1776 - 1831 Building a New Nation "American" Woman

Key Ideas

  1. Women helped shape and define the culture of the new United States of America in a variety of ways.
  2. In the Federal period, women had influence inside and outside the household.
  3. The culture that emerged in the Federal period continues to reverberate in the present-day United States.

Introduction

Anthony Meucci (artist), Euphemia Toussaint (1815-1829), ca. 1825. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Miss Georgina Schuyler.

“American” Woman

In the early years of the Federal period, the people of the new United States of America were challenged with not only forming a new nation but also defining what it meant to be an “American.” The citizens of the new nation were eager to demonstrate how they were fundamentally different from the European countries that used to claim their land. Women were critical to this work in a variety of ways.

Some of the cultural contributions of women originated in the home, where women were expected to focus their efforts. Portraits of the period capture how women combined different cultural influences to create new American fashions. The nation’s first cookbook demonstrates how American housewives combined old-world techniques with new-world ingredients to create something truly unique. In their role as the primary buyers and makers of their households, women supported important economic initiatives, making them a part of American culture. Women also pushed the boundaries of what a typical American household looked like, laying the groundwork for future cultural evolutions.

But necessity or desire took many women outside the home, and these women also made significant contributions to the new nation’s culture. Women created new opportunities for women and girls to get educations equal to those given to men, and some women emerged as leaders in their fields. These educational models were brought to communities of color by white women teachers in an attempt to force their assimilation into American culture. Of course, most women in the United States could not afford the time or money necessary for advanced education. But they found other ways to shape American culture. Women cared for their communities and made uniquely American art. Early immigrant women paved the way for future immigrants to preserve their culture while also proving their loyalty to their new nation. Mill girls embraced the opportunity to work and live outside the family home, creating a new independent type of womanhood. Women were also instrumental in the success of the Second Great Awakening, which set the spiritual foundation for the new nation.

The Federal period was also a critical time for the formation of the new nation’s sexual norms. By adjudicating sexual crimes and crafting laws that governed women’s reproduction, leading men set new social standards that continue to shape women’s experiences today.

By the 1820s, foreign visitors to the United States were sending back detailed accounts of life in the newly formed country. The readers of these letters could see that much had changed in the first 50 years of the country’s independence.

Section Essential Questions

  1. Why did the early United States need to define a national culture?
  2. How did women contribute to the formation of a uniquely U.S. culture?
  3. What parts of early American identity are still present in U.S. culture today?

Resources

Excerpts from the first American cookbook show the early development of an American cuisine.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
American culture, women’s labor, cooking
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Portraits and letters that illustrate the lives of free Black Americans in New York City.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
American Culture, Black history, children’s history, New York City, free Black Americans, women’s education
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An advertisement for Troy Female Seminary that shows the new educational opportunities open to women.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
American Culture, Women’s education, Emma Willard, Republican Motherhood
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Three samplers that demonstrate how the ideal of white womanhood was imposed on girls in minority communities.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
American Culture, women’s labor, women’s education, free Black Americans, African Free School, Cherokee, Mission schools, New York, Tennessee, Arkansas
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An advertisement for the new jobs available to women in textile factories.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
American culture, Industrial Revolution, Lowell, MA, textile mills, women’s work, Market Revolution, Massachusetts
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An excerpt from the first bestseller of the Federal period reveals prevailing attitudes about women’s sexuality.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
American culture, literature, morality, sexuality, Charlotte Temple, novels
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An example of the “democratic” portrait style made by one of the Federal period’s most famous silhouette makers.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
American culture, American art, disability history, art and democracy
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Two foreign visitors capture the spirit and culture of the new nation.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
American Culture, Alexis de Tocqueville, art, travelogue, American democracy, working class, New York, Washington, D.C.
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Two court cases illustrate how women’s sexuality is adjudicated in the new court system.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
American culture, legal system, rape culture, purity culture, Black history, New York
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Excerpts from a midwife’s diary reveal information about women’s role in medicine in the Federal period.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
American culture, medical history, women’s work, pregnancy and childbirth, Maine
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This object illustrates how women consumers helped boost the new nation’s economy.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
American culture, international trade, economics, consumer culture, market revolution
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An excerpt from an account of the War of 1812 shows how Irish immigrant women contributed to their new nation.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
American culture, immigration, Irish immigration, War of 1812, Washington, D.C.
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A new American folk art is born from an abundance of cotton and new textile mills.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
American culture, market revolution, textiles, women’s work, art, craft, Georgia
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Life Stories

The story of a Black woman preacher of the Second Great Awakening.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
American culture, Second Great Awakening, women and religion, religious history, free Black Americans, Black history, New Jersey, Pennsylvania
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The story of the enslaved woman who had a long affair with Thomas Jefferson.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
American culture, Thomas Jefferson, slavery, Black history, sexual exploitation