In Dependence: Women in the Patriarchal State in Revolutionary America


June 19, 2023
by Nichole Louise Also by this Author


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BOOK REVIEW: In Dependence: Women and the Patriarchal State in Revolutionary America by Jacqueline Beatty (New York University Press, 2023)

When we think of the American Revolution, we think of colonists swept away by ideals of freedom and independence. Yet, the paradox we also know is that those ideals in action were reserved for a select few. Jacqueline Beatty’s In Dependence essentially argues that despite the ideals of the American Revolution, women had to operate within the framework of a Patriarchal State (trading a monarchy for a democracy), regardless of the war’s outcome.

An important aspect of this discussion is that the bulk of cases and analysis within In Dependence apply to white women of middling to high wealth. That said, there are documented cases of poor white women and black women of both free and enslaved status who submitted petitions to state legislatures, although they are few are far between given obvious societal obstacles. Enslaved women had no rights or resources, and poor white women “could not meet the expectations of white womanhood because these gendered standards implied a level of financial privilege to which these women did not have access,” Beatty writes.

An overarching theme of Beatty’s analysis is that in submitting petitions for divorce or owed dues, women often played into the stereotype and social convention of powerless and dependent womanhood. Furthermore, these women would distance themselves from their husbands’ political leanings, sometimes feigning ignorance, to further put themselves into the box of oblivious wife whose only worries were serving her husband, having and raising children, and managing the domestic sphere. By playing into the period’s idea of dependent womanhood, ignorant of politics and worldly notions, women could in turn drum up support and sympathy from local legislatures. Essentially, if a woman stayed “in her lane,” men in power would actually listen to her appeal or petition. A woman acting and speaking out of turn in this context would be immediately dismissed as a woman not comporting herself in the correct way. Women knewthat and thus knew the role they had to play. Whether women were self-aware of this societal construction and expectation depends on the individual, yet specific language employed in petitions give clues on their actual beliefs.

Using a plethora of divorce petitions from Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston, Beatty’s analysis points to the emphasis women (and in turn, the larger societal framework of the patriarchal state) put on the financial impact of abandonment from their husbands. While a husband could have committed adultery or physical abuse, most women were careful to push these details aside in favor of the financial impact on a poor, helpless woman and her poor, helpless children. Modern readers may not understand why a woman would not speak candidly about a husband’s infidelity and/or abuse, but again we must remember the importance placed on a woman who fit her role of “dutiful dependence” at all costs so as not to rock to the boat. In other words, they had to play the game to achieve their desired outcome. Beatty explains the notion further in that “women . . . could present justifiable critiques of the traditional expectations of husband and wife if they simultaneously presented themselves as dutiful spouses who complied with these roles.” What’s more, speaking against a man in these ways could be viewed as a direct challenge the very ideals of “manhood.” For example, “measured” physical abuse was permissible in marriages, which meant claims of abuse would largely be dismissed. Grounds for winning petitions boiled down to the success of an argument that a husband was not fulfilling his role to provide financial support. Infidelity and abuse came second to financial abandonment in the eyes of society and local legislative bodies. Beatty explains that “as part of their wifely duty, early American women were required to endure more in the way of bad treatment from their husbands than their husbands were expected to tolerate from them.”

This is not to say that women did not argue infidelity or abuse in their divorce petitions. Women in Boston and Philadelphia could present those arguments, but needed at least two men to essentially vouch for their story and sign off on their petitions. Beatty explains how women “used legitimating male voices to manipulate seemingly impossible standards of behavior imposed on them and instead turned these constraints into tools that would work to their advantage.” Revolutionary-era South Carolina did not allow divorce (it did not become legal until the late nineteenth century and even then in a restricted format). Prohibition of divorce in South Carolina was particularly telling in terms of its threat to the patriarchal enslaver power structure of the south. Instead of divorce, women in South Carolina could take action in what was known as Courts of Equity. Before marriage, a settlement document would be drawn up to ensure lands and trusts were secured for each party—aspects important to the maintenance of the southern chattel slavery system. Marriage settlements could perhaps be equated to today’s prenuptial agreements, except divorce was illegal. Instead, women would take their marriage settlement documents to a Court of Equity to argue their claims of property previously drawn up in this protective document before marriage. Interestingly, South Carolina was one of the first states (1712) to allow married women to achieve trader status, known as feme sole, although they still needed their husband’s written consent. Even if a couple informally separated in South Carolina, a woman could still have a measure of financial independence, but that independence was usually on the backs of others.

Although there is sadly a lack of documentation of the experience of black women from their own mouths from the time, Beatty did find a handful of petition records from Boston and Philadelphia regarding both divorce and emancipation. There are a few documented cases of husbands purchasing manumission for their wives, or women purchasing their own emancipation. An important aspect of the institution of slavery in this period was the law of partus sequiter ventrum, which meant that a child’s legal status of free or enslaved was derived from their mother’s status at the time of the child’s birth. This meant that an enslaved woman being granted emancipation was more dangerous and difficult than a man because a woman’s freedom ensured the freedom of future generations. Those future generations were seen as profit in the eyes of an enslaver—in other words, there was a ripple effect of lost profits and property to white enslavers. Beatty makes the powerful observation that emancipated black women themselves could be conduits for freedom and the perpetuation of freedom for future generations.

One of the most striking petitions from an enslaved person in Revolutionary era was from a woman named Belinda who lived in Boston. She filed multiple petitions to the state legislature to receive a pension she was due out of the estate of her enslaver (a Loyalist) who had fled the country during the war. Belinda boldly pointed out the irony of the ideals of the American Revolution in terms of having and winning personal freedoms. Not only was Belinda “stepping out of line” with her political talk as a woman, but also as an enslaved black woman arguing the hypocrisy of slavery amidst a revolution for freedom. Surprisingly, after four attempts, the state did grant Belinda’s petition, but sadly (and perhaps not surprisingly) never followed through on supplying Belinda with her due, willed allowance. Perhaps the state legislature was paying lip service for optics’ sake without ever having the intention to actually pay Belinda.

Although the Revolution did not change day to day things much for women, the “rights talk” that came along with it caused a change of language and arguments in divorce and settlement petitions, as well as the frequency of such petitions. Beatty presents data showing that during and after the American Revolution, divorce petitions in Boston and Philadelphia drastically increased. These petitions focused more on rights than financial abandonment. Given the rhetoric of the time, perhaps more women felt safer expressing these rights and were more hopeful that their arguments would actually be received in a serious manner. The Massachusetts Divorce Statutes of 1786 proclaimed, “wives whose husbands committed adultery would be assigned their dowers in the same manner as if such a husband was naturally dead.” Women in Massachusetts could also receive alimony if they demonstrated their husband’s extreme cruelty in abuse and/or adultery—a stark contrast to these downplayed details of past petitions. Pennsylvania women could receive alimony in cases of divorce a mensa et thoro, from bed and board, which amounted to legal separation in which neither party could re-marry. Absolute divorce, known as a vinculo matrimonii, was rare in that it a total severance could diminish the chances for a woman to receive financial support.

When asking if the Revolution benefitted women or changed their status, Beatty rightfully argues that such questions are “grounded in a masculine interpretation of the Revolution, a normative version engraved in textbooks and a triumphalist narrative serving the interests of American exceptionalism.” An important takeaway from Beatty’s research is the way women in the Revolutionary period came together to support each other’s petitions, defend each other from men’s cruelty either physically or by pen, and embodied the notion of “dutiful dependence” and submissive wife in a self-aware way to exploit the flaws of the patriarchal system to their benefit. When asked if the Revolution improved the status of women, it is important to remember that the measure of independence they gained from petitions to the patriarchal state was still independence within the framework of patriarchal dependence; the constraints of which would not be dismantled until the late nineteenth century and beyond.

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