Shortly after the Revolution, new principles emerged that permeated all of society, from government institutions to societal norms to family life. Egalitarianism spread to families. The family became an “autonomous private institution whose members had their own legal rights and identities.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 500 citing Michael Grossberg, Governing the Hearth: Law and the Family in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill, 1985), 26-27.
The rights of women became an issue, particularly after the Englishwoman Mary Wollstonecraft published “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” in 1792, which would be in “more private American libraries of the early Republic than [Thomas] Paine’s Rights of Man.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 500 citing John Kukla, Mr. Jefferson’s Women (New York, 2007), 167-72; Nancy Isenberg, Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr (New York, 2007), 433. For the first time, American women felt that public discourse reflected their collective discontent with the subservient role.
This led to women increasingly inserting themselves in public life. However, there were limitations, and there were naysayers. For example, Thomas Jefferson “thought that if women were permitted to ‘mix promiscuously in the public meetings of men,’ the consequences would be a depravation of morals.'” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 506 citing Alfred F. Young, Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier (New York, 2004), 202.
Gordon Wood concludes in Empire of Liberty that these early efforts for equality between men and women ultimately “prepar[ed] the way for the future,” which is undoubtedly true. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 507. However, analysis of early Americans’ beliefs regarding equality deserves some attention.
For all of the open-mindedness and revolutionary ideals floating about in the early Republic, many of which challenged some of the strongest underpinnings of Western society, the early Americans could be remarkably ignorant of the pervasiveness of inequality. It was inevitable that true equality would not be immediate.
Perhaps equality is best viewed through the lens that equality is relative to the era. Perceived inequalities now could hardly have been imaginable in the earliest days of the Republic. For example, transgender rights, while a significant issue now that gets increasingly more consideration, would likely be inconceivable to nearly all early Americans.
The reality is that progress is gradual. However, only through taking the smallest of steps forward can the light of liberty be eventually shed on all segments of society, bringing justice and equality to all Americans.