Image found on Warder, G. (2015). Women in nineteenth-century America. Retrieved 09 Sept. 2019 from http://www.disabilitymuseum.org/dhm/edu/essay.html?id=18.
The concept of “separate spheres” for men and women was pervasive, especially among middle-to-upper-class people. Of course, women in the lower classes and among non-European and immigrant groups worked to feed, house, and clothe their families and no one seemed to find it shocking because, well … class and race. But what led to this notion of separate sphere? I suspect that much of it was connected to the Industrial Revolution.
The Industrial Revolution had several phases and is acknowledged to have had a first phase, which occurred in Great Britain in the 1700s. The result was that the shift from an agrarian-based economy to an economy based on industrial production and consumption caused a huge upheaval in Britain. Factories sprouted up in cities and people flocked to them in search of employment. But soon problems arose from this boom in urban populations, among them were crowded and inferior housing, crime, and a spike in alcoholism made possible by access to cheap gin. And this put the nation on the edge of a crisis. As a result, a host of reformers arose at that time to address the nation’s issues. One of them was a guy named John Wesley, the founder of Methodism (my character Maggie’s faith community).
In the British colonies in North America, the Industrial Revolution did not arrive until after their establishment as an independent nation. It is generally believed that the first wave industrial wave in the United States began around 1790 and continued through the 1860s. It was followed by a second wave of industrialization from the 1870s until about 1914 or thereabout.
Maggie’s world of Civil War America was not as heavily industrialized or urbanized as the last decades the nineteenth century, yet it still experienced the impact of industrialization. Up until the nineteenth century the United States and its colonial predecessors had been largely rural and agrarian. We had towns and cities, of course, but these were nothing like the cities we know today. Twenty-first century New York City with its world of skyscrapers, wall-to-wall traffic and people, business and busyness would have blown even the mind of my free-thinking Eli Smith.
But as in Britain, the Industrial Revolution in the USA brought an explosion of factories and urbanization. With them also came enormous cultural changes. One earth-shaking change was how time was perceived. In earlier eras the passage of time was measured by seasons of the year and by daily activities. The day ran from sunrise to sunset. The work people pursued depended upon the time of the year. As the factory system emerged and grew, time became more regimented. People no longer worked until the job was done but according to schedule. They also did the same activity day in and day out.
Another change occurred in the home, particularly among those in the upper- to middle-classes. Men left the home and went off to the rough and tumble “world of work.” On the other hand, women were expected to remain in the home and tend to household chores and raising children. As a result, perceptions of men and women’s natures underwent a shift. Men came to be seen as coarse, instinct-driven, amoral at best and immoral at worst, while women were perceived to be pure, spiritual, and moral. Men therefore were meant to be “out there” among the danger and corruption, while women were designed to keep the home a safe haven, raise virtuous children, and see to the family’s religious training.
When I was an adjunct professor, my students frequently were stunned when I produced the laundry list of things women couldn’t do in the nineteenth century. Examples: a woman could not vote in national elections and frequently could not vote in state or local elections; she could not hold public office; once a woman married she became a femme covert (a “covered woman” who was absorbed into her husband’s household rather than existing as an independent human being); in some states marriage meant a woman no longer could own property or have the right to any income she earned; she could not deliver a speech to a group of men or to a mixed group of men and women; she could not lead or vote in most organizations, such as the abolition movement, although she could lead and vote in groups comprised only of women; and a woman could not be a clergy person, nor could she preach or lead a church, although she could “exhort” (encourage).
Not surprisingly, the “rules” changed somewhat as one went down the social ladder. They also changed according to a woman’s race. So, a lower-class woman could work in a factory; slave women and the wives of farmers could work in the fields; and the wife of a shopkeeper could work with her husband, but most other professions and jobs were closed to women – although some did manage to break through. Exceptions also emerged as non-native people moved westward. In frontier areas women frequently had greater opportunity to break the rules and flex their creativity, skills, and talents.
I routinely bring these women’s issues into the Saint Maggie series to highlight the struggle for women’s rights, something which began in earnest in the USA during the 1800s. Maggie’s illustrates this change, commenting that she hopes her daughters will be able to more than she was allowed to do. And indeed they seem to be going there.
Throughout the series, Frankie feels called to ministry and is trying to find ways to answer that call, even though she is blocked from ordination by most Protestant denominations. Lydia begins her journey as the family’s official “nurse” (an in-house job open to all women) but who goes on to become a midwife and a doctor.
Although Maggie does editing and writing for husband Eli’s newspaper, the upcoming novel, A Good Community, pushes her into a more prominent position. It feels to me that she goes into it kicking and screaming. Maggie does not believe that wider opportunities are meant for a woman in her early 40s. But she’s wrong. As Eli tells her, she’s powerful, but she just doesn’t know it yet.
Have a good week!
See you on Friday.
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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder