Women in 19th Century America: A Look at Some Secondary Sources

Hope Greenberg
History 351
Prof. Dona Brown
April 3, 1996

In the introduction to her 1995 The Civil War as a Crisis in Gender Lee Ann Whites reminds us that "while women are seen as participating in a 'women's history' of changing gender expectations and female roles, men simply make 'History'" (Whites, p.4). Her expectation that the reader will at least consider this a reasonable statement, or even accept it as obvious, is indicative of how much feminist scholars have contributed, over the past two decades, to our current understanding of history. Growing from the models of social history, which recognizes and seeks out a history of "ordinary people," and the women's movement, that reasserted that women are people, too, and colored by the more recent ideas of gender as a social construction, works that explore women's roles in the nineteenth century now abound. And, unless a contemporary work of social history excludes women due to a particularly narrow focus, it is generally understood that women will have some part in the contents.

Nancy F. Cott's The Bonds of Womanhood: "Woman's Sphere" in New England, 1780 1835, published in 1977, did much to define the direction of later works on the role of women in the early and mid-nineteenth century. Drawing on letters and journals of women of New England, Cott looks at several aspects of women's lives during this period. She begins with the area of work, pointing out that women were considered secondary to men in economic life and that a woman's property and earnings belonged to her husband or nearest male relative. She concludes that men's work, as it became time disciplined or constrained and regulated, was differentiated more and more from women's work that was needs driven, continued to be somewhat seasonally determined, and varied based on the needs of the family. She accedes that young unmarried women had slightly greater flexibility, often not by choice but by family needs, being able to teach or being required to find employment in textile mills. However, she is quick to point out that this work was meant to augment a family income, not to be the sole means of support for the woman or her family. She does not venture into the realm of the very poor woman, or the non-Anglo woman.

Like Cott, Paul E. Johnson's A ShopKeeper's Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837, explores the early nineteenth century move from household production for the extended family to a market economy. But, while Cott, in keeping with her perspective, examines its impact on women, and more tellingly, as individuals left inside the home by the exodus of the male "breadwinner," Johnson traces the impact of this change through the political and economic realm, i.e. that which is outside the home. Though he mentions in passing the "homes of women that sewed shoes together" (Johnson, p. 39) he describes his model of the transformation of home-based production to shop- or factory-based as "the separation of men who made shoes from those who sold them." (Johnson, p. 39)

Having postulated that the gender-based division of labor took men increasingly outside the home while relegating women to inside the home, Cott next looks at domesticity. A consequence of the changing workplace is a diminution in the definition and size of the family from one which includes extended kin networks as well as fellow workers, to one that includes only immediate blood relations. A consequence for women of this narrowing was the increased importance of the marriage choice: if a woman's future vocation and very life depended on and would be bounded by the household of her spouse alone, then that choice could be seen as the most important of her life. Paradoxically, in the wake of a decreased need for domestic manufacture to provide for the family, Cott sees married women's domestic roles beginning to emulate mens. Domesticity comes to mean managing the home, developing a household economy, organizing tasks and treating homemaking as a vocation that must be taught and learned, that is, it becomes regulated and time disciplined.

Johnson's concerns with domesticity are quite different. For the early years of his study, he sees home as the expanded workshop. As these workshops change to factories and the "masters" retreat to their hill homes, he follows his workers into the factory and, when they retreat homeward, to the neighborhood grocery stores and grog shops. From here it is but one step to the male-centered worlds of politics, Masons, and Antimasons. Johnson does not penetrate the homes of either boss or worker, so we are left wondering what life is like there, and what the mothers, wives and sisters do when their men are plotting the future of Rochester.

Cott meets us at that very threshold and takes us inside. As women lost their roles as domestic manufacturers and providers, their role as mothers was thrown into higher relief. Moreover, it became imbued with a new importance. If the future of this new republic lay in its children, and the mothers were the primary caretakers of those children, then the moral character of the entire nation depended on the abilities of those mothers. Cott explores the increased opportunities in education and religious expression that this new role encouraged.

Young unmarried women had had the opportunity to become teachers of small primary schools and girls' schools. But as support for the idea that future mothers needed to be educated in order to educate future citizens grew, support for women teachers and scholars grew as well. Helped, no doubt, by the fact that women, who were not expected to pay taxes or support a family on their earnings, commanded lower salaries, opportunities opened for women teachers. Girls who had earlier been satisfied with an education in "accomplishments" now found their curricula broadening. Increased literacy, both a contribution to and a result of increased education, fueled an expanding publishing industry, providing both a market to sell to and a host of new authors.

Education does not play a part in Johnson's study, focusing as it does on the political dimensions of the Second Great Awakening. Both Cott and Johnson see this new revival religion in a social or public dimension. Johnson stresses how this change absolved leaders of yet another level of responsibility to their community through such statements as: "It was the duty of Christian gentlemen not to govern them and accept responsibility for their actions but to educate them and change their hearts." Cott, however, stresses how this new model of religion created opportunities for women to move in a limited way, into the public sphere as reformers and as "moral guardians."

Cott is particularly interested in stressing the ways religion also allowed women to justify giving "attention to one's own thoughts, actions, and prospects" in "contrast to the self-abnegation required . . .in their domestic vocation" (Cott, p.140) as well as the opportunities it provided for socially sanctioned activities in organizing and directing public events. Both Cott and Johnson stress that ""being a Christian in this period meant becoming a member of a voluntary community not only in a psychological but in a literal sense, for piety implied group evangelical activity." (Cott, p. 142) Johnson is content to say "housewives assumed new kinds of moral authority . . . [H]undreds of conversions culminated when husbands prayed with their wives. Women formed the majorities of every church. . ." He continues by saying that in "performing those duties, women rose out of the old subordinate roles and extended their moral authority within families." (Johnson, p. 108) Again he is content to leave women in the domestic sphere.

It is precisely this role, that of moral authority within families that Cott questions and that later scholars challenge. According to Cott, while the social world, particularly that defined by ministers "used the concept of "women's sphere" to esteem female importance while containing it" evangelical Christianity, by "promoting women in activities deemed appropriate for their sex. . .nourished the formation of a female community that served them as both a resource and a resort outside the family." (Cott, p. 159) Thus, the bonds that the social order erected to contain women's activities and power also acted to strengthen the bonds of sisterhood between women, which, unfortunately, may have helped perpetuate the bonds that promoted the restriction of women to their own "sphere."

It is this question, the nature, strength, and effect of these bonds, as well as the quintessential nature of the women bound by them, that has surfaced frequently in the study of nineteenth century women's roles over the course of the last twenty years. Much of that time has also been spent unearthing and republishing the words written by women. Cott's earlier work The Root of Bitterness; Documents of the Social History of American Women (1972) is just such an example. Other scholars have labored to rediscover and republish that pariah of literature, published works written by women. A growing number of scholars have become engaged in piercing the dense canonical curtain best summarized by Fred Lewis Pattee in The Feminine Fifties that argues, roughly (or roughly argues): women's fiction glorifies sentiment; sentiment is bad; ergo, women's fiction is bad.

Barbara Welter, whose Dimity Convictions: the American Woman in the Nineteenth Century was published the year before Cott's Bonds of Womanhood, produced the definition of the middle class nineteenth century American woman, characterized by piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity, that has only recently been questioned.1 This trickle of works that examine women, womanhood, their public and private lives and roles and their private and public writing has become a flood. Mary Ryan, since publishing Womanhood in America, from Colonial Times to the Present in 1975, has continued to explore these roles through such works as The Empire of the Mother: American Writing about Domesticity, and, more recently in Women in Public : Between Banners and Ballots. Nina Baym, through such works as Women's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America and Novels, Readers, and Reviewers: Responses to Fiction in Antebellum America has striven to approach the literature from within its cultural context. Susan Coultrap-McQuin has examined the women and their writing careers in Doing Literary Business; American Women Writers in the Nineteenth Century.

A number of scholars have been caught up in these questions of gender, women writers, and public roles vs. private spheres. Mary Kelley, though chided by Baym for coloring her work with a bit too much late twentieth century feminism,2 provided an excellent look at this subject in her Private Woman, Public Stage: Literary Domesticity in Nineteenth Century America and explores gender with Jeanne Boydston and Anne Margolies in The Limits of Sisterhood. A number of scholars continue to expand the scope of the discussion in such works as A Living of Words: American Women in Print Culture edited by Susan Albertine, Redefining the Political Novel by Sharon Harris and Our Sister Editors: Sarah J. Hale and the Tradition of Nineteenth Century American Women Editors by Patricia Okker.

In the face of this growing body of woman-centered scholarship, indeed of feminist study in general, it is difficult to read a work like A Shopkeepers Millennium without noticing the glaring absence of women. Recent work in gender studies that question the validity of sharply defined public vs. private spheres for nineteenth century women, particularly those of the working class3 or even that which questions the essentially dualist view of gender, as well as questions about how the propagation of a white middle class community based on the value of domesticity actually hid inequity in race and class, might make Cott's work seem equally suspect. It is, of course, the historians prerogative to incorporate today's thought into the ongoing quest for understanding, castigate yesterday's thought as lacking insight, and generally pick over everything before that, looking for reflections of the time and culture that produced it. But, despite this, both The Shopkeeper's Millennium and The Bonds of Womanhood, providing two quite distinct vantage points of this period,provide excellent grist for the historians' mill.

1Mary P. Hiatt finds a surprising lack of these characteristics in her study of women's short fiction, Style and the "Scribbling Women": an Empirical Analysis of Nineteenth-century American Fiction.
2cf. Baym's review of Kelly's work in American Quarterly, V36, N4, 1984.
3 See Karen V. Hansen's A Very Social Time: Crafting Community in Antebellum New England.

This file is part of Hope Greenberg's graduate portfolio for the course History 351. Created 24 March 1997.