How America Toppled the Patriarchy

Brenda M. Hafera

Summer 2023

Sexual revolutionaries often complain that America is currently, and has always been, a patriarchy. Our systems are fundamentally based on power, they claim, with men at the top of the hierarchy oppressing women at the bottom.

Not so, say those in what some call the "manosphere." They argue that women now have more rights than men, and since the West is decaying as a result, we must reestablish a patriarchy in order to restore it. Kickboxer and self-described misogynist Andrew Tate, for example, asserts that "society functions better as a patriarchy." Even some who don't openly subscribe to this movement have endorsed its conclusions: Lauren Witzke, a former U.S. Senate candidate, claimed that granting women the right to vote "was the worst thing that ever happened to America."

The sexual revolutionaries are incorrect on both our history and our current circumstances. America may have inherited the patriarchal norms and institutions of Great Britain, but its founders' emphasis on liberty, equality, and republican self-government undermined them. Over time, Americans reformed these institutions with the nation's first principles in mind. Given this trajectory, one could argue that men's-rights advocates are anti-American — a characterization most of them would find offensive.

Of course, this is not to assert that America's institutions and laws have always been just toward women; that is obviously not the case. But we may still admit that those injustices occurred while observing that they departed from the American creed. Good people may commit wrongful acts, and we may still call them good because we recognize those acts are contrary to, not indicative of, their fundamental character. The same is true of nations.

America's character was established by its founding principles, and the American story, despite its lamentable setbacks, is a movement toward a greater realization of those principles. Declaring "all men are created equal" set America on a gradual process of establishing not a patriarchy, but a republic of equal citizens under the law — a process that affected not only men and women, but the whole family.

Alongside civil society, the family is an essential vehicle for forming a virtuous citizenry — a prerequisite for a republican regime. And women, by influencing their children and husbands and promoting the vitality of civic associations, took on much of this work throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries. Acknowledging their crucial role in this effort led Americans to recognize women as contributors to our experiment in self-government — an advancement that was itself a result of republican ideas.


As with many transformations, the project of defining America's character and institutional structures commenced with a war of ideas. John Locke's Two Treatises of Government, which inspired America's founding principles, was in part a response to Robert Filmer's Patriarcha, a defense of monarchy and the absolute authority of the father. For Filmer, the father rules his household as the king rules his subjects. Locke found Filmer's opinions appalling and made the case for both patriarchy's and monarchy's opposite: classical liberalism. In America, Locke's arguments won the day.

America's political regime is grounded in natural rights and the maxim "all men are created equal." As Thomas Jefferson put it, "the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god." According to this lofty ethos, neither physical features nor social status indicates that a person is divinely ordained to rule over others without their consent. This view implies that while Americans may differ in their talents, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and sex, these characteristics do not lessen the dignity of any human being.

Yet the founders did believe that one factor separates human beings not from one another, but from all other earthly creatures: our capacity for reason. This aptitude forms the foundation of human equality. The founders' belief in this truth ensured that America would be a new kind of country — one that rejected the old aristocratic order and rigid hierarchies that the colonists had inherited from Britain.

Affirming these principles meant not only declaring them, but living up to them, both as individuals and as a people. In Alexander Hamilton's words, it was

reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.

Thus the founders and subsequent generations of Americans would scrutinize all inherited institutions, laws, and norms to assess whether they furthered self-government and promoted the character of a self-governing people. In short, change was afoot.

The founders' recognition of human equality prompted not just a revolution against Britain, but one within American society. This was a gradual process. As historian Gordon Wood explains: "Republicanism did not replace monarchy all at once; it ate away at it, corroded it, slowly, gradually, steadily, for much of the eighteenth century." America had adopted many of its laws, customs, and institutions from the old order — an understandable move given the innumerable decisions (some of which are made subconsciously) that must be made to form a nation. And while there was and still remains much good in the British system for Americans to replicate, as America defined herself, it became clear that certain norms and laws she had adopted from that system were incompatible with a new nation founded on the revolutionary principles of human equality and republican self-government.


The American family was not exempt from this social revolution. Family structures are influenced by regime type, and the American family became more republican in its character as America itself became more republican. Property laws in particular were up for scrutiny in the new nation, and aligning those laws with republican principles made family relations both less aristocratic and more democratic.

America inherited Britain's primogeniture and entail laws, which are tenets of a patriarchal aristocratic system. Jane Austen's novels present useful examples of how such laws operate. The Bennett sisters in Pride and Prejudice, for instance, are encouraged to marry well because the family's estate will pass on to their closest male relative (and the current heir happens to be insipid, obsequious, and unworthy). This is not due to any decision their father made: Under British primogeniture and entail laws, an estate could not be divided evenly among the sisters; it had to pass, in its entirety, to a single male heir. By concentrating wealth in select individuals due to the accident of birth, such laws inculcate an aristocratic order that promotes the fixed status and honor of certain families.

In contrast to this system, Jefferson and James Madison imagined a nation in which the majority would own land — a vision driven by republican principles and made possible by America's expansive territory. Equal citizens would have property rights in their talents and abilities, as well as a right to the property earned through their labor. Thus land ownership, as Jefferson and Madison understood it, was not just a natural right, but a means of affirming the sovereignty of the people.

Jefferson and Madison's republican vision led to the disruption of primogeniture and entail laws in America. While serving in the Virginia legislature from 1776 to 1779, Jefferson himself introduced a series of bills to usher in this new era of republicanism, including the repeal of such laws that promoted "feudal and unnatural distinctions." Once these statutes were revoked, individuals were still free to bequeath all their wealth and property to a male heir, but this option would no longer be fortified with the moral force of law.

The legal evolutions pertaining to land ownership, themselves influenced by republican principles, altered family relations. Loyola University Maryland professor and American Enterprise Institute scholar Diana Schaub asserts that the "revolution in estate law that establishe[d] 'equal partition of the father's goods among all the children' work[ed] both an economic and a moral transformation." In aristocracies, children and those who don't own property are dependent on their father and the estate, meaning familial relations have an underlying tone of force. When that structure is disrupted, children become less dependent on their father, while force is replaced with affection and civic friendship. Fathers in turn tend to act not as imposing figures who demand strict obedience, but as trusted advisors guiding their children through life.

These changes had a profound impact on both sons and daughters. Alexis de Tocqueville observed as much of sons when he noted:

[A]s mores and laws become more democratic, the relations of father and son become more intimate and sweeter; rule and authority are met with less; confidence and affection are often greater; and it seems that the natural bond tightens while the social bond is loosened.

Daughters, too, gained the freedom not only to own property, but to choose their spouses. Rather than being matched by their fathers with someone who would elevate the family's rank or concentrate its wealth, they could select a husband based on mutual love and respect.

This change tended to stabilize marriages. According to Tocqueville, marriage in aristocratic societies "has the purpose of uniting goods rather than persons....It is not surprising that the conjugal bond that keeps the fortunes of the two spouses united leaves their hearts to wander about aimlessly." But when women are drawn to their husbands by "similarity of tastes and ideas, that same similarity keeps and fixes them beside one another." As Schaub concludes, "patriarchal power" in America was "uprooted, not through feminist consciousness-raising, but instead quite literally by changes in estate law that...pulled [women's] domains out from under fathers."

While the Revolution set in motion legal changes to property ownership, they were not immediate, sweeping, or all-encompassing. Primogeniture and entail laws pertain almost exclusively to property, undermine familial affection, and promote an aristocratic order, meaning they could be readily dispensed with as anti-republican. Most states also strengthened women's ability to own and control property around the same time. Yet coverture, the legal status women entered into upon marriage (they were "covered" by their husbands), prevailed into the middle of the 19th century.

Coverture was a legal reflection of the principle that marriage is an enduring covenant. Its purpose was not to subjugate women as inferiors (though it certainly inflicted injustices on them), but to promote stable marriages. Because coverture laws pertained to both property and marriage, they were more complicated than primogeniture and entail laws. Moreover, any reform or repeal of such laws would have a profound impact on the family.

The founders' ultimate purpose in establishing the American republic was not to protect individual rights for their own sake, but to enable human flourishing. To be sure, respecting rights is indispensable to that project, as rights are derived from the equality with which all human beings are endowed. But the founders considered the family, grounded in marriage, to be the fundamental unit of society and the foundation of its stability. Repealing coverture laws wholesale risked destabilizing marriages, which in turn would tend to undermine the republic and inhibit human flourishing.

Yet by establishing a nation grounded in the principles of self-government and equal rights, the founders had ushered in a new republican concept of marriage that required reforming many of the laws America had inherited from Britain. As Brandon Dabling argues in his recent book, A New Birth of Marriage, republican marriage would have to "allow for freedom and protections against tyrannical abuse" while simultaneously being "stable enough to produce enduring love and the rearing of children to meet their own republican responsibilities." Thus, as the American republic matured and republican principles gained ground in its institutions, coverture laws, like primogeniture and entail laws, would inevitably come under scrutiny and eventually be repealed.

Not all the founders' laws pertaining to marriage struck the proper balance between marital stability and liberty from injustice, and we may rightly fault them for that. But we must also recall that the system they put in place invited our participation in pursuing that balance, and that this project is an ongoing one.


Families in America were influenced by republican principles and served an essential role in preserving them.

In a republic, character formation is the vital political task, as the welfare and perpetuation of the regime depends on a virtuous citizenry. John Adams put it this way: "Public Virtue cannot exist in a Nation without private [Virtue], and public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics." In a polity where the people themselves are sovereign and elect their representatives, it's not enough for a select class of individuals to be sent to elite boarding schools with the understanding they will one day become governing aristocrats; moral education in republican principles must be widespread.

Families, as the primary sanctuaries of character formation, play a key role in the crucial work of inculcating virtue and morality in citizens of a republic. And women, as mothers and wives, often assume the lead on this front.

As republican fervor rippled through society during the Revolutionary era, the idea of what feminist historian Linda Kerber calls the "republican mother" — a well-informed woman who promotes republican virtue in her children — gained popularity. The republican mother would educate her children to ensure they developed the character necessary to perpetuate the American regime. Abigail Adams, the wife of our second president and mother of the sixth, was such a woman and wrote of her importance:

If we mean to have Heroes, Statesmen and Philosophers, we should have learned women....If much depends as is allowed upon the early Education of youth and the first principals which are instilld take the deepest root, great benifit must arise from litirary accomplishments in women.

The American revolt against Britain's patriarchal institutions also ushered in new norms of courtship and marriage, as both men and women began to seek out and value spouses who exhibited republican virtue. Men were encouraged to reject frivolous coquettes in favor of sensible women, and women to select men who would treat them as companions. (John and Abigail Adams epitomized such a couple.) The character of a good husband was the subject of magazines, literature, and art. Among the favored virtues in both wives and husbands were moderation, industry, and patience, which are more republican than aristocratic in tone. Through marriage, women and men would reinforce these virtues in one another.

In addition to being formed within the family, a republican character in a citizenry is crafted through civic associations. And just as women shaped the character of their children and husbands within the home, their skills naturally spilled over to the realm of civil society.

Participation in civil society lies at the core of American citizenship. According to Joshua Mitchell, author of American Awakening, "isolated citizens are not citizens at all, their self-interest must be fashioned in and through relations with others, in the fora of family, religious institutions, voluntary associations, local political life, and civil society." Such participation develops a particular kind of character fit for self-government. When individuals habitually come together to solve problems in their community, they become more responsible and confident in their own abilities and less reliant on public officials for leadership or assistance.

Americans have gained a reputation for spirited self-reliance in part because they have long practiced self-governance through civic associations. As Tocqueville so memorably recounted, mid-19th century America boasted an active civic culture:

Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate.

Women in early America — especially married women, who weren't expected to work for pay — proved instrumental to building this vibrant civil society. In The Tragedy of American Compassion, Marvin Olasky traces the rise of female-led civic associations in the United States, which were first launched in Baltimore, New York City, and Philadelphia during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Women in these cities began by establishing charitable organizations to provide aid to widows and orphaned children; their activities soon spread to other states and other causes. In 1813, the Ladies Benevolent Society of Charleston began administering aid to the ill and the senile. In 1816, the Female Charitable Society of Bedford, New York, began distributing wool to the "industrious poor." The following two decades saw the rise of what became known as a "Benevolent Empire" throughout the nation that provided assistance to the indigent, the unfortunate, and the infirm.

Many of these associations had overtly religious connections. New York City's Female Domestic Missionary Society for the Poor distributed Bibles to and provided schooling for poor children. The New Hampshire Missionary Society, the Baltimore Female Association for the Relief of Distressed Objects, and the Massachusetts Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge saw themselves, according to Olasky, "as fighting against both spiritual and material poverty." Catholic women in the Northeast banded together to build hospitals and orphanages, while Jewish women established benevolent societies to aid orphans, pregnant women, and those in failing health.

Each of these institutions emphasized helping those who had fallen on hard times due to fortune's cruelties and teaching them skills that would enable them to become financially independent. The underlying assumption was that individuals are capable of self-government and should be treated accordingly. Thus the services women rendered not only responded to material needs; as Kathleen McCarthy observed in American Creed, they "addressed republican concerns about popular virtue and the need for an independent, enlightened citizenry, recasting the concept of republican motherhood in tangible, institutional form."

Women forming self-governing citizens within the family and through civic associations led to their gaining recognition as political beings. The late historian Jan Ellen Lewis explained this development in the context of the family:

[S]hifting interest from the parent-child nexus to the husband-wife bond...necessarily raised women to a new moral and political stature. When the key relationship in a society is that between father and son or ruler and subject, women may conveniently be ignored; when the most important relationship is between conjugal equals, and when the family is still seen as the correlative of the larger society, then women can no longer be overlooked. If the affectionate union between a man and his wife, freely entered into, without tyrannical interference, is the model for all the relationships in the society and the polity, then the wife, as an indispensable half of the marital union, is a political creature.

"[T]hese first formulations of a feminine political role," she concluded, "were not fundamentally feminist....The dynamic, rather, was republican and anti-patriarchal."

At the same time, women's forays into the civic domain prompted speculation about their civil rights — primarily the rights to vote and hold office. While the founding generation did not make significant legal moves on this front, the political implications of the Declaration's principles for women were almost immediately apparent. In the months leading up to the Revolution, Abigail Adams famously urged her husband, who served as a delegate to the Continental Congress, to "Remember the Ladies." As early as 1790, a column in the New York Daily Advertiser advocated giving women a share in government. On occasion, women's activity in civil society seeped into the political sphere directly: In 1812, for instance, women petitioned the Virginia state legislature to set up an orphanage. Such openly political acts highlighted the contrast between women's rising influence in the civic realm and their lack of voice in matters of government.

In establishing the American republic, the founders replaced the British aristocratic notion of virtual representation with one of direct representation. As Madison argued in his "Memorial and Remonstrance" letter to the Virginia Assembly and Elizabeth Cady Stanton echoed in her "Solitude of Self" address, only the individual can express the dictates of his conscience. It was thus only a matter of time before Americans began asking whether women were entitled to run for office and vote for their representatives.


To modern readers, women shaping politics through the family may seem inconsequential, and perhaps even patronizing. But in truth, wives and mothers influence the character of their spouses and children, just as husbands and fathers do. Any parent understands the pride, dedication, and delight that goes into forming a child's character; it involves immeasurable sacrifice as well as a deliberate understanding of the habits and virtues that must be instilled in a child to give him the best chance of flourishing. In terms of perpetuating a given polity — especially a republican one — there may be no higher task than shaping the character of the next generation.

On a related note, the choice of a spouse is often the most significant moral decision a person will make over the course of a lifetime. Each spouse, over potentially 50 years or more, will influence the character of the other in both obvious and imperceptible ways. If we do not take such realities seriously as modern individuals, it is because we, rather than the phenomena themselves, lack seriousness.

Affirming that women influence their husbands and children is not to claim that those are the only ways women can contribute politically; to argue such has the tinge of treating human beings as means rather than ends. Rather, the history recounted here underscores how the family influenced and was influenced by America's transformation into a truly republican regime. And women, as wives, mothers, daughters, and civic leaders, played a key role in this regard.

We must also remember that thinking of women as political beings was a revolutionary concept that the founding initiated and that Americans built on over time. Women assuming their full civil rights and duties as equal citizens was a project of later generations, but we can — and should — look back with gratitude at the founding generation of men and women whose principles and actions set this development in motion.

The chronicle of American women establishing themselves as equal citizens is not fundamentally a struggle of the oppressed versus the oppressor, as today's sexual revolutionaries contend. Instead, it encompasses a shared project of rebalancing and reconciliation made possible by the ideas of the American founding. Founders like Abigail Adams and James Madison viewed women and men as having the same natural rights, which proved crucial in softening sex-based hierarchies and generating the push for recognition of women's civil rights. This was not a project the founders completed, but one that required the continuous dedication of future generations devoted to pursuing a more perfect union of equal, self-governing, republican citizens.

Brenda M. Hafera is assistant director and senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation’s B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies.


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