The true history of nineteenth-century feminism is only beginning to be written. The tendency to identify feminism with women's rights has led to the mistaken idea that most nineteenth-century women were safely and happily ensconced in a cotton-wool world described as "the Domestic Sphere." Leaving aside the fact that the majority of women were farmers' wives or factory workers for whom life was never easy, this description is inaccurate even for the women of the growing middle class, those Victorian ladies who loom large in fiction and image.
This book, by focusing on the woman's club, a realm in which proper ladies flourished, will demonstrate beyond argument that many of them were feminists under the skin, developing a significant and popular strategy for achieving autonomy, however much they may have maintained their ideological cover. This fact helps explain the surge of support for women's rights beginning about 1910, as the daughters of the women discussed here grew to maturity and carried the whole matter a step further. If feminism, like heat, could be measured in some analog of British Thermal Units, the total to be found in women's clubs would have been much larger than that in suffrage organizations, because so many more women were engaged in the former.
An understanding of clubs demands a familiarity with the ideology of the "lady": the belief that every woman was a moral and domestic creature who embodied the desirable traits of loving maternity, intuition, and sensitivity. This was one of the foundations of nineteenth-century middle-class American society. Most nineteenth-century women would have been offended if they were not described as ladies. Exactly what being a lady meant and what traits were assigned to her, however, changed during the course of the century. In the early 1800s and during much of the previous century, the definition of an "ideal lady" applied only to the upper classes in society and resembled a type that had existed among the aristocracy of western Europe for several hundred years. She was leisured and ornamental, absorbed in learning the niceties that would render her amusing and enable her to beautify her home. Wealthy young women learned to dance, sing, embroider, make wax flowers, paint china, and play the harpsichord.
For the remaining social classes, this style of life was hardly typical. In preindustrial America most women's labor was essential to the success of the . . .