In light of the contraception debates that have been raging like an STD in the Republican Primaries, I thought it would be good to write about the general history of women in American politics up until the turn of the twentieth century, the period of history that this debate belongs in.
Like all societies everywhere, American politics were dominated by men in its early history.
To get a sense of how little women's roles were considered in political decisions during the founding of the country, you only had to look at the exchange of letters between John Adams and his wife, Abigail Adams. On the formation of the constitution and laws of the newly formed United States, Abigail basically wrote in a letter that she hoped that John would work to give women the same protections under the law that men would receive. He replied by writing ""As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh...Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems."
Beyond the total exclusion of women from the conversations that were taking place about what the new country should and should not become, you can also look to the women that were celebrated during early American history as being influenced by the male view of what they should and should not be. "Molly Pitcher" fetched water during the revolutionary war. Betsy Ross was a hero because of her sewing skills with the American flag.
As the country progressed and people started to move into cities from the countryside, women's roles increased. In early American history, they were not expected to do much more than work alongside their men as colonial farm wives and run the family's domestic affairs (unless they had slaves of course). Women however always played a large role in the family's religious upbringing, and that's the device that they started to make inroads to political power through.
The first two major issues that women played a large role in were the temperance movement which was a precursor to the prohibition movement and the abolition of slavery.
The temperance movement was an easy cause for women to get involved in as they were the unfortunate recipients of their husbands' abuses of alcohol. At a time in early American history when whiskey was literally used as currency and men had total control over their wives and daughters, this had to be an issue near and dear to their heart. The movement started out during the religious revivals of the mid 1800's as a way for man to become closer to God, but it was enthusiastically taken up by the women of the church as a way to improve family life through the reduction of drunkenness. This was a controversial issue at the time especially among immigrants and the heavy drinking population (the mixed drink was invented in America as a suitable breakfast drink).
Around the same time, northern women started to become involved in the slavery abolition movement as well. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and it wasn't uncommon for religious women to support both the temperance and the abolition causes as ways to improve the morality of the human race.
After a generation or two of women being active in issue politics, they started to agitate for the women's suffrage movement. By this time, it was too late for men to tell their wives to stay in the kitchen and they were ultimately successful although not until the end of World War I.
This is roughly the point we're up to in American history at the turn of the century. Great job ladies, you've come a long way.