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.
Riding the Tiger
William McKinley's Democratic opponent in the 1895 presidential election, William Jennings Bryan was considered the greatest orator of his time and the audio recording of this speech shows why.
The "Cross of Gold" speech was primarily about one of the greatest political issues of the late 1800's, the gold standard which led to a stable U.S. currency vs. a bimetallic standard which would lead to a weaker dollar and would favor the borrowers who were primarily farmers and other "common" people. It's one of the best known speeches in American history and the entire transcript and full audio are available at this website.
Bryan was first and foremost a populist and came down squarely against the gold standard that favored the creditors and the wealthy.
This speech had so many common political themes, not just rich vs. poor and inflation vs. a stable currency, but other modern issues as well. The income tax, which was declared unconstitutional at the time, the battle over how to identify the rich; as job creators vs. vulture capitalists, the 99% etc. Business vs. labor and the difference between being a radical and a mainstream liberal. It's really striking to listen to this speech and see how similar the conversation was of a comparatively agrarian America with such a simpler economy compared with the service driven, global economy we have now.
The major difference between then and now was that politicians would commonly praise the regular people they were supposed to represent, but would never be expected to speak like them. You didn't have a George W. Bush going pheasant hunting and saying y'all in presidential speeches or anything of the sort. In fact, even Barack Obama who's probably the best orator we've had in the last twenty years (I still think Reagan was better) would have seemed overly casual at this time.
I miss the days when Presidents or candidates for President were expected to be smarter, not dumber than the populace.
Here's some excerpts of the "Cross of Gold" speech:
On the income tax:
They tell us that this platform was made to catch votes. We reply to them that changing conditions make new issues; that the principles upon which rest Democracy are as everlasting as the hills; but that they must be applied to new conditions as they arise. Conditions have arisen and we are attempting to meet those conditions. They tell us that the income tax ought not to be brought in here; that is not a new idea. They criticize us for our criticism of the Supreme Court of the United States. My friends, we have made no criticism. We have simply called attention to what you know. If you want criticisms, read the dissenting opinions of the Court. That will give you criticisms.
They say we passed an unconstitutional law. I deny it. The income tax was not unconstitutional when it was passed. It was not unconstitutional when it went before the Supreme Court for the first time. It did not become unconstitutional until one judge changed his mind; and we cannot be expected to know when a judge will change his mind.
The income tax is a just law. It simply intends to put the burdens of government justly upon the backs of the people. I am in favor of an income tax. When I find a man who is not willing to pay his share of the burden of the government which protects him, I find a man who is unworthy to enjoy the blessings of a government like ours.
The gentleman from Wisconsin has said he fears a Robespierre. My friend, in this land of the free you need fear no tyrant who will spring up from among the people. What we need is an Andrew Jackson to stand as Jackson stood, against the encroachments of aggregated wealth.
On labor relations:
If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we shall fight them to the uttermost, having behind us the producing masses of the nation and the world. Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.