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American Women In The Early 19th Century

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The American Woman of the Early Nineteenth Century

Perceptions of Women in the 19th Century

During the early 1800s, Americans generally believed that there was a definite difference in character between the sexes -- man was active, dominant, assertive, and materialistic, while woman was religious, modest, passive, submissive, and domestic. As a result, there developed an ideal of American womanhood, or a "cult of true womanhood" as denoted by historian Barbara Welter. This cult, evident in women's magazines and religious literature of the day, espoused four basic attributes of female character: piety, purity, submissiveness,domesticity.

1) Religion/Piety was the "core of woman's virtue, the source of her strength" (Welter, 21). Religion was a gift of God, given so that the "Universe might be Enlightened, Improved, and Harmonized by WOMAN!! (Philadelphia, 1840, quoted in Welter, 22). Women were expected to be the "handmaids of the Gospel," serving as a purifying force in the lives of erring men. Women naturally possessed virtues of faith, simplicity, goodness, self-sacrifice, tenderness, affection, sentimentality, and modesty.

2) Purity was an essential characteristic to maintain one's virtue against the continuous "assault" of the more aggressive male. To protect one's self, Mrs. Eliza Farrar recommended in The Young Lady's Friend (1837): Sit not with another in a place that is too narrow; read not out of the same book; let not your eagerness to see anything induce you to place your head close to another person's."

Eliza Farnham stressed the importance of preserving one's innocence and demonstrating female moral superiority, concluding that "the purity of women is the everlasting barrier against which the tides of man's sensual nature surge" (Welter, 24-25).

3) Submissiveness required women to accept their positions in life willingly and obediently, thereby affirming God had appointed them to that special position. Godey's Lady's Book of 1831 emphasized this attribute: The lesson of submission is forced upon woman...To suffer and to be silent under suffering seems the great command she has to obey. (Welter, 30)

Likewise, Samuel Jennings advocated complete submission in The Married Lady's Companion (New York, 1808): [Marriage rests on a] condition of a loving and cheerful submission on the part of the wife. Here again you object and say, "Why not the husband, first show a little condescension as well as the wife?" I answer for these plain reasons. It is not his disposition; it is not the custom but with the henpecked; it is not his duty; it is not implied in the marriage contract; it is not required by law or gospel;...when you became a wife, he became your head, and your supposed superiority was buried in that voluntary act.

Much of this reasoning was founded upon Ephesians 5:22-23, which commanded "Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husband, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the family, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body."

4) Domesticity, or the cheerful performance of social, household, and family duties, was highly prized by women's magazines of the day. Women were expected to comfort and cheer, to nurse and support, to manage and oversee. Housework was to be viewed as a morally uplifting mental and physical exercise. Marriage was the proper sphere for women where, according to Rev. Samuel Miller (1808), she could fulfill her divinely ordained mission: How interesting and important are the duties devolved on females as WIVES....the counsellor and friend of the husband; who makes it her daily study to lighten his cares, to soothe his sorrows, and augment his joys; who, like a guardian angel, watches over his interests, warns him against dangers, comforts him under trials; and by her pious, assiduous, and attractive deportment, constantly endeavors to render him more virtuous, more useful, more honorable, and more happy.(Welter, 37-38)

Thus, popular women's literature perpetuated an image of the "perfect woman" -- the loving wife, the caring mother, the responsible housekeeper. While social reform movements, industrialization, migration, and other social forces instilled changes which eventually affected the status of women in American society, the "true" woman was that female at home, "the Valiant Woman of the Bible, in whom the heart of her husband rejoiced and whose price was above rubies" (Welter, 41).

Legal Status of Women

Despite the moral and religious significance of women, American society was predominantly designed for men. Legally, women were strictly dependent and unequal. Harriet Martineau confirmed this by noting the "political nonexistence of women." Since American law followed the principles established in 1765 by the English barrister Sir William Blackstone, it was asserted and accepted in America that "by marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law; that is, the very being and legal existence of the woman is suspended during marriage." Essentially, the wife "belonged" to her husband. He had a right to the person and property of his wife; he could use "gentle restraint upon her liberty to prevent improper conduct;" he could beat her without fear of prosecution. Thus, it was very clear that "the wife is dead in law" (Pessen, 49).

National and state constitutions included little mention of the rights of women. In most cases, her right to hold property was either denied or restricted, and she had no right to make a will, enter a contract, or sue in court without her husband's consent. Children belonged to the woman's husband, and he could dispense with them as he pleased in his will. Naturally, only white male citizens of the United States, age 21 years or older, and resident of Indiana for at least one full year, could vote.

Women were affected by other aspects of the law. Divorces were possible and usually granted upon grounds of desertion, adultery, or habitual drunkenness. The court divided the estate on the basis of its own conscience and also considered the custody of children. Abortions were against the law and carried a maximum fine of one year imprisonment and $500. Males convicted of adultery were subject to fines of $300; however, women could be sentenced to three months in prison. Indiana law also stated that if a female was convicted of any crime that usually carried a prison sentence for a male, her sentence could be changed to hard labor at her respective county jail.

"It was very obvious that women were in less

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