier and proprietor of an early literary salon, Elizabeth Graeme; as well as prolific correspondents like Abigail Adams, who helped record the age. The African American poet Phillis Wheatley occupies a special place, awkwardly and suspiciously regarded by the Patriots for her calls for liberty for all, including black Americans, and her British evangelical associations.
Still, it was clearly not a golden period. Across classes, both law and custom were different for men than for women. The role of women in the commercial world was not necessarily an opening up of opportunities to women as much as an extension of the domestic world of responsibilities. Women "scolds" were dunked. Unmarried women who gave birth were fined and beaten. Education for young girls, at best, was at a local "dame's school." Although women could sometimes outwit it, coverture prevented married women from controlling property. Widows could lose all at the death of a husband. Most disturbing was that public attitudes toward women were narrowly conceived and often distinctly hostile. Philadelphia's Elizabeth Magawley challenged a particularly vituperative essay that said of women, "The best of the sex are no better than Plagues." "As in your sex," Magawley wrote in the American Weekly Mercury, "there are several Classes of Men of Sense, Rakes, Fops, Coxcombs and down-right Fools, so I hope, without straining your Complaisance, you will allow there are some Women of Sense comparatively."
Thanks to a world of letter writers, evidence exists that many marriages were mutually respecting, companionate, and loving. But the public prints of the time indicate an undertow of attitudes that sought, from the 1730s on, to characterize women by rigid standards. Prescriptions of what it meant to be a good wife abounded, as in the poem submitted to the American Weekly Mercury, "She as a Wife must please, and she alone. O! Give me such a Wife or give none." Wives should obey their husbands and avoid "managing your Husband." Women were acknowledged when they were "fruitful Dames," helping to populate the colonies. Most of all, women were unremittingly counseled to be "virtuous" in ways that called for modesty, amiability, and the happiness of their husbands as their own.
THE CALL TO DOMESTICITY
As the revolutionary era began, public advice to women increased exponentially. The Patriot boycott against tea and imported goods often seemed less a political tool than an opportunity to upbraid women for paying too much attention to fashion. Female attention to "trifles," such as novel reading and card playing, was derided. The call for education for women-which had existed in the earlier period as a tool helpful to the family business and for the early education for children-opened the door to comments on women's lack of mental abilities. Women should "avoid all abstract learning, all difficult researches" as beyond their abilities. One newspaper contributor begged that a good wife should have "No Learning; No Learning." The Pennsylvania Magazine reprinted the story of married discontent amplified by "grave conversations with her, in which she always got the better," which served to "establish her empire over me." When female intelligence was apprehended, it came with the caveat of a "masculine mind." As a Boston minister described it, "Women of masculine minds have generally masculine manners, and a robustness of person ill calculated to inspire tender passion." The essayist "Sophia" voiced a complaint that would echo down the years: An intelligent woman "is represented as disgustingly slovenly in her person, indecent in her habits, imperious to her husband, and negligent of her children." The advice rolled on, so frequent in the new magazines that magazine historian Frank Luther Mott notes that in the 1770s, "Counsel upon Female Virtues" and "Advice to the Fair" were "sickeningly frequent titles."
Given this drumbeat, it was remarkable that any of the revolutionary cabal gave attention to equal rights as they pertained to women. Early on, in his 1764 pamphlet, James Otis raised the question of the role of women in the original compact of natural rights. "Are not women born as free as men?" Benjamin Rush thought seriously about women's education. But it was Thomas Paine whose benchmark essay-among many articles he included on the married state in his year of editorship of the Pennsylvania Magazine-addressed not only women's global subjugation but, unusual for the time, female anonymity. Writing in a female voice, he asked, as if addressing the male sex: "While your ambitious vanity is unceasingly laboring to cover the earth with statues, with monuments, and with inscriptions. Permit our names to be some time pronounced beyond the narrow circle in which we live." Not incidentally, all three men also took antislavery stances.
In the Patriot context of defining women's role, it was not out of place for the colonies' most radical printers, Benjamin Edes and John Gill, publishers of the firebrand Boston Gazette, to publish in 1772 the British cookbook, Frugal Housewife, or Complete Women Cook. When General George Washington-a master of nuance and symbol in the practice of leadership-refused a donation of money from the Daughters of Liberty, insisting on shirts instead, he was representing a revolutionary society that urged women to make their contributions in terms of their domestic capacity.
It was a peculiar position for the revolutionary leadership-calling for contributions from women whose perceived characteristics were so often derided. Nonetheless, it was women's contribution as spinners and weavers that was essential to the success of the Patriot call for nonimportation, the first colonywide agreement to boycott Great Britain's manufactured goods in favor of American "home-spun." It was, perhaps, that dependence on female competency that made the revolutionary leaders less able later to reward the contributions. Given the tensions of the time, Esther Reed, the founder of what would become the Daughters of Liberty, couched her call for women's participation in terms of renunciation, as if colonial women routinely enjoyed the pleasures of the French court: In the 1780 "The Sentiment of an American Woman," she asked, "Who Amongst us, will not renounce with the highest pleasure, those vain ornaments?" It is significant that the dramatic call from the Daughters of Liberty already noted found no Patriot publisher, but appeared in the Tory Boston Post-Boy.
The graphic images of women in revolutionary rhetoric reflected an almost bipolar attitude toward women. Benjamin Franklin's grisly 1766 design of a bloody and dismembered colonial America-arms and legs chopped off and left about-may have been less about the Stamp Act and more a metaphor for other anxieties. The companion piece had Lord Bute among the cluster of male images shoving Britannia toward yet another male representation, Spain. The Boston Tea Party prompted Paul Revere to republish the English pro-Patriot cartoon in which the colonies are portrayed as a vulnerable Indian woman, bare breasted and held down while tea is poured down her throat and a lascivious Lord Sandwich peers up her robes. Its rape image overtones are clear. But by 1787, the frontispiece of Columbia magazine portrayed the new nation as a slim female figure, as the goddess of wisdom being approached by her younger version with two children, the more forward figure a boy. Amid debates about education for women, much less whether women should educate boys, wisdom has been elevated into a female figure-but clearly an ethereal one.
As Patriots built propaganda on the notion that Great Britain put its American colonies on the same level as America put its slaves, the image of the raped woman suggests that Patriots saw the same metaphor applying to women. Both metaphors were constructed on an understanding, but not a rejection, of the status of slaves and women. They were not images that suggested American women were powerful, protected, or esteemed.
What can account for this effort to constrain the women who had labored beside men to build a colonial society, while the opposite was argued for the men of the time? Clearly, colonial society was undergoing change in some regard because of factors over which colonists themselves had little control. Demographic changes resulted in a surplus of unmarried women on the eve of the revolution, while the economic dislocation of the times had particular impact on widows and the families of artisans. Petitions for divorces were up in Massachusetts, and premarital pregnancies rose as high as 30 percent before and after the revolution.
Amid these changes came an increased attention to female sexuality by way of the British Whig piety campaigns, aimed at illustrating the debaucheries of royal life. Colonial newspapers provided their readers with unending serials of royal affairs fomented by female royals. As lively reading as was the trial of Princess Carolina and her Danish lover (who was to be bloodily drawn and quartered for his indiscretions), readers could only conclude sexuality had the power to topple governments. Evangelicals preached its dangers, as did revolutionaries, by way of their propaganda.
THE SEXUAL FEAR
In a private letter in 1745, Benjamin Franklin advised his correspondent to take an older woman for a lover because "in the dark all cats are gray," and "They are so grateful!" This was surely no account of female empowerment, but 30 years later sexual attitudes had more complicating layers. The "captivity narratives" of white women abducted by Native Americans had already placed in the culture ideas of power by kidnap and its intimations of rape. But it was the sexuality of black men that prompted the deepest fears. The revolutionary press achieved much of its strength by playing on the fears of white colonists vis-à-vis slavery, particularly when it seemed that the growing British antislavery movement might lead to the freeing of American slaves. The Patriot propaganda campaign was not shy about playing on black crime and black sexuality alongside the accompanying fears that black men desired white women. Hovering just below that surface was the even more disturbing notion that white women might desire them back-fears certainly in the South but also in the North. Boston, the hotbed of revolutionary fervor, long had exerted controls on black activity and severely punished those blacks who broke the laws. There could be no better evidence of the nexus of sexuality and black crime than the 1763 execution of a 16-year-old slave for the rape of a white girl. Four years later, slave sexuality was again in Bostonian public consciousness when a Worcester slave, Arthur, was executed for the rape of a white woman, not the usual punishment in Massachusetts when rapists were white. It is noteworthy that the next two accused rapists in Massachusetts after Arthur were Irish Catholics, who shared a status that was little higher than black bondsmen and who also shared their executionary fate.
Comic verse and plays further set racial tensions in place. White females who consorted at black celebrations were "trulls" (prostitutes). Female black colonists were portrayed comically or as sexual aggressors. The practice of southern gentlemen to have black mistresses was not a point of discussion. Although the history of race and feminism is often located in the post-Civil War era, emphasis on black sexuality in the revolutionary period was a predictor that in the United States women and the history of race were to be intertwined. We might consider that the imperative of the home had to do with the enclosure of white women under the guise of protection wherein questions of sexual potency would not occur.
Excerpted from WOMEN AND THE PRESS by Patricia Bradley
Copyright © 2005 by Patricia Bradley . Excerpted by permission.
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