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Early Whispers of Discontent



Most historians agree that the first viable political movement for women’s rights in the United States began in the mid-nineteenth century as a result of the Abolitionist Movement. There is evidence, however, that the first dialogues regarding the rights and roles of women in America began much earlier than the 1830s. While there was not an active political movement during the Early American Republic Era to debate ‘the woman question’, there is evidence in private letters and published essays of the late eighteenth century that women and their men were discussing women’s rights as early as the nation’s foundation. It must be considered that with any political movement there is a necessary germination period of consciousness-raising prior to concerted mobilizations into the political sphere. This essay will reveal these first stirrings of discontent regarding women’s roles during the Revolution and the Early American Republic that laid an essential groundwork for the political movement of the mid-nineteenth century.

The first stirrings of discontent in the women’s sphere can be traced to the Enlightenment and the subsequent revolutions in America and France, events which stressed the rights of all humankind to be free of oppressive masters. As early as 1764, James Otis asked “Are not women born as free as men?” in a pamphlet addressing the rights of British Colonies. Otis went on to argue that “Every man and woman . . . has and will have a right to be consulted [emphasis mine]” regarding any compact they enter into and that they must first agree to it before they can be considered legally bound by it.1

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