The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History Advanced Placement United States History Study Guide

Period 6: 1865-1898

The struggle for married women’s rights, circa 1880s

Anne Brown Adams to Alexander Ross,circa 1880s (GLC03007.53)In the early nineteenth century, married women in the US were legally subordinate to their husbands. Wives could not own their own property, keep their own wages, or enter into contracts. Beginning in 1839, states slowly began to enact Married Women’s Property Acts to allow women more control over their property and finances.

In the late nineteenth century, however, Anne Brown Adams, a daughter of the abolitionist John Brown, wrote to a friend that reform was slow and did not necessarily change behaviors inside the home. In her letter, Adams lamented that the “struggle for a married woman’s rights will be a longer and a harder fought battle than any other that the world has ever known.” She declared that “men have been taught that they are absolute monarchs in their families” and enumerated the abuses that some women suffered:

Women are taught that their only hope of heaven, is to “endure to the end,” That it is a religious duty to “submit themselves to their husbands in all things,” I know a man who tells his wife “I own you, I have got a deed (marriage license and certificate) to you and got it recorded, I have a right to do what I please to you,” And the law of a Christian land says she shall submit, to indecencies that would make a respectable devil blush for shame.

Excerpt

The struggle for a married woman’s rights will be a longer and a harder fought battle than any other that the world has ever known. Men have been taught that they are absolute monarchs in their families, (even in a republican country,) ever since the world began, and that to kill a wife by inches, is not murder, women are taught from infancy that to betray by look or word or even to mention to an intimate friend the secrets of their married life, is worse than disgraceful, Therein lies the power of the man, He knows that no matter what he does, the woman will keep silent as the grave

I could tell you things that have come under my observation, that would make the blood boil in your veins, And these things are going on day after day without let or hinderance. “Wives be obedient to your husbands in all things!”

Women are taught that their only hope of heaven, is to “endure to the end,” That it is a religious duty to “submit themselves to their husbands in all things,” I know a man who tells his wife “I own you, I have got a deed (marriage license and certificate) to you and got it recorded, I have a right to do what I please to you,” And the law of a Christian land says she shall submit, to indecencies that would make a respectable devil blush for shame, Man, who is said to have been created in the image of God, is the lowest animal in the world, and the most cruel. It shatters my faith in the goodness of God, so much that it makes me tremble for my own reason, at times.

A complete transcript is available here.

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