Redefining Woman's Sphere: New England's Antebellum Female Textile Operatives' Magazines and the Response to the "Cult of True Womanhood"

Article excerpt

In October 1846, the Exeter, New Hampshire-based Factory Girls 'Album and Mechanics ' Offering issued a stern rebuke to the middle-class charge that working women were disrespectable:

[As a] general thing, the operatives of New England throughout, are the most intelligent, and most respectable portion of the female population of the villages where they toil. And all the opprobrious epithets and base contumely every soaplocked dandy and travelling dress-maker's shop in the land, can possibly contrive to heap upon them, will do no further injury than to raise them still higher in the estimation of those whose esteem is actually worth having.... We consider one factory girl of more intrinsic worth than all the parlor automatons this country can produce.1

The article's author, who used only the pen name Hago, was criticizing adherents of the so-called ideal of "true womanhood"-an image of correct femininity constructed by the middle class and promoted widely through women's magazines, advice manuals, and novels.2 According to the literature, "true women" were judged by four virtues: purity, piety, submissiveness, and domesticity. They did not seek work outside of their homes, did not involve themselves in social or political issues, and were judged primarily by their abilities to serve as wives and mothers.3

The ideal was unobtainable for thousands of antebellum women who worked (whether by choice or necessity) as factory operatives, domestics, shop clerks, school teachers, and missionaries.4 "True womanhood" was an aristocratic definition of women's proper sphere constructed by the middle class as an attempt at social dominance.5 It emerged as the nation was becoming less egalitarian and class distinctions appeared. As Gerda Lerner has noted: "The image of `the lady' was elevated to the accepted ideal of femininity toward which all women would strive. In this formulation of values lowerclass women were simply ignored."6

New England's female textile operatives, who established the nation's first factory publications during the 1840s, used their publications as agents of change to put forth a new view of femininity. Their new definition-that women could work and still be feminine, moral beings-reflected their reality and their traditional, Puritan beliefs. The factory workers' ideal woman was educated, self-sufficient via wage work, health-conscious, moral, pious, and devoted to family. This redefined view of femininity closely resembled another ideal of the time-real womanhood."7 Popular between 1842 and the 1880s before being absorbed by feminism, this ideal viewed women as active, often employed, intelligent, physically fit, financially self-reliant, marrying judiciously, and able to balance family life.8

The "real woman" image was not completely in accord with feminist ideals, however, since it included duty to family, a tenet also exhibited by "true womanhood." Duty to family set "real women" apart from feminists. The real woman ideal was a survival ethic; such women "survived but remained good daughters, good sisters, wives, and mothers because in their own eyes they were important to family and to society; they did not survive merely because they owed it to themselves to do so" [emphasis added.9

This article examines how female factory operatives used their publications to respond to the "cult of true womanhood" and, subsequently, to redefine "women's sphere." Seven of the thirteen known female factory publications were selected for this study: The Lowell Offering; The New England Offering, The Olive Leaf, and Factory Girls' Repository; The Voice of Industry; The Factory Girl's Garland; the Factory Girl's Album and Operatives 'Advocate; and the Factory Girls 'Album and Mechanics' Offering. These journals were chosen because almost complete collections have been preserved and they reflected both genres of factory publications: literary and labor.10 The research also affords an opportunity to examine a class of publications which, other than The Lowell Offering, has received little scholarly attention. …