In Dependence: Women’s Protection and Subordination as Power in Early America, 1750-1820

Jacqueline Beatty

Advisor: Rosemarie Zagarri, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Cynthia Kierner, Jane Turner Censer

Research Hall, #161
December 02, 2016, 10:00 AM to 08:00 AM


This dissertation explores the ways in which early American women in Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston exploited their legal, social, and economic positions of dependence and turned these constraints into vehicles of female empowerment. While many scholars argue that the American Revolution did not benefit women, this study asks a different, and an entirely more useful question: how did women make the Revolution—and their subordinate status to men—work toward their advantage? Despite enormous legal and social restrictions, early American women were far from powerless. Through petitions, divorce cases, almshouse testimony, and other means, women deployed the tropes of traditional femininity and vulnerability as a means of preserving their customary rights and ensuring their families’ survival. In doing so, they gained some measure of independence from men and thus challenged the very system meant to keep them in submission. In effect, then, women were able to achieve a more powerful social and economic role not in spite of their dependent status, but because of it.

Early American women in these three cities manipulated tropes of traditional notions of feminine and masculine comportment in their petitions to state legislatures. They performed feminine helplessness and vulnerability and delicately troubled notions of gender comportment in order to compel government officials to comply with their demands for aid and assistance. In these ways, they used the terms of their dependence and ostensible weakness to exercise and gain a measure of power over their own lives. Women also exploited the legal and social obligations of the marriage contract in order to achieve financial independence through obtaining feme sole trader status, suing their husbands in equity courts, and winning divorce settlements from abusive, adulterous, or neglectful husbands. Women even circumvented and challenged the patriarchal hierarchy by relying on female networks of interdependence across North America and the Atlantic, thus bypassing male authority almost entirely. Yet women also faced significant obstacles because of their dependence. Those who failed to properly conform to standards of feminine deportment saw their petitions rejected, while poor women faced the problem of their doubled dependence, unable to overcome the social and legal obstacles imposed upon them by their gender and class.

Significantly, however, the American Revolution gave women a new language and new opportunities in which to claim old rights—the rights of dependents—in a new way. In petitions and divorce cases, women declared that they were endowed with rights contingent upon and particular to their status as dependents. Participating in the “rights talk” emerging in the late-eighteenth century, they adeptly argued for their right to certain property, pensions, and remuneration from the state. Similarly, they cited the mutuality of marital rights to argue for divorce and receive alimony from husbands who neglected or disregarded their spousal duties. Early American women, then, were able to negotiate and argue for a relative degree of power, independence, and rights because of, and existing firmly in this state of dependence.