The American Work Ethic and the Changing Work Force: An Historical Perspective

By Herbert Applebaum | Go to book overview

13
WOMEN IN THE
NINETEENTH CENTURY

Women in the nineteenth century occupied many positions between the two poles of traditional and modern culture, pushed and pulled according to changing demands of family, community, and self. Women experienced these pushes and pulls in the nineteenth century as the cultural system of America deposited many injustices upon their backs. She was a half-person in the courts and a nonentity at the ballot box. If she worked outside the home she earned half a man's wages and if she toiled at housework and child rearing she earned nothing at all. She was barred from most men's work and was hobbled by a culture that constrained her with conventional codes of behavior and propriety based on male dominance.

A thicket of social and biological arguments emerged in the nineteenth century to justify women's exclusion from paid work and their relegation to a separate sphere. American ideology spawned a series of cultural expectations that discouraged women from seeking paid work--arguments about women's natural inferiority, lack of physical stamina, and delicate sensibilities. Many nineteenth-century Americans viewed female participation in the work force as a temporary stage to be superseded, upon marriage, by the practice of homemaking. However, women who worked viewed their work ethic as providing them with a public identity of their own and a sense of their own worth. By the end of the nineteenth century American women, especially those from the middle class, were simmering with discontent as reflected in the rise of their organizations and the volumes of public speeches and printed words that flooded the American cultural scene.

Women's work took place in the household and revolved around the family. When they ventured forth out of the family, as they did in the New England textile factories, it was for a short period and they returned to their families to marry and settle on farms. In the course of the nineteenth century, however, women began to join the work force outside the home in larger numbers. This forced them to face the problem of how to reconcile their primary responsibilities to the household with

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