"Another Domestic Beast of Burden": New England Farm Women's Work and Well-Being in the 19th Century

Article excerpt

In such 19th-century New England periodicals as the New England Farmer, the Boston Cultivator, the Massachusetts Ploughman, and the nationally circulated American Agriculturist, both males and females wrote about women's work in the farm family. Male farmers expressed the opinion that no matter what her family role--daughter, sister, wife, mother, widow--the farm female should fulfill multiple domestic duties, while the women themselves complained about the burdensome nature of those duties.

Most male defenders of farm life perceived domestic labors to be health-promoting for farm women. Describing the farmer's wife in 1828, one male agriculturist professed, "Rosy health was blooming in her countenance." Another farm journalist depicted the farmer's daughter with "the glow of health upon her cheek" in the Massachusetts Ploughman (Thomas, "Farmer's Calendar," May; "The Farmer's Daughter" n.p.). Yet many farm women presented a contrary view of their well-being and deplored the amount of work farm men expected them to complete. In the article "Farmers' Wives" in the Massachusetts Ploughman, the heavy load of work prompted one farm wife to lament in 1845, "when a farmer takes to himself a wife, he considers that he is only securing another domestic beast of burden, to rank in point of utility with his horse and oxen. In too many instances," the farm wife asserted, "he lives and acts as if prompted by just such principles" (E.M.C. n.p.). Farm women expressed discontent about performing hard labors and believed such work actually depleted their fitness in their commentaries in the agricultural press.

Many 19th-century non-agriculturists shared male farmers' glowing view of the buxom, productive farm wife content with bucolic agricultural life. New England urban, white, middle-class, Protestant health reformers articulated an ideology of rural bliss and fitness. Social critics like notable female health and education reformer Catharine Beecher believed farm females enjoyed outstanding physical and mental health, compared to sickly urban females (Borish, "Farm Females" 18-19; Park 15-16; Boydston 148). An examination of farm women's opinions of their well-being and the material culture of farm women's lives yields a dramatically different view from the idealized view set forth by urban reformers and farmers defending farm life.

Farm women revealed thoughts on gender relations and rural life in writings about the connections between women's work and health on the homestead. These women perceived their dismal well-being as not only physical, but also social and cultural, noting the lack of appreciation shown for their domestic labors and their contributions to the rural household. They criticized heedless farm men who made chores more burdensome, and they sometimes challenged the authority of farmers in seeking to amend their gruelling work conditions. A close reading of the popular press's depictions of farm women's health provides clues to the gender and power dynamics of 19th-century farm life. Female agriculturists and middle-class rural reformers discerned that farm women suffered from fatiguing domestic tasks and the lack of power in farm life and desired a better life (Borish, "Was Woman's Constitution" 7-8). Thus, speaking "a word or two for women]" in the 1857 New England Farmer, a female judged a woman toiling day and night "has grown thin and pale by hard labor" (S. 360-61).

The primary focus of the male agriculturists who spearheaded the middle-class reform campaign of the early 19th century was concern for the problems of male farmers. Historian Sally McMurry has explained that progressive middle-class agriculturists worried about the decline of farm communities and tended to espouse ideals of scientific farming, profit-making, and increased market production in their efforts to improve farm life ("Progressive Farm Families" 331). By mid-century, at a time when alarmed rural advisers worried about New England farm daughters quitting the homestead, many agriculturists had begun to probe the health and well-being of farm women. …