Prioritizing Women: A Historical Analysis

Jenna God is a student in the Robert E. Cook Honors College. The essays below is from her Freshman Honors Sociology Course focused on the organizing question “How do we understand and use the past?”


What is the conflict theory and how does it apply to both colonial-day women and present-day women? The New World Encyclopedia defines conflict theory as such: “conflict theory states that society or an organization functions so that each individual participant and its groups struggle to maximize their benefits, which inevitably contributes to social change such as political changes and revolutions.” The conflict theory that exists in our society leads to many forms of stratification (the layering of groups that occurs according to their relative resources, power, and status), but gender stratification may be the most widespread form of stratification as it intersects each other type of stratification because women fit into each group in some manner (poor women, women from developing countries, and women from each different race). In this paper, we will be looking at chapter 6 titled The Intimately Oppressed from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Zinn discusses the oppression of all women in the colonial days—ranging from the elite to the African slaves. Because the oppression of women still exists in the United States in similar forms as the colonial-days, women need feminism to assist in gaining true equality. That being said, many people now believe that feminism is obsolete. To combat this ideology, we will examine the various ways colonial men would oppress women, and then I will follow up with the present-day example of similar oppression and relate it to the sociological conflict theory and a form of stratification. Women have been plagued by the same oppression from the colonial days continuing into the present-day; because of the insistence of gender inequality, feminism is still a necessity.

Colonial men and present-day men utilized religion to oppress and manipulate women. Many of the colonists were acting evangelical Christians; because of their staunch adherence to religion, the women often saw their abuse as “God’s will” for their lives. Zinn notes the strong Christian teachings evident within the colonies: “All women were burdened with ideas carried over from England with the colonists, influenced by Christian teachings” (Zinn 105). These teachings carried into every aspect of a woman’s life and influenced the way colonial women were to dress, behave, and live. Few women attempted to gain control over the religious realm, but when they did, they were quickly silenced. Anne Hutchinson insisted that she could interpret the Bible on her own and was even able to cultivate a following. She was charged with heresy and was put on trial. Although the church and government likely did not approve of her teachings, they also did not approve of female religious leaders. She was banished from the colony and left for Rhode Island. The oppression of Anne Hutchinson likely sent a message to the other women in the colony to remain submissive or they too would suffer. (Zinn 107-108). The oppression of colonial women is exemplary of the conflict theory as the men were fighting to maximize men’s control but minimize women’s control through their sacred religions. Unfortunately, the religious oppression did not end in the colonial period but has instead continued into the present-day.


In the present-day, there are numerous examples of women that endure oppression and manipulation justified by their religions. In 2017, a case emerged in which a woman named Sally claims she endured her abusive husband because she “had believed that God wanted her to submit to her husband, and she did her best, bending to his will…” (Baird and Gleeson). Sally’s relationship is not unusual within religious circles, but unfortunately, many religious women do not believe they are victims of abuse. The religious oppression many women endure exists on a larger scale than most women believe. They believe, as Sally believed, that it was God’s will for them to be “submissive” to their husbands when they were actually being abused. Sally’s husband, just as the colonial men did, cited bible verses to justify his actions: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior” (Ephesians 5:22-23). It is evident that men and women are two essential opponents in the conflict theory. Men have taken advantage of women and oppressed them using their religion to ensure women stay at the lowest level of gender stratification, while men continue to prosper. For gender equality to exist in religious groups, the men of those groups must support and advocate for women in alongside the women who are already working towards equality. Without this support from other people in religious groups, gender equality will not prevail. Until women are treated with dignity and respect in religious circles, feminism will remain a necessity in the United States.

Anne Hutchinson - Puritan Dissenter
Trial of Anne Hutchinson:

Colonial men and present-day men oppress women by limiting and shaming their reproductive rights. Many men take it upon themselves to enact rules regarding women’s reproductive rights—whether it be the right to have children or the right to terminate a pregnancy.  In the colonies, women who had a child out of wedlock were viewed as prostitutes and endured harsh punishments while the father was never even chastised for his actions. One example of this was when Polly Baker had her fifth “bastard child” (Zinn 106). It is on record that she went to court and pleaded for mercy as she claimed to be obeying the first commandment from God to “increase and multiply” (Zinn 106). She was publicly shamed for her actions while the father remained untouched. The conflict theory and gender stratification became evident in the colonies when a child was conceived out of wedlock and the mother not only suffered public humiliation, but also was still responsible for the child. It is interesting to note that in colonial days, women who could not conceive were often seen as worthless. The insistence that women’s actions are wrong no matter what she does regarding reproduction is evident of a deeper issue: an absolute disregard for a woman’s autonomy. The conflict between men and women over who has the right to be a decision maker regarding a woman’s reproductive system has continued into the present-day.

In the present-day, unmarried women who have children are not considered criminals, but they often endure public shame as Polly Baker did; however, mirroring the attitude in the colonies, the father remains untouched by the public shame. Not only do men not receive any of the blame for pregnancy, but in 2015 less than 50 percent of the custodial parent population (this is the parent who acts as the primary caretaker, which is typically the mother) received their full child support payments while over 30 percent did not receive any payments (Child Support Payments). Men are equally responsible for the conception of a child, yet they are often uninterested in assisting raise the child. Additionally, women’s rights regarding the choice to terminate a pregnancy are heavily regulated and are a popular controversial topic. Women in the present-day endure oppression if they become unmarried mothers, but they will also endure oppression and shame if they decide to terminate the pregnancy. Many women have a positive outlook on children, and that may be true for most; however, an unwanted pregnancy that a woman is forced to carry to term can destroy her life, furthering lowering not only her gender stratification status, but also her social class stratification status. Journalist Ronnie Cohen asserts found that “Carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term quadrupled the odds that a new mother and her child would live below the federal poverty line” (Cohen). Men who insist a woman carries an unwanted pregnancy are typically not the ones who must suffer the consequences. Men should be held accountable for their actions just as women are; additionally, men should readily support women in the fight for complete bodily autonomy. Gender stratification will remain prevalent until men support the feminist movement in the United States, including the fight for female reproductive rights. Until then, the already dedicated women of the feminist movement must keep advocating for their rights.

Image result for Reproductive Rights
Center for Reproductive Rights

Colonial men and present-day men oppress women in the workforce. Colonial women were excluded from the workforce until the men were unable to work. Men in the colonial days only utilized women in the workforce when they were in need; otherwise, the women were forced into submissive roles. Examples of this include the eighteen wives of the first settlers who sailed on the Mayflower with their husbands. They worked alongside the men to create a life in the colonies and even took on a substantial amount of the work as the men died (Zinn 105). Those women were able to gain respect and a semblance of equality in the colonies. However, as more colonists arrived, so did their negative beliefs about a woman’s place in the world. Women were forced back into their original positions as homemakers and mothers until the necessity of their assistance on the frontier prevailed; it became impractical to disallow women to work on the frontier, so they took up jobs publishing newspapers, managing tanneries, and keeping taverns (Zinn 110). Additionally, the emergence of industry allowed more women to enter the workforce. Although these women were permitted to work in the factories, the conditions were brutal, and they were paid next to nothing. Women were only permitted to work when it was convenient to men; furthermore, when women were able to work, it was some of the worst jobs at the time with low pay. The Ohio History Central provides insght to the horrific conditions for women in the 1850s:

In 1850, a woman garment worker in a Cleveland factory earned 104 dollars per year. A woman working in a shoe factory in Cincinnati did slightly better at three dollars per week, but her employer routinely deducted the cost of supplies from her wages. During this period, factories were not heated or air-conditioned. Most of the factories also lacked sufficient light and ventilation. Women routinely worked in these conditions for twelve to fourteen hours per day, six days per week. If a woman was injured on the job, her employer provided her with no workers’ compensation or health care benefits (Ohio History Central)

This treatment of women in the workforce further proves the conflict theory between men and women—men use women (a resource) to gain more resources, then force them back into submission once they are no longer needed. Because women were scarcely allowed to work (and when they did the working conditions were horrific), it created lasting inequality in the workplace.

Inequality of women in the workplace is still evident in the present-day. Women now experience difficulties gaining respect in male-dominated fields and often experience a wage gap. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research reports that women are only earning about 81.1 cents for every dollar a man makes (Hegewisch and Hartmann). This wage gap assists in creating a wealth gap. Because wealth is an important resource to raise one’s social stratification, men use this as a tool to ensure women stay in a submissive position and further demonstrates he ever-present conflict between men and women. Alongside being underpaid, women often feel disrespected and undervalued in their workplaces. The men who work alongside these women must provide support and treat them as equals; even if a few men are willing to treat women properly in the workplace, it could cause a chain reaction in which other men do as well. Until women are compensated equally for their work and feel comfortable in their workplaces, will remain a necessity.

Image result for wage gap
Gender Wage Gap

Now that we have examined the necessity of feminism through a sociological perspective, what, therefore, should we do with this information? It would behoove all of us to ensure that each person we encounter is aware of the systematic oppression of women. Often times women are put down in ways that people do not even register: when a man speaks over a woman (consistently) because he believes her opinions are inferior to his, sexist jokes, and even demeaning phrases such as “you throw like a girl”, etc. Understanding the small ways that men oppress women and stopping them could be key to diminishing sexism in our lives. We can accomplish this through educating children at a young age on the importance of equality. Additionally, the comparisons between colonial day sexism and modern-day sexism should be made known to all. Although education is a good place to start and certainly serves as the foundation of gender equality, feminism requires the support of men. Women who are already working hard at advocating for women’s rights need the support of the other half of the population to ensure that not just laws, rules, and regulations are made, but that a change in the mindset of people occurs when they think about feminism and gender equality. Once everyone understands the necessity of feminism with the end-goal of gender equality, we can move forward as a human race and further build each other up.

The same oppression of women from the colonial days still evident in the present-day through religious oppression, female reproductive rights, and inequality in the workplace; female oppression manifested through the conflict theory and various forms of stratification speaks to the necessity of feminism. Women are regularly shamed by men who use the Bible and religion as a defense of their actions. Additionally, unwed women are often shamed if they get pregnant, and men also have control over the woman’s body and reproductive rights. Lastly, women are often seen as inferior and incapable in the workplace even though they are often more qualified than their male counterparts. Women in the present day 2019 should not be experiencing the same oppression their predecessors were plagued with hundreds of years ago. Because there is adequate evidence available to assert that women are still oppressed, feminism will remain a necessity in the United States.


Baird, Julia, Gleeson, Hayley. “’Submit to your husbands’: Women told to endure domestic violence in the name of God.” ABC News. 21 Oct. 2018.

“Child Support Payments Received by Custodial Parents.” United States Census Bureau, 30 Jan. 2018,

Cohen, Ronnie. “Denial of abortion leads to economic hardship for low-income women.” Reuters, 18 Jan. 2018.

“Conflict Theory.” New World Encyclopedia.

Hartmann, Heidi, Hegewisch, Ariane. “The Gender Wage Gap: 2018 Earnings Differences by Race and Ethnicity.” Institute for Women’s Policy Research. 7 March 2019.

“Women in the Industrial Workforce.” Ohio History Central.

Zinn, Howard. “A People’s History of the United States.” Longman Group UK Limited. 1980.


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