Votes for Women

Women in Early America (1600-1800)

In this lesson, students will examine the role of citizens in colonial America and in the early republic, assessing their liberty and equality during this period. They will also examine the purpose of voting and its role within civil society.

Founding Principles

Civic Virtue image

Civic Virtue

A set of actions and habits necessary for the safe, effective, and mutually beneficial participation in a society.

Consent of the Governed image

Consent of the Governed

The government's power is only justified when its power comes from the will or approval of the people.

Equal Protection image

Equal Protection

The principle of equal justice under law means that every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law. There are no individuals or groups who are born with the right to rule over others.

Equality image


Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.

Inalienable / Natural Rights image

Inalienable / Natural Rights

Freedoms which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.

Liberty image


Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.

Private Virtue image

Private Virtue

The idea that only a knowledgeable and virtuous citizenry can sustain liberty.

Representative / Republican Government image

Representative / Republican Government

Form of government in which the people are sovereign (the ultimate source of power) and authorize representatives to make and carry out laws.


In this lesson, students will examine the role of citizens in colonial America and in the early republic, assessing their liberty and equality during this period. They will also examine the purpose of voting and its role within civil society.

In part one of this two-part Homework Help narrative, learn about the origins of the women’s suffrage movement from Colonial America through the nineteenth century. What challenges did these brave activists need to overcome in the early days of the movement to lay the groundwork for the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment?


  • Students will understand women’s roles as citizens in colonial America and the early republic.
  • Students will assess women’s liberty and equality during this period.
  • Students will understand and apply the concept of “historical thinking” to the act of voting in U.S. history.
  • Students will review constitutional amendments related to equality and voting.


  • Background Essay: Life in Early America
  • Handout A: Equality and Voting Amendments
  • Appendix A: Amending the Constitution
  • Appendix B: Timeline and Quotes
  • Appendix C: Timeline Cards
  • Answer Key


“The very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least incorporated or consolidated into that of the husband, under whose wing, protection, and cover she performs everything.” - WILLIAM BLACKSTONE (1765)

“I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.” - ABIGAIL ADAMS (1776)

“Are [women] deficient in reason? We can only reason from what we know, and if opportunity of acquiring knowledge hath been denied us, the inferiority of our sex cannot fairly be deduced from thence ... I would calmly ask, is it reasonable, that a candidate for immortality, for the joys of heaven, an intelligent being, who is to spend an eternity in contemplating the works of Deity, should at present be so degraded, as to be allowed no other ideas, than those suggested by the mechanism of a pudding, or the sewing [of] the seams of a garment?” - JUDITH SARGENT MURRAY (1790)

Vocabulary Terms

  • homogeneous
  • coverture
  • non-entities
  • Republican Motherhood
  • executor of a will
  • benign neglect
  • autonomy


  • National Standards for U.S. History: Era 3 1754–1820s
    • Standard 2: The impact of the American Revolution on politics, economy, and society
  • National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies:
    • Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
    • Theme 6: Power, Authority, and Governance
    • Theme 10: Civic Ideals and Practices

Background 15-30 min.

Have students read Handout A: Background Essay: Life in Early America and answer the questions.

Warm-up 10 minutes

  1. Read aloud some or all of following statements one at a time, adding your own that may better capture student interest. Sources for the more recent statements are provided at the end of the lesson. Begin with statements that are obviously describing cultures from the past. Do NOT indicate when you move to statements describing present-day. Do not read aloud the parenthetical note giving the location/time period; that information is provided for teacher background.
    For each one, briefly ask students how they would judge that society based on that information.

    • A society routinely allows unwanted babies to die of exposure. (ancient Rome, others)
    • A society keeps human beings as slaves. (Ancient Greece, Egypt, Rome, China, and most of the world for most of human history, including the United States through 1865)
    • A society hangs people accused of witchcraft. (colonial New England)
    • A society allows young children to work long hours in hot, dangerous factories. (19th century U.S. and many other parts of the world today)
    • A society requires separate schools, travel accommodations, water fountains, and bathrooms for people of color than for whites. (Jim Crow era U.S; South Africa under apartheid)
    • A society does not allow women to travel without a male guardian. (Saudi Arabia, present day)
    • A society reports eliminating Downs Syndrome because all the women carrying fetuses with the chromosomal abnormality choose an abortion. (Iceland, present day).
    • A society keeps young people, from the ages of 6-18, mostly sitting at desks inside for a majority of their day. (U.S., present day)
    • A society imposes the death penalty for people of color at a higher rate than for white criminals. (U.S., present day)
    • A society has more than 6,000 reported cases of human trafficking. (U.S., 2017)
    • A society throws away 133 billion pounds of food a year even though people struggle with food insecurity both within that country and around the world. (U.S., present day)
  2. Explain that this was an exercise on historical thinking and humility, and the importance of not judging people of the past by modern standards. Why might certain practices still exist today, even though the overwhelming majority of people know they are wrong? Lead students to understand that even when people identify a wrong (i.e. slavery in the 1800s), that does not mean the practice will be immediately eradicated. It is easy to judge people of the past, but it requires humility to realize one’s own society is guilty of allowing injustices to continue. People like to think they would be the lone voice of reason standing against injustice.
  3. Offer the following points to wrap up the discussion:
    1. If an act is objectively wrong, such as murder or slavery, it is wrong whether “everyone else is doing it” or not.
    2. That said, cultural norms often prevent people from recognizing that an action is wrong.
    3. No society is immune from the tendency to assume their cultural norms are correct, and/or that they are more enlightened than those who lived in the past.
    4. Remember that people in the future are likely to look back with a critical eye at practices that are tolerated or even promoted today.

Activities 40 minutes total

Activity I » 20 minutes

  1. Explain that historical thinking can help put the history of voting in the U.S. from the early republic to today in context.
  2. Distribute Handout A: Equality and Voting Amendments.
  3. Have students complete the worksheet independently, and then compare and revise by working in pairs or trios.
  4. Discuss students’ responses as a large group, having students record any new insights on their handouts. Then challenge students to independently write a summary statement about all the information at the bottom of the page.

Activity II and Wrap-Up » 20 minutes

  1. As a class, place each of the Appendix C: Timeline Cards on your class timeline.
  2. As you add the strips with the contributions of Hannah Griffitts, Phillis Wheatley, Mercy Otis Warren, Abigail Adams, and Judith Sargent Murray, call on a few students to share their responses to the Background Essay homework questions about these women.
  3. You may conclude that it is impossible to be sure how their legal status affected their ability to impact society (it might have motivated them to be more active, or it might have dissuaded them; it might have made others less apt to take them seriously, or it may have made their voices especially compelling).
  4. Use Appendix A: Amending the Constitution to consider the types of political participation available to women such as those described in this lesson.Consider the types of activities carried out by women like Abigail Adams, Griffitts, Warren, and Wheatley.
    • Without the vote, to what extent and in what ways were these women able to influence the U.S. Congress?
    • Without the vote, to what extent and in what ways were women able to influence their state legislatures?

Further Reading

Adams, Abigail. Letters, Library of America Adams Family Collection (2016)

Berkin, Carol. Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence (2006)

Kerber, Linda “The Republican Mother: Women and the Enlightenment—An American Perspective” in Toward an Intellectual History of Women Durham: University of North Carolina Press (1997)

Kerber, Linda. Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (1997)

Murray, Judith Sargent. “On the Equality of the Sexes” (1790)

Norton, Mary Beth. Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750–1800 (1996)

Rush, Benjamin. “Thoughts upon Female Education” (1787)

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)

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