In speeches, declarations, journals, and convention proceedings, mid-nineteenth-century American woman's rights activists exhorted one another to action as equal heirs of the rights and burdens associated with independence and chided men for failing to live up to the founders' ideals and examples. They likened themselves to oppressed colonists and compared legislators to King George, yet also criticized the patriot fathers for excluding women from civic equality. This dissertation analyzes these invocations of collective memories of the nation's founding, described as Revolutionary heritage rhetoric, in publicly circulated texts produced by woman's rights associations from 1848 to 1890. This organization-driven approach de-centers the rhetoric of the early movement as the intellectual products of a few remarkable women, instead exploring movement rhetoric across the first generation through myriad voices: female and male; native- and foreign-born; those who spoke extemporaneously at conventions along with well-known organizers.
Tracing the use of Revolutionary heritage rhetoric over a fifty-year span reveals that activists’ invocations of the founding were inseparably connected to their willingness to work for racial and class equality along with woman's rights. References to the Revolution and such slogans as “no taxation without representation” could be inclusive or exclusionary, depending upon how they were used and who used them. In the opening decades of the organized woman’s rights movement, claims to a shared Revolutionary heritage reflected larger commitments to racial, class, and gender equality. As organizations within the movement fractured around competing ideas about how to best improve women's lives, activists’ rhetoric changed as well. When the commitment to universal equality gave way to ideologies of race, class, and nativity privilege, references to the founding era morphed into justifications for limited, rather than equal rights. Revolutionary heritage rhetoric largely disappeared from suffrage, education, and pay equity arguments by the late 1880s, replaced by arguments grounded in white, Protestant, female moral superiority.