Did women have an impact on American political culture through nineteenth century?

In many ways, women are history’s largest minority.  Their voice was for most part suppressed under male domination. It is only in recent decades that they have attained legal and nominal equality with men. America has been a theatre for women’s rights going back to the late 18th and 19th centuries. The Catholic Church provided a semblance of political emancipation for women. This it achieved through allowing Sisters to assume high offices within the rigid hierarchy of the institution.  Though there was a degree of democracy and representation within the Church, in practice, “internal governments combined authoritarian and hierarchical structures with participatory and egalitarian elements.” This meant that Sisters were subject to the authority of officers, but in turn influenced the officers through elections and consultations.  In this somewhat compromised democratic system some members were disenfranchised to vote.  Even in the absence of a sharply divided class system, Sisters were either classified as belonging to ‘lay’ or ‘choir’ groups. The tensions surrounding the two-tier system “that assigned lay sisters an inferior status boiled over in the climate of late-nineteenth-century America and, in response to lay sisters’ protests, communities modified their rules, creating a new equilibrium.” (Adelman, 2011, p.138) Further,

“Women’s historians have become attentive to Catholic women religious, demonstrating that as teachers, nurses, and protosocial workers, sisters exercised an active and visible public role and were empowered by their membership in an order…there were internal political cultures of these orders and the potential within these political systems for expression and authority”.  (Adelman, 2011, p.139)

Even as white men began to enjoy their freedoms and privileges, women (of all races) and African Americans (of both sexes) continued to be deprived of some fundamental rights.  During the Revolutionary Era, free black males could become eligible for voting if they owned a minimum property.  The New Jersey’s constitution of 1776 was especially remarkable in that it even entitled single women and widows to vote if they owned property.  But even this degree of equality was to fade in the coming decades. Even the law allowing apprenticeship of children of freed slaves impacted the two genders differently.  In the years of Reconstruction of the U.S. South, the station of black women contrasted sharply with that of white women, white men and black men. Black women found themselves in a position of seclusion – “a void where freedwomen’s status – unlike that occupied by elite and poor white women – was not yet rigidly defined by law or custom.”  (Zipf, p.9)

By the turn of the 19th century, race and gender became the arbiters of political participation, having replacd wealth and status as the criteria. Even the 1807 New Jersey constitution that allowed voting on a taxation criteria excluded women and free black men. In many states, “the same constitutional conventions that embraced universal suffrage for white men deprived black men of the vote or burdened them with special property qualifications.  Moreover, none of the ten states that entered the Union from 1821 to 1861 allowed black suffrage. African Americans protested in vain.” (Goldfield, Chapter 10, p. 10-5)

Works Cited:

Goldfield, David. The American Journey: A History of the United States, Concise Edition, 2nd Edition, Pearson, 2011

Sarah Mulhall Adelman, Empowerment and Submission: The Political Culture of Catholic Women’s Religious Communities in Nineteenth-Century America, Journal of Women’s History, Volume 23, Number 3, Fall 2011, pp. 138-161

Zipf, Karin, Reconstructing ‘Free Woman’: African-American Women, Apprenticeship, and Custody Rights during Reconstruction, Journal of Women’s History, 2000, Vol.12, No.1 (Spring)