Many people in the 1600s and 1700s never learned to read or write. Some towns didn't have schools. And there were no laws that said everyone had to attend school. More men than women were educated; women who received an education were mostly wealthy. Less-fortunate women seldom got the opportunity.
Women and girls were less likely to be taught to read because they weren't expected to have careers outside the home.
But the Puritans rejected this belief. They were a group that came to the New World from Europe to find freedom of worship. They believed in educating girls and women - rich, poor, and middle-class - so they could read the Bible for themselves.
As an English Puritan, young Anne Bradstreet (who lived from 1612 until 1672) was taught to read and write. Her father was steward of a great English lord's estate, so she had access to a nobleman's grand library. That gave the intelligent young woman an opportunity to keep learning. When she married, her dashing husband, Simon Bradstreet, also encouraged her. She would one day become America's first published poet and its first female writer.
A hundred years later, Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814) loved to to debate politics with her father and his friends. She became America's first woman playwright. She was also widely known for her skill at raising patriotic fervor for the American colonists before and during the Revolutionary War.
The historic accomplishments of both women have been undervalued. But they still have much to tell us. Each embodied the spirit of her own era - and the new spirit of freedom in early America.
During Women's History Month, let's take a closer look at these two pioneering women.
Imagine yourself on a journey across the sea - sailing aboard a small ship for nearly three months, packed in with other pioneers, and with meager supplies. Imagine crossing the freezing Atlantic Ocean, only to arrive weary and frightened in a vast wilderness where only a few people speak your language.
When Anne Bradstreet arrived at the Massachusetts Bay Colony with her family and her husband of two years, she was 18 years old.
The smart, cultured daughter of a prominent Puritan didn't like what she saw. "I found a new world and new manners at which my heart rose," she later wrote. What she meant was that she rebelled against the uncomfortable conditions and comfortless houses. She longed for her happy life in England.
Her father and her husband, Simon, helped run the new colonial government. Both would eventually serve as Massachusetts governors. Maintaining the Bradstreet home was Anne's job.
In a new biography, "Mistress Bradstreet: The Untold Life of America's First Poet," Charlotte Gordon tells Anne's gripping tale, including hardships and delights, in a clear, lively style.
Ms. Gordon says that when she was a young woman, she wanted to be both a mom and a writer. And she needed a role model who had done both.
"One of the things I love about Anne," says Gordon in a recent interview, "is the confidence she got from being a mom and how it enhanced her career.... I think young women need role models of smart, ambitious women who have achieved extraordinary things, and at the same time, they have been happy successful wives and mothers."
Remember that a woman of that era had to make the soap before she could wash the family's clothes by hand, help grow the food before she cooked it, and make the candles before she could illumine the night.
There wasn't much time for reading - let alone writing - for Anne, who would raise eight children and educate them at home.
Many of her best poems were written to her family. She wrote of her husband:
"If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;
If ever wife were happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if ye can."
Anne wrote verse with both historical and homely themes. Her brother-in-law took her manuscript to England and had her poems published as "The Tenth Muse, Lately Sprung up in America."
"She was the first person, male or female, to give voice to what it means to be an American," says Gordon. "Her idea ... was that we needed to be an example to all other countries, of virtue and righteousness."
The year is 1772 and a radical newspaper in Boston - The Massachusetts Spy - has just published a new play by an anonymous writer. The play, called "The Adulateur," pokes fun at Governor Hutchinson. He is the man appointed by England's King George to oversee the city and aid in his attempt to control the colonies from England.
The divide between those loyal to the English king and those who favor more control over their own city is growing increasingly wide. The play angers the Loyalists, but the patriots hail it as intelligent satire. Little does anyone realize that the writer is a rebel indeed - a woman!
In pre-Revolutionary America, very few women were published. But Mercy Otis Warren risked popular ridicule and was willing to take a risk for a just cause, said Cokie Roberts, author of "Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation," in a recent interview.
It was the men in her life who gave Mercy the courage to step beyond the traditional woman's place. "Her father essentially educated her with her brothers until [the boys] went to Harvard," says Ms. Roberts.
Mercy's husband, James Warren, "kept urging her on and telling her that what she was doing was important. He was her cheerleader. She would have been disappointing him if she didn't [write]," Roberts says.
Her friends John Adams and Samuel Adams gave her assignments. "When they thought that the rebellion needed spurring on, they asked her to write a play or a poem that would arouse the populace," she says.
In her book, Roberts writes that Mercy "became one of the great philosophers of independence." As tension between England and the American colonies grew, her plays sparked readers to consider separating from England, their mother country.
Mercy's plays were meant to be read, not performed, because theater performances were banned in Boston. Her play "The Group" appeared in the Boston Gazette in 1775. Two weeks after its publication, the first shots of the American Revolution were fired on Lexington Green.
After the Revolutionary War, Mercy wrote the first history of the American Revolution, published in 1805.
Roberts points out that this was Mercy's greatest accomplishment. "Her history of the Revolution is an incredible piece of work," she says. "She was living it, and she had access to all of the people who were making the decisions. She kept notes and did interviews. So she made an incredible contribution to the record, telling future generations what happened and why."
Mercy Warren challenged the boundaries of a "woman's place," as she dedicated her talents to the cause of liberty in America.