Women's roles in the "New Nation"


Dolley Madison Women in the New Nation faced the same difficulties as men.  Women were not equal according to the law, therefore they were expected to submit to their men.  Single or widowed women found it difficult to conduct business, take care of personal matters, and earn money.  The new nation gave women the opportunity to be an individual, take care of their children and their household.  Proper women got married and had children to take care of when their husband was away for business or politics.  Some women had strong enough personalities to be able to maintain friendships, influence the government and their husbands. 

Women like Dolly Madison were influential in not only being a highly respected women in society, but her opinions were also considered by her husband.  She was a model wife who shared her opinions with affluent government officials and her family.  Women whose opinions were respected could maintain an identity as beautify, feminine but strong.  Other women were not so fortunate to have the respect or the money to maintain their personal relationships. 

Most women were not as fortunate to be able to climb into a world dominated by men.  Besides the most affluent women, most had to work hard and long hours.  They worked in the fields or eventually found as a source of cheap labor in the factories of the north.  The role of women was not clearly defined outside of the realm of the man during this time period.  Few women boldly went beyond the acceptable social mores for their gender.  Those women who did step out of the shadows of a man found it to be difficult to define their own identity.

National History Standards

Materials compiled in this document can be used by educators to fulfill the following National History Standards for Grades 5-12:

Era 3:  The Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s) 

Standard 1:  The causes of the American Revolution, the ideas and interests involved in forging the revolutionary movement, and the reasons for the American victory. 

Standard 1C: The student understands the factors affecting the course of the war and contributing to the American victory. 

5-12: Compare and explain the different roles and perspectives in the war of men and women, including white settlers, free and enslaved African Americans, and Native Americans. [Evaluate the influence of ideas]    

Primary Resources

  1. DESCRIPTION:  Letter, Dolley Payne Madison to Anna Cutts
    NOTES (From Dolly Madison Project): By the end of May, 1804, Mrs. Madison was back in the thick of Washington society, full of life, with a busy social schedule, and yet always with time to concern herself with family affairs, such as the health of her niece, Dolley Washington, daughter of her sister Lucy. As wife of the secretary of state and frequent official hostess for the president in a very raw and small city, her society included the wives of foreign ministers, including the French Pichons, and the British Merrys. 
    SOURCE:  The Dolly Madison Project

  2. DESCRIPTION:  Letter, Dolley Payne Madison to Anna Cutts
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  20 March 1812
    NOTES (From Dolly Madison Project):  Lucy Payne Washington had eloped with George Steptoe Washington, nephew of George Washington, when she was only 15 years old. In 1809 Washington died, and Lucy, a widow, became a popular belle in the nation's capital while she lived with the Madisons in the White House. In 1812 she remarried, to Judge Thomas Todd of Kentucky; it was the first wedding to be held at the White House. For Mrs. Madison this meant, however, that another of her sisters would move far away. The letter mentions another family issue: the dissipated lifestyle of her surviving brother, John Payne. And Mrs. Madison tells Anna about living in the middle of intense political partisanship just months before President Madison would finally declare war against Great Britain.
    SOURCE: The Dolly Madison Project

  3. DESCRIPTION:  Letter, George Boyd to Dolley Payne Madison
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  2 September 1816
    NOTES (From Dolly Madison Project):   In the wake of the burning of the White House in August, 1814, DPM concerned herself with the cost of repairs to the White House and the purchase of new furniture
    REPOSITORY:  The Dolly Madison Project

  4. DESCRIPTION:  Hannah Griffitts, "The Female Patriots"
    SOURCE:  Edward Wanton Smith Collection, Haverford College Library.  Reprinted in Milcah Martha Moore's Book, Catherine La Courreye Blecki and Karin A. Wulf, eds. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997), pp. 172-73. 

  5. DESCRIPTION:  Anonymous, "Account of Donations Receiv'd by the Ladies in their Several Districts for the Soldiers of the American Army,"  
    REPOSITORY: BV Joseph Reed, Vol. 7, #53, New-York Historical Society. See also: Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1775-2000

  6. DESCRIPTION:  Letter, Esther Reed to George Washington
    COPYRIGHT: Copyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCE:  George Washington Papers, Series 4, General Correspondence, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Transcript published in The Life of Esther DeBerdt. Afterwards Esther Reed, of Pennsylvania (New York: Arno Press, 1971, originally published in 1853), pp. 318-19. See Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1775-2000

  7. DESCRIPTION: Letter, George Washington to Esther Reed
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  10 August 1780
    COPYRIGHT: Copyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCE:   George Washington Papers, Series 4, General Correspondence, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Transcript published in John Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, vol. 19 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1937), pp. 350-51. See also: Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1775-2000

  8. DESCRIPTION:  George Washington to Mrses. Francis, Hillegas, Clarkson, Bache, and Blair
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  13 February 1781
    SOURCE:  Washington Manuscripts [Am .0015, p. 73], Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. See also: Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1775-2000

  9. DESCRIPTION:  Sentiments of an American Woman
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  Philadelphia: John Dunlap, 1780
    SOURCE:  Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1775-2000
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress, Rare Books and Special Collections Division

See also: David B. Mattern and Holly C. Shulman. The Selected Letters of Dolley Payne Madison. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001.

Additional Media Resources

Adams Family Papers

The Dolly Madison Project

Additional Instructional Resources

Abagail Adams Worksheet

Women's Lives Before the Civil War

Secondary Resources

Allgor, Catherine.  Parlor Politics:  In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government.  Charlottesville:  University Press of Virginia, 2000

Anthony, Carl Sferazza.  First Ladies:  The Saga of the Presidentsí Wives and Their Power, 1789-1961, vol.1.  New York:  Morrow, 1990

Brooks, Geraldine.  Dames and Daughters of the Young Republic.  New York:  T. Y. Crowell and Company, 1901.  Includes a chapter on Dolley Madison

Crane, Elaine Forman. "Political Dialogue and the Spring of Abigail's Discontent" The William and Mary Quarterly (Oct. 1999): 745-774.

Gelles, Edith B. Portia: The World of Abigail Adams. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

______. "The Abigail Industry." The William and Mary Quarterly (Oct. 1988): 656-683.

Haven, Kendall, Voices of the American Revolution: Stories of Men, Women, and Children Who Forged Our Nation. Libraries Unlimited; 2001.

Kerber, Linda K. "The Paradox of Women's Citizenship in the Early Republic: The Case of Martin vs. Massachusetts, 1805" American Historical Review (Apr. 1992): 349-378.

Klepp, Susan L. "Revolutionary Bodies: Women and the Fertility Transition in the Mid- Atlantic Region, 1760-1820" Journal of American History (Dec. 1998): 910-945.

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This document packet was researched and developed by Tina Davis .


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