Women’s Condition in Revolutionary America

Published 27 Dec 2016

Introduction Essay

Joy Day Buel and Richard Buel’s The Way of Duty presents the biography of Mary Fish Siliman Dickinson along with her experiences during the period of her life. The content of the text stems from the preserved correspondence and journal entries of Mary Fish’s life which together presents the reader with the women’s condition during the early period of American history specifically during the eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

As a member of the upper-middle class and a daughter of Puritans, Fish’s entries provided the readers with a an account of the events during the Great Awakening, the American Revolution, and the formation of the new American nation through the perspective of a female belonging to the dominant group in America during that period. The text, in this sense, may be seen as presenting the reader with a possibility of considering whether the changes that occurred during the period affected the role and position of women in American society.

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Potter-MacKinnon (1995) states that women’s condition during the eighteenth century proved to be one “associated with helplessness and inferiority” (p.8). The association of helplessness and inferiority can be traced to women’s dependence on men since women depended upon men in providing for their basic necessities. In addition to this, such a condition was forced upon women to the extent that they were made to think in such a way that this helplessness and inferiority is a part of their nature. Consider for example Mary Fish’s description of her condition.

She describes herself as “a poor and weak helpless creature… (who was able to) do nothing but lie at the foot of mercy and look for direction” to her husband (Buel & Buel, 1995, p. 62-3). This language of enfeeblement, as can be seen in Ms. Fish’s description of herself, mirrors the conditions of the social reality during this period. Within this social reality, the power relations within both the public and private spheres were constructed in such a way that women were placed in a subordinate position to the male. Women’s affairs were thereby seen as restricted to the domain of the private sphere. Even in this sphere, she is placed in a position were “the married woman became a femme covert, a person whose identity was subsumed in that of her husbands” (Potter-MacKinnon, 1995, p. 9).

It might be argued that such a position was changed during the period of the revolution. Ms. Fish, through her letters and journal entries recounts the process wherein the Revolution placed her in a position where she managed the household affairs of her husband in his stead. In addition to this, the reader is presented with a figure who questions the prescribed roles of the members of each sex within society as she presents a petition to the governor of Connecticut for the release of her husband. Ms. Fish, may thereby be seen as subverting the prescribed roles for both sexes in this situation as she asserts her capability to manage what was presumed to be a male defined task. Her petition to the governor, in itself, presents a situation wherein a female asserts her capability to use her reason and political will in order to free her spouse.

Despite of this, it is still important to note that although her actions may be seen as contradicting the presumed roles for the members of both sexes, the enforcement of the actions themselves were done in such a way that the prescribed roles were adhered to by Ms. Fish. Note, for example, that during the period of her Mr. Sullivan’s imprisonment, she choose to gain her guidance from a patriarchal institution, that being the church. In addition to this, in the process of petitioning for her husband, she herself notes her ‘inferior’ position as a woman in front of the council. As Joy Parr argues the case of Loyalist women shows how the cultural construction of reality set by a patriarchal society has set women to conform to the language of society in defining themselves (Potter-MacKinnon, 1995, p.9).

This does not necessarily mean that the period did not bring about change in women’s position within society. Lebscock (1984) argues that it is important to determine the context where one will set the empowerment of women. She states that the period [late eighteenth century to the nineteenth century in America] enabled the formation of a ‘women’s culture’. Within this culture, women were able to realize their own worth. The realization of this worth however is merely limited to the realization of their power within the private sphere [the sphere of the household] since the economic sphere did not provide her with avenues for emancipating herself from the household.

Lebscock argues that within the private sphere, not only was she allowed to gain greater control in the management of the household, she was also allowed to gain control of economic property within the household, not through then means of the provisions of the common law, but through equity jurisprudence (1984, p. 85). Through equity jurisprudence, women were allowed to gain economic power within the household through pre-nuptial agreements, separation agreements, dower rights, and the specification of separate estates. In the case of Ms. Fish, the slow acquisition of women’s autonomy in the private sphere can be seen in her later capability to remarry and choose the husband for her successive marriages.

Given this context, one might note that the period of eighteenth to the nineteenth century shows positive developments in the condition of American society as they were given the chance to assert their autonomy within the private sphere of the household. In the case of Ms. Fish [as can be seen through her accounts of her life], the process proved to be grueling both to the society and to women in general. However, despite these changes such a society continued to be highly patriarchal in character. As her biographers note, Ms. Fish account of her life were presented in such a way that “the closest relationships of her life were almost all with men” (Buel & Buel, 1995, p. xiv).

The Way of Duty, in this sense, may still be seen as a book and an account of American life highly dominated by a woman’s account of her existence highly dominated by a patriarchal worldview. Such a worldview however did not prevent her from gaining her experience of autonomy as a woman.


  • Buel, J. & R. Buel. (1995). The Way of Duty: A Woman and Her Family in Revolutionary America. New York: Norton.

  • Lebscock, S. (1984). The Free Women of Petersburg: Status and Culture in a Southern Town, 1784-1860. New York: Norton.

  • Potter-MacKinnon, J. (1995). While the Women Only Wept: Loyalist Refugee Women in Eastern Ohio. Np: MQUP.

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