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On the Capabilities of Women

Two documents that illustrate how the debate over women’s capacity for political engagement changed over the course of the Federal period.

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But our judgment is not so strong –we do not distinguish so well.” –Yet it may be questioned, from what doth this superiority, in this determining faculty of the soul, proceed. May we not trace its source in the difference of education, and continued advantages? Will it be said that the judgment of a male of two years old, is more sage than that of a female of the same age? I believe the reverse is generally observed to be true. But from that period what partiality! how is the one exalted and the other depressed, by the contrary modes of education which are adopted! the one is taught to aspire, and the other is early confined and limited. As their years increase, the sister must be wholly domesticated, while the brother is led by the hand through all the flowery paths of science. Grant that their minds are by nature equal, yet who shall wonder at the apparent superiority, if indeed custom becomes second nature; nay if it taketh place of nature, and that it doth the experience of each day will evince. At length arrived at womanhood, the uncultivated fair one feels a void, which the employments allotted her are by no means capable of filling. What can she do? to books she may not apply; or if she doth, to those only of the novel kind, lest she merit the appellation of a learned lady; and what ideas have been affixed to this term, the observation of many can testify. . . People say women are not as good at decision making as men. Why might this be? Could it be based on the difference in educational opportunities? Are two-year-old boys smarter than two-year-old girls? I think two-year-old girls are usually smarter. But we treat them differently. Boys are raised up and girls are put down by the different educations they receive. Boys are taught to succeed, while girls are taught to be happy with where they are. As they get older, girls are taught how to care for home and family, while boys are taught every subject. If you accept that their brains are equal, it is no wonder that men seem superior when they get to learn so much more. Women can feel that their brains are not challenged, but they have no way of changing that. If a woman tries to educate herself then people judge her.

Judith Sargent Murray, “On the equality of the sexes,” 1790. New-York Historical Society Library.

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Excerpt from Letter V

Virginia Cary, “Excerpt from “Letter V,” Letters on Female Character, Addressed to a Young Lady, on the Death of Her Mother (Richmond, Va.: A. Works, 1828). Hathi Trust.

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What is it that makes women sometimes notorious for indulging an irascible humour with their dependents? It is surely the failure of internal control—the want of secret restraint. Why do women lose their tempers? It is because they lack self-control.
 
If you follow the history of female nature as it is recorded in the annals of the world, you will find that female sovereigns have been usually violent and despotic over the domestic circle. History shows us that female rulers were very violent and controlling.
 
Queen Elizabeth boxed the ears of her courtiers in a frenzy of rage, upon the slightest provocation. The unfortunate Mary of Scotland was deficient in self-government, in a point still more dangerous in its effects upon her happiness and respectability. In the august age of Louis XIV, you will find singular examples of abuse of power in females. The great and good Fenelon was disgraced, because he thwarted the ambition of Madame de Maintenon; and the insane bigotry of the same lady is supposed to have occasioned the revocation of the edict of Nantes. Indeed it will scarcely be too much to assert, that the abuse of power in women has occasioned in many instances the moral and political decline of nations.
Queen Elizabeth twisted the ears of her advisors. Mary Queen of Scots was executed because she couldn’t control her desire to rule. The mistress of Louis XIV caused terrible damage to the government and people of France. It is safe to say women in power destroy nations.
 
But I have allowed myself too much latitude in discussing this subject. The immediate object of my remarks is, to attempt to reconcile the female sex to a subordinate station in the social compact. That is to say, a station where they will be subject to the rule of their legitimate superiors both in moral and physical strength. This subordination is so plainly in consonance with the will of God, that I am surprised to hear it controverted by professors of religion. My point is that women need to accept a subordinate position in the US. Men are their moral and physical superiors. God set things up this way. I can’t believe people are questioning it.
 
Woman, in the first place, was created as a sort of appendage to man, and made inferior to him in physical energy, in consequence of which she was understood to have a claim upon his protection; in return for this protection, she was to yield him that allegiance which the great law of nature sanctions the strong in exacting from the weak. Again, the transgression of the woman placed her in awful circumstances, as the object of heavenly wrath. This penalty was voluntarily incurred for her sake by the man, who abjured blessings which he might still have retained, rather than separate himself from his heaven-appointed companion. God made woman from man. She was made weaker, with the understanding that man would protect her. In return for his protection, woman is supposed to loyally follow man. When Eve took control and convinced Adam to eat the apple, all of humanity suffered.
 
It is, therefore, the obvious duty of woman to compensate to man, as much as possible, for the sacrifices he has made in her behalf; while her paramount obligations to an offended God, should induce the most perfect submission to his revealed will. Therefore, all women have a duty to make up for Eve’s mistake. We have to prove to God that we know we are not supposed to have power.
 
It surely is not in resisting the adverse circumstances in which we may be placed by Providence, but in submitting to them, that true obedience to the Almighty will be found to consist. The proud heart of an assuming, ambitious female, may shrink from the task of obedience to a fellow worm, but it is, nevertheless, an imperative duty of her station, to yield that submission to her legitimate. She may writhe under the yoke of masculine authority, but nature, and the God of nature, have alike fitted it to her neck, and her wisest alternative is patient submission.
Women must submit to men in everything. This is the only way to show that we have accepted God’s plan for us. It will be hard for smart and capable women to do this. But submission is what women were made for.

Virginia Cary, “Excerpt from “Letter V,” Letters on Female Character, Addressed to a Young Lady, on the Death of Her Mother (Richmond, Va.: A. Works, 1828). Hathi Trust.

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Background

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.

About the Resources

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.

Vocabulary

  • advocate: A person who publicly supports a cause.
  • biological essentialism: The idea that a person’s personality and abilities are determined by their physical characteristics, like skin color and genitalia.
  • The Enlightenment: An intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries that prioritized rational thinking and scientific methodology.
  • Federal period: The early years of the United States, usually defined as 1790–1830.
  • subordinate: Lower in rank or position.
  • suffrage: The right to vote.

Discussion Questions

  • What does Judith Sargent Murray believe is preventing women from reaching their full potential in the early Federal period?
  • What are Virginia Randolph Carey’s arguments against women seeking political power?
  • What do these excerpts reveal about the debate over women’s capacity for suffrage?
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Suggested Activities

  • Write a dialogue between Judith Sargent Murray and Virginia Randolph Carey. What do you think these two women would have to say to each other about women’s capacity for suffrage?
  • Judith Sargent Murray’s entire essay is available here. Ask students to chart what other arguments Judith makes in support of women’s mental equality to men.
  • Virginia Randolph Carey’s Letters on Female Character is available here. Assign students different chapters, and then create a class definition of the ideal Federal woman according to Virginia Randolph Carey.
  • Teach Judith Sargent Murray’s dedication together with the dedication from her essay collection The Gleaner. How do you think Murray reconciled her Federalist politics with her belief that women should be given more opportunities in society?
  • Judith Sargent Murray’s essay sparked a new interest in improving educational opportunities for women. Read Educating American Women to learn more.
  • To learn more about the debate over women’s suffrage in the Federal period, see: New Jersey’s Suffrage Experiment, Against Women in Government, Republican Motherhood, Reaffirming Coverture, and Growing Frustration.

Themes

AMERICAN IDENTITY AND CITIZENSHIP; AMERICAN CULTURE

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