Read an Excerpt of Cokie Roberts' New Book

To understand just how remarkable, take a look at what life was like for women at the time this book begins. The first census in 1790 put the population at close to four million people. With immigrants trickling in from Europe and American women producing large families, the nation was rapidly growing. About fifty white babies were born for every thousand people before 1800 (the number was just over fourteen in 2000), but those babies' mothers could only expect to live to age forty, half as long as white women today. Only about one- fifth of the house holds were without children according to the first census, more than two- thirds were childless in the last one. The average house hold held seven people then, now it's less than three. In 2000, more than twenty- five percent of Americans lived alone, compared to fewer than four percent in 1790. And the first accounting of the nation revealed that almost one- quarter of the population—twenty- four percent—was held in bondage.

With all those people crowding the house and all those children to care for, most women were probably much too busy to worry about the fact that they held no legal or political rights. Not only were married women barred from owning property, the very clothes and jewelry on their bodies belonged to their husbands, and only property owners could vote. But even as the franchise spread to non-property holding white men, women weren't on the political radar screen. The one exception: New Jersey, where unmarried women briefly could cast ballots, along with free blacks, until the powers- that- were decided they didn't like the way politicians were appealing to the women's vote, so passed a law revoking their franchise. When the New Jersey women did go to the polls they were ridiculed for taking on a man's role:

To Congress, lo! Widows shall go,
Like metamorphosed witches!
Clothed in the dignity of state,
And eke! In coat and breeches!

New Jersey legislators revoked free blacks' right to vote at the same time they disenfranchised women. The numbers of free blacks in the North kept growing during the years after the Revolutionary War when states above the Mason- Dixon line passed laws abolishing slavery. In the South too the "peculiar institution" was dwindling until after 1793, when Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin (with the help of Catherine Littlefield Greene, but that's another story). With a free labor pool, the planting of short- staple cotton became enormously profitable, leading to a giant leap in the numbers of slaves.

Other inventions also affected the economy and the way families lived their lives. Almost all Americans—ninety percent—worked on farms in 1790. But that was changing rapidly. Sam Slater's water- powered textile mill opened in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in 1793, essentially starting the Industrial Revolution in this country. It wouldn't take long before men and women no longer worked together at home manufacturing goods. Men went out to work, so did many single women. Married women, still burdened with onerous house hold duties, lost the help of the men and sometimes of their older daughters as well. These overworked "Republican mothers" were also assigned the task of raising virtuous citizens to rule the new republic.

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