Women in Nineteenth-Century America
by Dr. Graham Warder, Keene State College
During the first half of the nineteenth century, the evangelical fires of the Second Great Awakening swept the nation. With the Second Great Awakening came the rise of a more active and optimistic religious sensibility. During the same decades, the role of women in America changed. These two significant events in the social and cultural history of the United States, evangelical Protestantism and the transformation in the ways women thought and lived, were closely linked. The typical convert in the revivals was a young women, and it was usually through these early converts that other members of her family were converted. The religious and moral authority such an experience provided helped to redefine what it meant to be a woman.
The other great transformation of the period, the Market Revolution, also played a significant role in changes in gender roles. The Market Revolution refers to the commercialization of economic life and the decline of subsistence farming as the most common way Americans lived. For the first time, factories appeared. As textiles were increasingly manufactured in mills such as those in Lowell, Massachusetts, women, at least those of the comfortable middle class, spent far less time spinning and weaving cloth.
As household production by women declined and the traditional economic role of women diminished, the “home” appeared as a topic to be discussed and an ideal to be lauded. Less a place of production than a spiritually sanctified retreat from the hurly-burly of economic life, the home was where women nurtured men and children into becoming morally elevated beings. It could be said that what we think of as the traditional “home” was actually an invention of nineteenth-century Americans.
In colonial America, men were considered superior to woman –- in all ways, even in terms of morality. In a world of strict patriarchal hierarchy, men controlled not only wealth and political power but also how their children were raised, religious questions, and all matters of right and wrong. In the early part of the nineteenth century, however, many Americans experienced a revolution in gender. What we now view as old-fashioned and even oppressive was then new and potentially liberating.
The doctrine of “separate spheres” maintained that woman’s sphere was the world of privacy, family, and morality while man’s sphere was the public world -– economic striving, political maneuvering, and social competition. Each sex, according to Catherine Beecher, was superior within its assigned sphere, and thus a sort of equality was achieved. Beecher believed that “it is in America, alone, that women are raised to an equality with the other sex.” This very influential woman, the daughter of the prominent minister Lyman Beecher and the sister of the author Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote in her “Treatise on Domestic Economy,”
“In civil and political affairs, American women take no interest or concern, except so far as they sympathize with their family and personal friends; but in all cases, in which they do feel a concern, their opinions and feelings have a consideration, equal, or even superior, to that of the other sex.
“In matters pertaining to the education of their children, in the selection and support of a clergyman, in all benevolent enterprises, and in all questions relating to morals or manners, they have a superior influence.”
From the very beginning, however, the lines between the spheres were neither as rigid nor as absolute as the ideology asserted them to be. Moral and religious issues invariably affected public life, and public life invariably affected what happened within women’s sphere. Ironically, among women of the Northern middle class, domesticity became a resource by which they could assume increasingly public voices. Catherine Beecher, though she never advocated women’s suffrage, was a woman who enjoyed public renown through her widely read writings. Similarly, the writers of bestselling domestic fiction, usually women, enjoyed widespread public acclaim.
American women, if we accept Beecher’s views as the mainstream of nineteenth-century gender norms, dominated religion, morality, and benevolence. They generally exerted their influence through the home, a utopian space that nurtured children and sheltered husbands. Women would create a moral citizenry and a populace imbued with Protestant evangelical beliefs.
From this view of the home as a vehicle for moral purity came many social reform efforts. Combined with the religious optimism of the Second Great Awakening, the worship of the power of the home led to old institutions being transformed and new ones being created. Penitentiaries, asylums, temperance societies, and schools all attempted to change individuals in settings modeled on the middle-class home of the American North.
Since women, due to their “natural” moral superiority, dominated the home, they had a special voice — if not real political power — in these reforms. Womanhood, at least within the middle class, denoted moral authority, and the lives of real women were thereby changed. Without this new attribution of moral authority and without an asylum movement that was founded upon the premise that a home-like environment could nurture people back to psychic health, the career of Dorothea Dix, for example, would have been unthinkable.
Johnson, Paul E., and Sean Wilentz, The Kingdom of Matthias (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
Ryan, Mary, Cradle of the Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County, New York, 1790-1865 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981).
Sellers, Charles, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Warder, G. (2015). Women in nineteenth-century America. Retrieved (date accessed) from http://www.disabilitymuseum.org/dhm/edu/essay.html?id=18.