Breaking New Ground
Scanning the first fifty years of the nineteenth century and finding the familiar markers of women’s history—including the growth of women’s charitable and volunteer organizations, the blossoming of educational opportunities, and the organizing of the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls in 1848—one might be tempted to characterize the period as one of steady progress for women’s rights. But on closer inspection of the variety of women’s lives across race, class, ethnic, religious, and regional lines, one is struck by the losses as well as the gains—and in some cases the losses caused by the gains—experienced by American women during this period.
The vortex of industrialization drew everything toward it and left nothing unchanged. In the Northeast, it created fresh opportunities within newly circumscribed boundaries for middle- and upper-class women. For Northern white working-class women, the new economy forced them toward ever more difficult strategies of survival while offering some means to oppose factory owners. In the South, slaveholders girded themselves against the perceived threat of the newly expanding industrial North by hardening the strict divisions of race, gender, and class, rendering resistance by black slaves ever more difficult. And in the West, the expanding American empire reshaped white settlers’ lives while devastating the cultures of the former inhabitants of those lands.
Women during this period experienced and to a greater or lesser degree affected shifting ideas and practices concerning education, religion, work, citizenship, community, and family relations. For most of these women, this last category— especially between wives and husbands, and mothers and children—was particularly unsettled. As new rules were created, and old ones renegotiated or reinforced, the varying degrees of a woman’s power and powerlessness in relation to those closest to her were revealed, reflecting her status in society at large.
The changes to middle-class women’s role in the family occurred most forcefully and most positively where industrialization first took hold. Before the Industrial