Was it the government's fault that women were treated the way they were in the 1800s?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I will play the contrarian here.  I think that while government is a reflection of society, there are points when it must take the lead and be able to actively petition and campaign for what it knows is right.  There have been times in our own history as a people when the government understood that it had to pursue an end that was not popular.  Certainly, there was little in way of public outcry to ensure that the rights of former slaves were instituted in the Constitution and that due process was guaranteed to Black Americans.  While the 13th Amendment might have been seen as a natural consequence of the Civil War, the 14th and 15th was instituted by the government to ensure that fairness for people of color was embedded.  About a century later, the American public did not necessarily nor resoundingly speak for overturning Plessy vs. Ferguson, but it was the judicial arm of the legislative branch that spoke loudest in Brown vs. Board of Education.  President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Legislation into law even though there were many in society that did not agree with it.  In these instances, government was an agent for social justice, while the public or certain sections of the body politic expressed discontent.  With this in mind, I would say that government had to bear some level of blame or culpability for not acting in the public interest, specifically half of its population, and bring the issue of women's rights as something to the forefront.  While the government did reflect social perception and preference, there are times when it has an obligation to lead in the name of social equity and justice, even if inertia is evident.  If government solely did what the public wanted, some of the advancements that we now take for granted might not have been undertaken for fear of social reprisal.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In my opinion, it was not the fault of the government.  Instead, it was the fault of society.

Government can generally not force people to hold a given set of beliefs against their will.  In fact, it is very hard for them to force people to even act as if they held those beliefs.  So what I am saying is that it would have been very hard for the government to force people to treat women badly.  This is something that people did due to prejudices that they already held.

When a group is denied its rights, it is generally because the population in general does not want that group to have those rights.  It is not because the government wants to oppress those people against the will of the general population.

So I would argue that women were treated badly because people generally thought that women were inferior, not because of anything the government did.

brettd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I agree with the above post.  Government, like the media, music and art, is generally a reflection of society, as long as you're talking about a democracy.  We elect those who believe similar to what the majority of Americans believe.  By no means was the United States alone in its poor treatment of women, but during most of the 19th century women in this country had few legal rights, and socially were considered second class citizens.

Another thing to consider is that the vast majority of women could not vote in the 1800s (a few Western states started the trend) as the 19th amendment would not be ratified until 1920, so it was impossible for a pro-women's rights government to be elected, or women Senators and Representatives at all.

krishna-agrawala | Student

It is important that in democracies the governments are elected by the people. Therefore the actions of government frequently reflect the culture and thinking of the people who elect the government. The women were treated in 1800's the way they were treated because of the culture prevalent in the 1800's. And incidentally the culture prevalent in 1800's was not all that inappropriate for 1800's as it would be in the 21st century. So the treatment of women was not as unjust in 1800's as similar treatment would be today.

Take for example the broad division of work between men and women, in which men were expected to be bread earners while women were expected to do most of the domestic work. In 1800 most of the work for earning a living involved hard physical work. In addition, there were many more wars and conflicts requiring services of men away from home. In a situation like this, the needs of all members of the family, including women, was best served by the division of work prevalent then. At that time it would not have made sense to talk of equal job opportunities for women.