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

By Borish, Linda J. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

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


Borish, Linda J., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.