The Changing Role of American Women throughout History

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2014

43 Pages




Women and their role – historical introduction
1.1. Plato – ancient propagator of gender equality
1.2. Women in the Medieval times
1.3. Thomas More’s Utopia and women’s rights
1.4. Next Milestone in Women’s History – Victorianism

Women in America – from the Beginnings to the Great Change of the Roaring Twenties
2.1. The American Settlers’ Women
2.1.1. Inferior Women – Female Slaves
2.2. A Shift to Better – the Revolution
2.3. Nineteen Century
2.3.1. Changes between the Abolition and Civil War
2.3.2. The Notable Figure of Catharine Beecher
2.4. The Period that Changed the American Women – 1920’s
2.4.1. Flappers – the New American Women
2.4.2. The Nineteenth Amendment and Further Gains of the American Women

American Women after the World War II
3.1. Does Law Work for Women?
3.1.1. The Aspect of Abortion
3.2. Discreet Discrimination
3.2.1. Equal Pay Act of 1963
3.3. Feminism – the Work of Many for Many




The following paper’s aim is to present how the role of the women changed through the times, with special focus on women who came to live in the New World from the beginning until modern times.

In order to have an in-depth knowledge regarding the aspects connected with the subject, it was necessary to include the information about the European women, because their history is the starting point for those who settled in Colonial America.

Therefore, the paper is divided into three chapters, each discussing the consequent period of time – starting from ancient times and treaties of Plato and later, Moore’s perception of women and going through the colonial times of the American women, to finally conclude on the modern times and achievements of these women on the American ground.

During the work on the paper, numerous valuable sources were extremely helpful, there were publications and magazine articles, which made the writing of this paper possible.

It is my hope, that reading of this paper will help understanding how important it is to treat both genders equally and how many battles the women in the history had to fight to get to the place where they are perceived as worthy human beings who have right to educate and vote and do whatever they need to both live happily and support themselves.

Chapter One

Women and their role – historical introduction

The women who came to live their new lives in New England were taught from the early childhood to be submissive. The first rule of correct female behaviour was obedience to God, to authority, and to parents or husband. Married women were governed by a strict interpretation of the biblical “Thy desire shall be to thy husband and he shall rule over thee.”[1] Such submission was not only a religious duty but also a legal one. William Blackstone’s statement of English common law made it clear: “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law; that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during marriage.”[2]

That was the role of women as they entered the new country, which was the synonymous with a new, better life. As it can be seen, their lives were not supposed to become any better than in the Old World and the times before.

No matter how the world changes, no matter what country and social system people live, no one can deny women’s importance in history. But at the same time, these women had come a long way to gain independence, equality and even human dignity because throughout the time the women’s role in history was constantly changing, with some lengthy periods when it seemed as it was not to progress anymore.

The following chapter will present several aspects of how women’s role and place in society looked like in the times preceding Puritan settlers reaching America.

1.1. Plato – ancient propagator of gender equality

The humanistic thought in philosophy around the fifth century observed an appearance of an important work – the writings of Plato. Tatarkiewicz points out to the fact that Plato’s idea was to live in the world where politics, influenced by the philosophy is able to shape the ideal of good.[3] In his opinion, politics encourages and enlightens the countrymen – not as it was, plead them.

Plato’s main contributions are in the area of philosophy, mathematics and science. However, it is not as easy as one might expect to discover Plato’s own philosophical views. The reason for this is that Plato wrote a number of dialogues written in the form of conversations.[4] The Republic by Plato is the best known of his works and the direct source of inspiration for Thomas More and many others. The principle of justice, the principle of the organization of the Good Life are the central themes of The Republic.[5]

It can be assumed that what is the dominating tone of all utopias ever written is a criticism or commentary on author’s own times or society. Therefore it comes as no surprise that Plato in his Republic describes a role of the women as much more progressive than the role assigned to women of his times. The fifth book of The Republic is devoted to various aspects referring to the equality and the role of women in the Athenian Society. Socrates narrates this dialogue, while Glaucon plays the role of investigator.[6] Because of the fact that their talk is focused on women, the aspects of love, childbearing and their potential are their main points. As suggested by G. R. Lucas, professor of English from Georgia University, the problem in Book V is that if women have all things equal with men, then why are they treated differently, as if they were worse?[7]

During their discourse they agree, in fact, that women should be treated in the same way as men. Additionally, despite a different ‘nature’ and the fact that women are physically weaker, Socrates and Glaucon agree that women should share the same activities as their husbands.[8] To make his argument, Plato first refers to the watchdog:

What I mean may be put into the form of a question, I said: Are dogs divided into he's and she's, or do they both share equally in hunting and in keeping watch and in the other duties of dogs? Or do we entrust to the males the entire and exclusive care of the flocks, while we leave the females at home, under the idea that the bearing and the suckling of their puppies are labor enough for them?

No, he said, they share alike; the only difference between them is that the males are stronger and the females weaker.

But can you use different animals for the same purpose, unless they are bred and fed in the same way?

You cannot.

Then, if women are to have the same duties as men, they must have the same nurture and education?


The education which was assigned to the men was music and gymnastics. Yes. Then women must be taught music and gymnastics and also the art of war, which they must practice like the men?

That is the inference, I suppose.

I should rather expect, I said, that several of our proposals, if they are carried out, being unusual, may appear ridiculous.

No doubt of it.

Yes, and the most ridiculous thing of all will be the sight of women naked in the palaestra, exercising with the men, especially when they are no longer young; they certainly will not be a vision of beauty, any more than the enthusiastic old men who, in spite of wrinkles and ugliness, continue to frequent the gymnasia.

Yes, indeed, he said: according to present notions the proposal would be thought ridiculous.[9]

As it can be seen, Plato argues that no one would remove a female watchdog from her work as a guardian, only due to the fact that she gives birth to puppies. Because Plato perceived the upper-class, the Guardians, as the watchdogs of the state, he similarly assumed that female Guardians should be allowed to have exactly the same responsibilities as men. In The Republic he claims that the only difference between men and women is in physiological aspect – women are able to give birth. Accordingly, Plato does not feel that reproduction would prevent women from participating in military or Guardian roles.

What is more, in order for his society to be successful, Plato believes that all members must remain productive, the women equally as the men. In designing this unification of genders, Plato took Spartan society as a model. In the military-oriented Spartan city-state, women were trained in physical activities alongside men, even exercising naked, as was Greek custom of the time.

Furthermore, in The Republic, the rulers – the highest order of guardians arrange all marriages and he compares the guardians to full-blooded horses amongst whom the best men will cohabit with the best women.[10] The offspring of such couples are immediately taken away in order to live with their nurses. At the same time, the children born to the inferior people, as well as all defective newborns, are supposed to be disposed of in secret by the rulers.[11]

As ancient as it can be perceived from modern perspective, Plato’s achievement as a political philosopher may be seen in that he believed that there could be equality between the genders. It was hundreds years before even women thought about the bonds that were binding them slave-like to men’s world.

Nevertheless, the world as described by Plato in The Republic was merely utopia – the world of never-ending possibilities. The historical facts show that women were far from such freedoms as in Plato’s world.

1.2. Women in the Medieval times

Mroczkowski, in his book presents in a very understandable way, the vision of the Medieval women: “white flowers, wrapped in the straight dresses made of silk, fully veiled, they were sitting modestly and were sending mysterious smiles, judging the matters of love”.[12] According to him, women of the times were living in particularly difficult times for them, even because of the fact that there were no laws protecting them, however, they were amazingly well adapted to the role of “puppets” – possessions of their “masters”. The historical books are filled with the images of female characters of the Middle Ages unable to do anything without their husbands’ permission.

Coulton devoted two chapters of his book titled Medieval Panorama. The English Scene from Conquest to Reformation to what he states to be a huge area. Reading those two chapters reveals the amazing world – unable to be understood in modern times. It is a panorama of the society where women were a handicapped sex. As Shahar explains:

By law, a woman had no share whatsoever in the government of the kingdom and of the society. A woman could not hold political office, or serve as a military commander, judge or lawyer. The law barred her from filling any public office and from participating in any institutions of government, from manorial courts to municipal institutions, royal councils and representative assemblies in the various countries.[13]

What is interesting, women could inherit a title or an estate, and as a result they were able to become baroness, but at the same time, they were not permitted to sit in the parliament, as any man owning the estate could.[14]

Obviously, it was illegal for a woman to practice medicine or in any other way involve herself in healing practices. Such woman, who would be caught, would be charged and sentenced to prison as well as to be fined two pounds.[15]

What is more, in 1355, the London trade guild published an act which strictly forbidden to hire women as tradesmen. A. Abram who is the author of an extensive article about women working in medieval London – Women Traders in Medieval London[16], states that those female craftsmen of the times possessed a truly strong characters and inborn talents and abilities to be not only traders but also good merchants. In addition, their role in the development of the market life of the city had an extremely positive impact and cannot be underestimated. In this place it must be made clear that whenever people found possibilities, they bent or ignored the laws forbidding some aspects they found not worthy paying attention to.

It is also worth stressing that the role of women in the rural environment was rather ambiguous. On one hand, in richer manors, women were obliged to dealing with “the books”, which meant they were involved in accountancy. They were responsible for trading, taking care of what was needed and how much should be paid for certain goods. On the other hand, Regine Pernoud mentions with irony that the sight of a woman pulling a plough with a mule, began disappearing from Europe only in the feudal times.[17]

Curiously, reading was this aspect in which women in the Middle Ages were not only equal but probably better than men. Eileen Power found written proofs that books were given over in a last will to women. The benefactors were usually men – lords or relatives. For example, in 1432 John Raventhorp, a chaplain from York, left to his servant Agnes de Celayne the book of fairy tales, not long after this, Thomas Cumberworth passed to his granddaughter The Canterbury Tales.[18]

Most of the convents and monasteries of these times also played a role of schools. The age when children – both boys and girls – were supposed to be sent to monastery was around six or seven. The teaching was divided into two parts – the first part was under the supervision of the nun called primiceria and later the cantor nun. The process of education began from learning how to sing psalms, and consequently, children learned to understand a written word.[19]

And although girls most commonly excelled the boys in the learning process, the majority of the male’s world opposed the idea of educated women full-heartedly, claiming that what the girls should in fact be taught is: “house works, how to bake bread, clean hats, make butter, clean, wash, lay beds, knit, stitch, weave and yarn, etc.”[20]

1.3. Thomas More’s Utopia and women’s rights

Another man who considered women to be equal with man was Thomas More, referred to as ‘a man for all seasons’[21], because of his multi-talented life as an author, humanist, statesman and martyred Catholic saint.

His most famous work Utopia was translated into English by Ralph Robinson in 1551.

In his work, More handed to women a role that was much more progressive than the one they had in societies of this period. Nevertheless, even with his progressive approach, the differences between the roles assigned to men, and those assigned to women clearly reflected the preconceptions regarding gender roles present in the authors’ societies, as well as those of the authors themselves.

Women in the fifteenth century generally were supposed to stay out of the public realm and were mostly focused on household and family. When one considers why his Utopia is not as definitive about women’s rights as Plato’s Republic, one has to understand that More was on the one hand concerned about the approach to women by his society, but on the other hand, he was also a devout Catholic who was heavily influenced by the role of women dictated by his religion.[22] Taking this into account, it is not surprising that the role of women in Utopia is not nearly as progressive as that of women in Plato’s The Republic.

Still, there are the aspects of life in More’s imagined world which he assumed women in ideal society could find themselves qualified for. For example, they were allowed to fight together with their husbands during the wars. Similarly, all children regardless of sex are equally educated.

This is a major deviation from the European society of the time, when only men, and only certain men, were educated. Utopia’s society was created in such way that: “[…] their women likewise, are trained up, that, in cases of necessity, they may not be quite useless […]”[23].

What is more, Utopians were also liberal in other aspects, such as military and women’s place there:

But as they force no man to go into any foreign war against his will, so they do not hinder those women who are willing to go along with their husbands; on the contrary, they encourage and praise them, and they stand often next to their husbands in the front of the army.[24]

Interestingly, Erasmus, writing to Budé, spoke of the admiration with which he read the unaided composition of More’s daughters.[25] It can be understood that he used to doubt in the sense behind the higher education of women and it was More’s ‘experiment’ which convinced him. It is an example, he thinks, which will be imitated far and wide.

Summarizing the problem of women in the Utopia and its society, Coulton agrees that More’s women-priests are chosen from the elderly widows, but at the same time he claims that the writer went far beyond his own times.[26] For him, woman of More’s ideas was a partner of the man and she was not only given right to have her own opinion – as it was already postulated by Ockham, a Medieval writer, but she also found herself equal to man in citizenship privileges and – even the other aspects of life – such as military service.[27]

More saw himself as one of these humanists who found much intellectual source in classical writers such as Plato, yet he also was devoted to the Catholic Church throughout all his life. Therefore, while Utopia owes much of its ideas to Plato’s The Republic, it also bears a very strong mark of Christian ethic. As such, and being a creation of a progressive mind but at the same time – mind of the man of his times, Utopia presents a complicated vision of women in the Utopian society. They do have rights and they indeed have much more freedom than one could imagine, but as it has already been mentioned More and Plato were both visionaries, and as such, their vision of an ideal society provided for a more equitable role for women than was provided in their own contemporary societies.

Sadly, the progressive ideas enclosed in the written output of the great minds (male minds) were not enough to convince the society, used to seeing the woman as the person bound to home and obliged to have subservient role. Although some girls in Middle Ages attended education in monasteries, that was not the trend and women who grew to be wives were strictly devoted to households and their husbands.


[1] Marion Tinling, Women Remembered: A Guide to Landmarks of Women's History in the United States., p. 1.

[2] Marion Tinling, Women Remembered…, p. 2.

[3] Władysław Tatarkiewicz, Historia Filozofii., p. 91.

[4] C.J. Rowe, Plato., p. 16.

[5] H. Benson, (Ed.), A Companion to Plato. Essays on the Philosophy of Socrates. , p. 14.

[6] K. Kumar, Utopia and Anti-utopia in Modern Times., p. 8.

[7] G. R. Lucas, Plato's Republic Book 5: The Whole, in Earthshine blog archive. – Avaialable from : [14th March 2013]

[8] Ibid.

[9] Jowett Benjamin’s translation of The Republic. Available from: (Project Gutenberg), 457d5-462d

[10] Jowett Benjamin’s translation of The Republic. Available from: (Project Gutenberg), 457d5-462d.

[11] Julia Annas, An Introduction to Plato's Republic., p. 112.

[12] Mroczkowski, P., Opowieści Kanterberyjskie na Tle Epoki., p. 11. [own translation].

[13] Shulamith Shahar (translated by Chaya Galai), A history of women in the Middle Ages., p. 11.

[14] Sandy Bardsley, Women’s roles in the Middle Ages. p. 61.

[15] G.G. Coulton, Medieval Panorama, The English Scene from Conquest to Reformation., p. 621.

[16] A. Abram, Women Traders in Medieval London // Economic Journal 26 (1916), p. 276-277.

[17] R. Pernoud, Kobieta w czasach katedr., p. 67.

[18] Cosman, Madeleine Pelner and Linda Gale Jones, Handbook to life in the medieval world., p. 119.

[19] Jennifer Ward, Women in England in the Middle Ages., p. 52.

[20] Pernoud, R., Kobieta w czasach katedr., p. 70 [own translation]

[21] Vulgaria, 1520; ed. White, E.E.T.S., p. 64., as quoted in R. W. Chambers, Thomas More., p. 177.

[22] G.G. Coulton, Medieval Panorama, The English Scene from Conquest to Reformation., p. 657.

[23] Thomas More, Utopia: Or the Happy Republic, a Philosophical Romance. p. 156

[24] Ibid., p. 158.

[25] R. W. Chambers, Thomas More. p. 190.

[26] Thomas More, Utopia: Or the Happy Republic, a Philosophical Romance. p. 662.

[27] Ibid., p. 663.

Excerpt out of 43 pages


The Changing Role of American Women throughout History
Jan Kochanowski University of Humanities and Sciences in Kielce
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women, American culture, history, inequalities, property, education, abortion, freedom
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Marta Zapała-Kraj (Author), 2014, The Changing Role of American Women throughout History, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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