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Summary & Analysis

The Sentiments of an American Woman

Caught up in the patriotic fervor of the Revolution, American women pitched in by participating in the boycotts of British goods such as tea, wigs, and clothing. They sewed homespun garments for their families and worked to make their homesteads self-sufficient. They melted down their pots and pans to produce more bullets for the Continental Army. They formed groups such as the Daughters of Liberty to make clothing and knit items for the soldiers. Mercy Otis Warren and Esther DeBerdt Reed published essays representing female support for the war effort. Women of metropolitan areas raised hundreds of thousands in continental currency by printing and distributing essays about the cause and the need for help, and by asking for donations from private citizens. Traditional female roles also took on additional significance during wartime, as women became the figures responsible for raising a new generation of virtuous republican citizens.

Not many women made the leap from participation in the war effort to a complete defiance of all things traditional. Several women of New Jersey did vote, more than a century before the Nineteenth Amendment. Those who passed the property and residence requirements took advantage of the inadvertently gender-neutral language of the New Jersey state constitution to cast ballots in the state during the first three decades after the state constitution was drafted. Abigail Adams famously wrote to her husband John, our second president, on the contradiction between the war's fight for liberty and equality, despite the male leader's insistence "upon retaining an absolute power over all wives."

Abigail's comments were perceptive; for all of its language about equality and liberty, the new ideology of republicanism paradoxically hardened the gender distinction between men and women. This was partly because the independent judgment of the average citizen in a republican system was based on his or her economic self-sufficiency. Clearly women suffered a disadvantage in this sense, as the free market spread apace with the new system of government and left women in charge of home and children, with few if any alternatives to domestic (and usually unpaid) labor. Just as the reason and self-discipline of the manly republican citizen was being championed, women were increasingly cast in an emotional, dependent, and apolitical role.

Martin v. Commonwealth

Martin v. Commonwealth, an 1804-5 case in the Massachusetts State Supreme Court, offers one of the most revealing examples of the new and oftentimes contradictory republican ideology, which maintained the principal elements of patriarchy even as it endeavored to bring about a new democratic system for white men of all classes. Plaintiff James Martin sued the state for restitution of his property, despite the fact that it had been claimed by the government because his parents were Loyalists who fled during the conflict. The property had passed down to Martin through his maternal grandfather, who tied it to his mother through a common practice in English common law. Because the property was tied to Martin's mother, Anna, and not his father, the justices were faced with a dilemma: if they decided that Massachusetts could keep the property because Anna Martin had committed treason against the newly independent United States, they would have implicitly acknowledged her status as "an autonomous citizen with her own responsibilities."

During this period, the old monarchical system was being replaced by a new and more private sort of patriarchy. Along with the spread of suffrage to increasingly diverse class ranks, men became the masters of their households just as they were supposed to be the masters of their own destiny in a republican system. The judges, reflecting this transition, unanimously deferred to a common law understanding of marriage in which a woman is a feme covert, or "covered woman"; someone subject to her husband. As a feme covert, a woman possesses neither the free will to desert nor the capacity to commit treason, an act which would require service and comfort to the enemy; in this sense, women have no more political relationship to the state than an alien.

Attorney General James Sullivan and Solicitor General Daniel Davis, representing the government, made an unprecedented argument envisioning woman's "civic capacity" within a marriage in which both partners could be "independent moral actors." The Justices rejected this notion and took the property from Massachusetts, rewarding it back to Martin. Though unsuccessful, the state's position introduced the possibility of a radical break from the past and "a reconstruction of the relationship of women to real property," claiming for women "the obligations of citizenship." Yet as it stood in the early nineteenth century and for some time thereafter, the justice system would rather return land to traitorous families than acknowledge a woman's capacity to act on her own behalf. This demonstrates how—from the very beginning of the United States—deeply ingrained ideas about gender differences and the different capabilities of men and women shaped various aspects of our culture, our society, and even our legal system.

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