Women in 19th-Century America

The 19th century in American history was marked by change, development and war. The 18th century had ended with the American Revolutionary War (1775 – 1783), also known as the American War of Independence. This war between the Kingdom of Great Britain and thirteen British colonies in North America resulted in the formation of the United States of America in July 1776. One of the most important events in 19th century America was the nationwide abolishment of slavery after the American Civil War (1861 – 1865). This war was fought between the so-called Confederate States of America, consisting of eleven states in the south that supported slavery, and the so-called Union, comprising twenty-five states, in most of which slavery had already been abolished.

Due to the diversity of ethnic, racial and social groups in 19th century America, it is impossible to give one definition of women's role in society at that time. In addition, the role of women saw some development during this period of 100 years.

Native Americans, or American Indians, lived in tribes during the 19th century, as they did before the arrival of the white Europeans to the New World. At that time almost all tribes practiced polygamy, meaning that a man could have several wives as long as he could support them. Indian women had a lot of responsibilities in the family, they did all the farming, took care of the children and the household. Men, in contrast, were mainly responsible for hunting. Women in Indian tribes could also hold respectful positions such as prophets, midwives, medicine women and even warriors.

During most of the 19th century African-American women were generally slaves with responsibilities mainly in the house. They took care of the housework and looked after their masters' children; some were even used to work in the fields. After finishing working for their white masters, female slaves went back home to do more housework there. However, most slaves did not have real families, as black families were often separated due to the slave trade. There were also some free African-American women, mainly in the northern US states, where slavery was prohibited. Some had fled from their masters in the south and others had been born to previously freed slaves.

White women in 19th century America were not a homogeneous group. There were lower-class women who were mainly daughters to poor farmers and had to work in order to help support their families. They often worked as maids or nannies in higher-class families, but also as nurses, midwives, dressmakers. At the same time they also had to take care of their own households and children.

At the beginning of the 19th century Francis Cabot Lowell (1775 – 1817) was the first businessman to offer women employment in the industry. In 1813 Lowell established a textile factory, in which he employed girls and women, paying them lower wages than men but at the same time offering them certain benefits, including religious and educational activities. The so-called Lowell mill girls were able to save up money to support their families and also to achieve certain economic independence that gave them the freedom to choose whom to marry.

Even upper-class white women had a lot of responsibilities in the home during the 19th century. Young unmarried girls who lived with their parents were used to being pampered and living in luxury. However, after they got married, girls in the south usually had to oversee the household work and the work in the plantations. In addition, women usually took care of a small garden and some domestic animals.

In general, women in 19th century America, including higher-class white women, had no or very limited political rights. This era was marked by women's struggle to win themselves the right to vote and run for office, which became more prominent after the Civil War. Women's suffrage in the Unites States was achieved gradually, culminating in 1920 when the Nineteenth Amendment to the constitution was ratified nationwide.

In addition to the lack of political rights, women in 19th century America had very limited education and career opportunities. At this time a woman's place was mostly in the home, her own or someone else's. Those women who worked outside the home and earned wages had to work long hours and still earned less money than men. There were generally very few professions that were considered suitable for women, such as teaching, writing and home nursing.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Columbia Guide to American Women in the Nineteenth Century
Catherine Clinton; Christine Lunardini.
Columbia University Press, 2000
The American Victorian Woman: The Myth and the Reality
Mabel Collins Donnelly.
Greenwood Press, 1986
No Small Courage: A History of Women in the United States
Nancy F. Cott.
Oxford University Press, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "Breaking New Ground: 1800-1848," Chap. 5 "An Unfinished Battle: 1848-1865," Chap. 6 "Laborers for Liberty: 1865-1890"
Inventing the American Woman: An Inclusive History
Glenda Riley.
Harlan Davidson, vol.1, 2001 (3rd edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "'True' Women in Industrial and Westward Expansion," Chap. 4 "'Moral' Women Reshaping American Life and Values," Chap. 5 "'Womanly Strength of the Nation': The Civil War and Reconstruction"
Making the American Home: Middle-Class Women & Domestic Material Culture, 1840-1940
Marilyn Ferris Motz; Pat Browne.
Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1988
So Much to Be Done: Women Settlers on the Mining and Ranching Frontier
Ruth B. Moynihan; Susan Armitage; Christiane Fischer Dichamp.
University of Nebraska Press, 1990
Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States
Alice Kessler-Harris.
Oxford University Press, 1983
Librarian’s tip: Part I "Forming the Female Wage Labor Force: Colonial America to the Civil War," Part II "The Idea of Home and Mother at Work: The Civil War to World War I"
Southern Women: Black and White in the Old South
Sally G. McMillen.
Harlan Davidson, 2002
Neither Lady nor Slave: Working Women of the Old South
Susanna Delfino; Michele Gillespie.
University of North Carolina Press, 2002
Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South
Stephanie M. H. Camp.
University of North Carolina Press, 2004
Women of the Grange: Mutuality and Sisterhood in Rural America, 1866-1920
Donald B. Marti.
Greenwood Press, 1991
The Great Silent Army of Abolitionism: Ordinary Women in the Antislavery Movement
Julie Roy Jeffrey.
University of North Carolina Press, 1998
Patriotic Toil: Northern Women and the American Civil War
Jeanie Attie.
Cornell University Press, 1998
The (Other) American Traditions: Nineteenth-Century Women Writers
Joyce W. Warren.
Rutgers University Press, 1993
We the Women: Career Firsts of Nineteenth-Century America
Madeleine B. Stern.
University of Nebraska Press, 1994
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