There is a lot of discussion surrounding the role of women in politics in the United States today, as we saw this past year, when the country came close to electing our first female president. However, this is not a recent development – Americans have debated the relationship between women and politics throughout the country’s history, and this relationship has changed over the centuries. We can see this change reflected in objects that belonged to women, such as this sampler:

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Sampler, 1795-1850, Hannah Reynolds and Ann Alila Carr, silk on linen, H: 11 x W: 9.5 in. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Marjory Hall Yeakley, N0490.1961. Photograph by Richard Walker.

 

A sampler is a piece of needlework, which girls or women would stitch in order to demonstrate their sewing skills. A woman named Hannah Reynolds first stitched this sampler in 1795. At this time, the United States was still a very new country, and patriotism was important for both men and women. In the decades following American independence, the idea of “Republican motherhood” emerged. This idea, which stated that women had a responsibility to educate their children and to raise their sons to be good, patriotic citizens, gave women a gender-specific but important political role. Hannah Reynolds was likely teaching her children when she sewed this sampler and stitched the words “made…in the nineteenth year of the independence of United America” on it. This suggests that she was committed to the idea of Republican motherhood, teaching her children about patriotism and participating in politics in a “feminine” way.

 

Fifty-five years later, in 1850, Reynolds’ granddaughter, Ann Alila Carr, added a couple of lines to the sampler.[1] By this time, ideas about women’s roles in politics had changed. During the early nineteenth century, some Americans began to see women’s increased political roles as a challenge to traditional gender roles, and this caused a backlash. This led to the emergence of separate spheres – men took care of public business, while women remained in the home. By 1850, this idea was firmly entrenched.[2] At the same time, some women began to challenge this idea, and in 1848, the women’s suffrage movement began with the Seneca Falls Convention. However, the suffragists’ ideas were very radical at this time; most people still believed that women should not be involved in politics.[3] By sewing on her grandmother’s sampler, Ann Alila Carr was demonstrating a very traditional female skill, showing her to be firmly within the apolitical women’s sphere of the time.[4]

 

Over the years, women’s roles in politics have continued to change. Women throughout the country gained the right to vote in 1920, and since then, the number of women in politics has grown. There are still far fewer women than men in politics in the United States today, but the relationship between women and politics continues to evolve as women fight to fill higher political positions than ever.

 

Blog post by Emily Reinl

 

Sources:

[1] Donor File, Marjory Hall Yeakley, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY.

[2] Rosemarie Zagarri, Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), 77-79.

[3] Sally McMillen, Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women’s Rights Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 4.

[4] Rosemarie Zagarri, “Politics and Civil Society: A Discussion of Mary Kelley’s Learning to Stand and Speak,” Journal of the Early Republic, 28 (2008): 62; Glee Krueger, New England Samplers to 1840 (Sturbridge: Old Sturbridge Village, 1978), 2.

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