During the Federal period, there was an ongoing debate over whether women should be granted the right to vote. At the heart of the debate was the question of whether women possessed the mental capacity to take on such a responsibility. Women’s suffrage supporters cited the Enlightenment idea that all humans were born with the same capacity for thinking and learning. They believed that the differences between men and women were the result of the vastly different educations that boys and girls received. They argued that if girls were given the same education as boys, then they could grow up to be thoughtful and responsible voters.
Opponents to women’s suffrage argued that because women were physically different from men, they could not have the same abilities as men. This argument is now called biological essentialism. Some advocates of this theory cited the Bible story of Adam and Eve as proof that God planned for women to be inferior to men.
Biological essentialism became more and more popular throughout the Federal period. Eventually, it became the accepted argument against women’s suffrage. Biological essentialism was also used to support the continuation of slavery in the United States and to strip Black men of their voting rights following the American Civil War.
In 1790, Judith Sargent Murray published “On the Equality of the Sexes.” This groundbreaking essay laid out for the first time the idea that it was a lack of education, not natural inferiority, that made women seem less intelligent than men. In this excerpt, Judith points out that there is no difference between the intellects of boys and girls. Therefore, education must be the reason for differences between men and women. It is important to note that “On the Equality of the Sexes” was released two years before Mary Wollstonecraft published Vindication of the Rights of Women, which is often called the first feminist work in the English language.
Virginia Randolph Carey’s Letters on Female Character, Addressed to a Young Lady on the Death of Her Mother, was a book of advice for young American women published in 1828. In this excerpt, Virginia explains that women are naturally inferior to men. She claims that both science and religion agree on this point. She argues that this natural inferiority means that women should make themselves subordinate to men and seeking any power or influence outside of their homes would endanger the entire nation.