How Womens Rights Movement Achieved Goals

The Lack of Freedoms and Limited Opportunities for American Women and Slaves from 1492 to 1867

Today, citizens in the United States enjoy universal suffrage and equality under the law pursuant to the 14th Amendment to the Bill of Rights, but things have not always been so rosy for marginalized populations such as women and blacks. Indeed, despite claims to the contrary, most residents and observers’ of the United States would argue that many women and African-Americans remain disenfranchised from mainstream political thought today. The purpose of this paper is to provide a critical and systematic discussion concerning the profound lack of freedoms and limited opportunities that were available to women and enslaved Africans during the period from 1492 through 1867 and how these opportunities slowly expanded over the years. Finally, a summary of the research and key findings concerning these two groups of Americans are presented in the conclusion.

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Review and Discussion

Both women and African Americans suffered many struggles and were slow to achieve their eventual goals of equal rights. While the achievement of equal status for women and enslaved African Americans did not occur prior to the Civil War, the efforts were tireless and a significant part of America’s development. Indeed, even during America’s early years, the struggle for women’s rights was already well underway. While many of the first male settlers to America were in search of wealth, others brought their wives and families intending to start new lives in this land of limitless opportunities.

Although some historians argue that the Women’s Rights Movement began with the First Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, Mallett (2007) emphasizes that, “I believe the [Women’s Rights] movement began long before that. In fact, I believe it began the moment Mary Chilton set foot on Plymouth Rock” (para. 2). According to Seelye (1998), Mary Chilton was among the first Europeans to set foot on Plymouth Rock. In this regard, Seelye advises that, “There is a tradition, as to the first person who first leaped upon this rock, when the families came to shore: it is said to have been a young woman, Mary Chilton” (p. 384).

Notwithstanding the early presence of European women in America and the overarching goals of the first settlers in creating a truly egalitarian society, women would remain on the fringes of society in terms of their basic rights and their ability to earn a living outside the family home, own property, enter into legal contracts (including making their own wills), divorce their husbands, vote or even exert control over the destinies of their children (Loewen, 1995). In fact, one historian emphasizes that, “Ideas about democracy and equality lived and grew in the English colonies from the very beginning, although these ideas seldom applied to women, African Americans, and Native Americans” (A new world, 2018, para. 3).

The fundamental lack of rights for women during the early years of the United States compelled Abigail Adams to write to her husband, John Adams on March 31, 1776 to encourage him and the other Founding Fathers to remedy this situation. For example, Abigail wrote that, “[I]n the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could.”

Indeed, Abigail Adams made it clear in this correspondence that the same constraints that prompted the American Revolution were equally applicable to women’s rights such as taxation without representation. As Abigail Adams concludes, “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.” Of course, American women did remain bound by the laws of the land and it was not until August 18, 1920 that the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteed women the right to vote and hold public office. Prior to this landmark event, society’s expectations for American women included their being the guardians of virtue and the spiritual heads of the home, and they were expected to be pious, pure, submissive, and domestic, and to pass these virtues on to their children.

The path to women’s suffrage in the early 20th century gained momentum during the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century “when evangelical Christians launched temperance, abolitionist, and other reform movements, culminating in the Civil War” (Bailey, 2008, p. 32). During the Second Great Awakening, growing numbers of American women attended seminaries and academic programs to become educators and others engaged in activism by using their right to petition grievances to the government. In addition, public speeches and rallies that promoted women’s rights became more commonplace. These efforts served to provide American women with expanded opportunities, but still not on an equal par with white men despite the passage of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1868.

White American women, however, were not the only demographic group that was marginalized during the early years, and African Americans remained enslaved until the postbellum years following the Civil War. The draconian slave codes that emerged during the early 19th century were reflections of the need to keep millions of blacks subjugated to white will with their status being no more than mere chattel (Yanochik & Ewing, 2001). Even during the height of slavery, however, there were clear indications that the peculiar institution could not endure. Slave rebellions were a constant source of fear for white slaveowners, and Yanochik and Ewing describe the antebellum south as an “armed camp” and characterize the attempts to subjugate the African American slave population as a “cornerstone of Southern civilization” (2001, p. 331).

Although slavery was still legal in all states prior to the Emancipation Proclamation, the practice was increasingly viewed unfavorably in many northern states (Smedley & Smedley, 2011). The Old South’s economy, though, remained heavily dependent on slavery and slaveholders resisted all efforts to change the status quo. These well-entrenched economic interests would come under increasing fire, though, through the efforts of Abolitionists, many of whom were women, including their use of printed materials such as postal mailings to slaveholding plantations, pamphlets and newspaper articles concerning the evils of slavery and its implications for American society (Drescher, 2009). For instance, Jacobs (2006) notes that, “The mainstream historians of the later part of the twentieth century have acknowledged the influence of propaganda strategies as a factor in the abolition of the slave trade and slavery” (p. 294).

Although the anti-slavery movement did not achieve its goals prior to the Civil War, it was apparent that the days of slavery as an institution were numbered and the momentum for abolition grew in intensity (Abbott et al., 2018). Besides the printed materials used by the abolitionists, various civil associations were formed that were focused on educating the American public concerning the adverse effects that slavery had on the American consciousness. As Rommel-Ruiz (2007) points out, “American slavery galvanized people who used civil associations to address the politically, economically, and morally provocative issue of emancipation” (p. 185).

The legacy of slavery did not disappear overnight, and its effects lingered long after the institution was formally abolished by the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865. While emancipation provided African Americans with expanded opportunities in theory, many lacked the education and skills that were needed to earn a meaningful living and it would take several generations before these freed blacks were able to compete on a relatively equal basis with their white counterparts.


The expansion of individual freedoms and equality for women and African Americans in the America was a slow and painful struggle, marred by longstanding patriarchal views about female and the so-called “natural state” of blacks as slaves. The British and European status of women’s role in society was, by default, introduced into the colonies. As the country matured and enhanced in autonomy and strength, slavery became a valuable tool for economic growth and stability. Women continued to be valued for the strength for domestic issues but were largely disregarded for political, financial and even property ownership rights. As generations passed, though, views about women and African Americans were changing with them to what is regarded as fair and equitable rights for all. Much resistance was maintained for change but the efforts for both women’s rights and the abolition of slavery were irresistible. While the achievement of equal status for women and enslaved African Americans did not occur prior to the Civil War, the efforts were tireless and a significant part of America’s development.




Abbott, E. et al. (2018). Religion and reform. Emily Conroy-Krutz, ed., in The American Yawp, eds. J. Locke & B. Wright. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018. Retrieved from:

Adams, A. (1776, March 31). A Day in History. Retrieved from

A new world. (2018). European Discovery. Retrieved from sites/dl/free/0809222299/45391/USHistory.html.

Bailey, R. (2008, April). The new age of reason: Is the Fourth Great Awakening finally coming to a close? Reason, 39(11), 32-35.

Drescher, Seymour (2009). Abolition: A history of slavery and antislavery. Cambridge University Press. 2009. Accessed as E-book from Excelsior Online Library.

Jacobs, E. (2006, July 1). The role of women in the British anti-slavery campaigns. The Journal of Caribbean History, 40(2), 293-297.

Loewen, J. W. (1995). Lies my teacher told me. New York: The New Press.

Mallett, K. (2007). Colonial women’s rights movement. History of American Women. Retrieved from

Rommel-Ruiz, B. (2007, April 1). Sister societies: Women’s antislavery organizations in antebellum America/slavery and the peculiar solution: A history of the American colonization society. Journal of the Early Republic, 27(1), 184-187.


Seelye, J. (1998). Memory’s nation: The place of Plymouth Rock. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Smedley, A., & Smedley, B. D. (2011). Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview. Boulder, CO: Routledge.

Yanochik, M. A. & Ewing, B. T. (2001, September). A new perspective on antebellum slavery: Public policy and slave prices. Atlantic Economic Journal, 29(3), 330-339.


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