Image: “Teaching the Scriptures.” L. Sigourney, Religious Souvenir of 1840, p. 155, Van Pelt Library, Special Collections, University of Pennsylvania. (I found the image on page 133 of Colleen McDannell’s book, The Christian Home in Victorian America, 1840-1900 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986).
Before the Industrial Revolution in the United States, towns had shops. They always had them, of course. Towns were where the people in the countryside came to shop. Most shop proprietors lived above their store or nearby, and it was not unusual for family members to help in the shop.
Meanwhile, out in the country, farms were a family business, too. Folks together lived in the farmhouse and everyone pitched in from youngest to oldest to help the family’s economy. Younger children may have collected eggs and fed the chickens or done weeding. Older children may have helped with the planting and harvesting or milked and fed the cows. Women helped in the fields, but also saw to making the family’s meals, aided by daughters and young boys. Clothing manufacture was female occupation – everything from spinning yarn, to weaving cloth, to making clothing.
In short, people lived at or near where they worked, and the family’s economic well-being was the responsibility of everyone in that family.
But the Industrial Age changed this arrangement.
Among the working classes, farmers’ daughters might be sent to work in a textile mill. The reason why probably had something to do with the “clothing manufacture is female work” thing. But it also may have been a “most expendable family member” thing in that the person who did the least crucial work on the farm was sent to the factory.
Within a short time, men, women, and children were working in factories and moving near urbanizing centers. Imagine the disruption this caused to the former concept of family life. Imagine the disruption to family cohesion as members went to work at different factories. It is possible that one’s efforts ceased to matter as much as the amount of money one brought home.
In upper- and middle-class households, there was disruption, too. Men went off to the rough and tumble “world of work,” while women were expected to remain home and tend to the household chores and the raising of children. And this led to a shift in how men and women’s natures were perceived.
Because a man worked in an environment that could be dishonest, backstabbing, and dirty, his nature came be understood as amoral at best and immoral at worst. On the other hand, a woman stayed in the home, away from business and politics, so her nature came to be understood as pure and moral. The man did business, brought home the bacon, and sought a brief respite from the evils of the world in the idealized peace and calm of the home. The woman’s job was to keep the home peaceable, clean, and safe and to see to the family’s spiritual health.
The shifting of spiritual responsible to women’s sphere stood at odds with earlier attitudes that claimed the father set the family’s spiritual tone. A colonial-era father was expected to lead family devotions and exhibit a Christian lifestyle. By the nineteenth-century, these things became the mother’s job, especially when it came to the children. She was the one who was expected to shape the children spiritually.
Strangely enough, their mothers and grandmothers had a certain degree of freedom during the colonial era, but nineteenth-century women experienced a tightening of the boundary lines across which they were expected not to step.
When I was an adjunct professor, I frequently stunned my students by giving them a laundry list of things women couldn’t do in the nineteenth century. Apparently no one had told them this: a woman could not vote in national elections and frequently could not vote in state or local elections; she could not hold public office; and once a woman married she became a femme covert (a “covered woman”) which meant she was absorbed into her husband’s household and personhood. Marriage could mean that a woman no longer was permitted to own property or have a right to any income she earned, although there were states who did not have those property and income laws (for example New Jersey). A woman 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 preach or lead a church, although she could “exhort” (encourage).
That was the ideal for all womanhood. And yet notice the obvious disjuncture: a lower-class woman could work in a factory; the wife of a farmer could work in the fields; and the wife of a shopkeeper could work with her husband. That was about it for white women. As for enslaved women, they did everything from back-breaking field labor to specialized tasks for the owner’s family. And, of course, let’s not forget the prostitutes. Decent women never spoke about them and men obviously did much more than merely speak. The types of women I just mentioned were outside the “sphere of womanhood” or the ideal of “true womanhood.” So, what did this outsider status make them? My guess is that they were not perceived as women.
Tomorrow, a woman who broke the rules: Margaret Fuller.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder