Women were the moral sex, by definition.
—Kirsten Wood, historian
Though American women did not gain the right to vote until the twentieth century, they played a vital role in the nation's early history.
According to historian Kirsten Wood, during the Jacksonian era many people believed that "women were the moral sex by definition . . . women were supposed to be guardians of virtue in the domestic sphere." Middle- and upper class women, especially those in Washington, appeared to understand and embrace this role.
In 1829, the wives of Andrew Jackson's cabinet members exercised this moral prerogative by ostracizing Peggy Eaton the wife of Jackson's Secretary of War, who had earned a reputation as sexually promiscuous.
Jackson believed that Peggy was wrongly maligned. His resentment was likely derived, in part, from the fact that his wife Rachel had been attacked by his opponents during the 1828 campaign for having, years earlier, lived with him while she was married to another man.
In the spring of 1831, infighting within Jackson's cabinet over the Eaton affairA sex scandal that divided Jackson's cabinet during his first term. climaxed. To put an end to it, the Secretary of War and the rest of Jackson's cabinet resigned, enabling the president to replace them with men not involved in the feud.
In the years after the Eaton Affair, American women attempted to exercise power far beyond the narrow bounds assigned to them as arbiters of sexual morality.
Women, for example, played a role in two of the most controversial issues of the time: Indian removal and slavery.
As debate raged in Congress over the Indian Removal ActThe act empowered the president to negotiate removal treaties with Indian nations. recommended by Jackson, middle-class Northern women gathered thousands of signatures for petitions opposing the measure.
"...while their efforts were ultimately futile, these women were suggesting a role for women...in politics which was if not unprecedented, then certainly quite dramatic."
—Kirsten Wood, historian
Slavery was also a significant issue for women.
Many saw a direct connection between abolitionismThe Abolitionist movement was dedicated to outlawing slavery in the United States. and feminism, between the advancement of the rights of black slaves and those of women.
While women faced opposition from inside and outside the anti-slavery movement, they helped to spread abolitionist ideas and pave the way for female suffrage, which was finally achieved in 1920 with the ratification of the 19th amendment.