The passing of time does not necessarily denote progress: women made little noticeable social and economic advancement and almost no political or legal advancements between the European settlements of Jamestown in 1607 until the end of the Reconstruction era in 1877. In fact, most Native American women lost a considerable degree of power and status due to the imposition of European social values on their traditional cultures. African women, brought to the New World against their will and in bondage, likewise did not enjoy the fruits of social progress. White women of European descent, however, did make some progress over the course of more than two centuries of early American history. Divorce laws became more favorable toward women, who over the course of these few centuries were increasingly able to extricate themselves from violent, abusive, or unsatisfying unions. However, divorce laws were one of the only legal progress women made from 1607 till 1877; in some situations women were afforded increased rights to own property but on the books women remained second class citizens. Likewise, women's political power was nonexistent throughout these two centuries. Although the moral reform movements and religious revivals that swept across the nation in the mid-nineteenth century did afford women the opportunity for form organized groups, these movements meant little as far as suffrage was concerned. Women of any class, creed, or color could not vote nor hold office. Furthermore, most women were economically powerless and dependent. Even when wage-earning jobs were possible, women earned lower wages than men and worked in deplorable conditions. Conditions for women of color were considerably worse than they were for white women; in some cases the status of women of color diminished within their own communities. On the other hand, some significant progress in women's lives was made: by 1877, women were finally able to seek education and women actually became the nation's primary educators toward the end of the nineteenth century. Women's voices regarding legal, political, social, and economic rights were being heard and acknowledged more and more. Although these advancements were tiny and did not affect communities of color, women did make some subtle progress over the course of these two hundred-plus years.
When women did not make progress, it was more due to issues unrelated to gender such as race or class. For example, in many Native American cultures women enjoyed a relatively high social and political status before colonization. Contact with European settlers completely altered Native social structures. For example, "because many white traders and trappers refused to deal with Indian women, Indian men gradually usurped Indian women's long-standing and highly significant role as traders," (2). Women of Spanish heritage also enjoyed a degree of social and political power within their communities before the Revolutionary War: Spanish-heritage women "generally exercised a variety of rights unknown to white women in either Britain or the American colonies at the time," (7). For instance, they were able to participate in the judicial system and own land. Women of Spanish origin were also more literate and physically robust than their white counterparts (7-8).
English-speaking white settlers altered the social structure of North American communities, imposing their cultural norms upon indigenous communities. "Unlike American Indians, colonists tended to view women as both separate and inferior from men," (15). Within many native communities once relied on women to participate fully in all aspects of life, from farming to religion. While gender roles did dictate behavior, they did not necessarily impact social status. After contact, Native Americans adapted their social norms to fit those of the colonists due to necessities like trade. However, Native women remained relatively vocal within their communities and often led rebellions against the oppressors. African women were probably worse off than any of their counterparts in terms of their social status and lifestyle as slaves. However, within their communities of bondage, women of African descent did enjoy some degree of social status and power.
'The year 1763 marked a turning point in all these women's lives," (47). The beginning of the resistance phase of the American Revolution meant significant changes in the ways women of all races lived. White women, patriots or loyalists, became heavily involved with the revolutionary cause. In some cases, "women's enthusiasm for the upcoming combat surpassed that of the men," (56). White women became politically active and outspoken, and even some women of color participated in either side of the war depending on their personal circumstances.
In spite of women's vocal involvement in the revolution, they made little actual social, political, economic, or legal progress in any ethnic community. Even women like Abigail Adams who advocated a women's right to equal education did not totally support women's equality. As for many other women of her time, "women's rights and feminism were not major issues," (61). Adams advocated moderate legal progress for women including rights to education and property. Even these moderate proposals would be slow to take root in the American consciousness, in spite of the idealistic language of American Independence such as "liberty and justice for all."
During the Revolution, American Indian women continued to lose status; treaties with the new American governments reduced the land on which they depended. However, Native women did develop "new areas of influence in their communities," and "there is no evidence that native women became subordinate to native men or imitated white society in any way," (68). Therefore, while European encroachment on Native lifestyles did alter the social structures of American Indian communities, Native women were able to withstand some European social norms.
'While every type of woman experienced some changes after the Revolution, for most the reality fell far short of the desired effect," (71). Enslaved African women did not earn their freedom; free black women did not enjoy improved economic or social conditions; no women, white or otherwise, enjoyed simple rights like suffrage or equal education. Moreover, after the Revolution, industrialization pushed women into low-paying, low status factory jobs that in many cases worsened their political, social, and economic status (75). Women who previously lived in self-sufficient family units were now working equally as hard under less palatable conditions for little if any real reward.
Some progress was made in the area of divorce law. Physical violence was no longer tolerated by the courts and throughout the United States divorces were more easily sought and obtained by women. Divorce gave women more control over their lives, and women were also gradually able to have more control over their bodies and reproduction. Moreover, women's concepts of marriage shifted as they demanded marriage to be more of an equal partnership.
The ability to divorce, however, did not extend equally into communities of color. After the Revolution, the concepts of the "Republican Woman" and of the "Real Woman" guided social norms and in some ways diminished women's political and social status. The idea that women should inhabit a separate sphere from men became entrenched in the American consciousness, giving rise to the strict notion that women's place was "in the home." The true woman was a domestic with lots of leisure time, an ideal lifestyle that few could afford. In reality, more and more women were forced to take low-paying and unsatisfying factory jobs.
However, during the nineteenth century, women were more able to have access to education and many became teachers. Women participated more in arts, religion, and writing. The notion of "true womanhood" gave rise to the moral reform movements of the nineteenth century, because women were supposed to be morally superior to men and consequently had a moral obligation to help improve society. Whether the idealization of women's supposed superior morality was a boon or a curse is up for debate; nevertheless, the moral reform movements enabled women to champion related ideals of progressivism and women's rights. Abolition, temperance, and women's rights were therefore ideologically linked together in the mid nineteenth-century. Unfortunately, progressivism did not fully extend to communities of color. Moreover, while women heralded social changed such as temperance and abolition, women were unable to vote or have any real control over the issues in which they were interested: "The temperance movement had turned to legal action but women could not vote," (195-196).
Women were making more noise in their communities but their voices were largely ignored. While some states in the west afforded women the right to vote, women had no real political power at the end of Reconstruction. Women's rights to own property and to secure an education did improve, as did their control over their married life and child rearing. However, working conditions for women did not improve in spite of the ability for women to obtain jobs; teaching is the only notable exception. Women of color certainly did not enjoy improved social, economic, or political circumstances except for the fact that slavery had been abolished. Progress for all women arrived slowly; although little real progress was made, the seeds of change were planted by the end of the nineteenth…