The Role of Women as a Wife and a Mother in the 1870s
Throughout history, men are considered the dominant actors in political, social, economic, and military events. Rarely could one see a woman’s name in historical events in these fields, even see literature depicting the successes of these women without first touching their not so grandiose history, which usually depicted many hardships as compared to the history of heroic men one hears about. One reason for this rare occurrence is the fact that women back in the early centuries did not possess much power, right, and liberty in a male dominated nation. The United States is one of these male dominated nations and the struggles of women to fight for their right had to wait for years before they are accepted in this patriarchal nation. This paper will discuss the early roles of women as a wife and a mother in the 1870s, and how they slowly emerged from this role to what people see today in the United States, an equal to men. If women did not enter the job market in growing numbers and become more economically independent in the late 1800s and early 1900s, their status as subservient to men would have legally remained the same for a much longer time.
In the 19th century, American women were seen as subservient to men since they were only stuck with housework and domestic duty. Even back in the early centuries, women have been oppressed and seen less value around the globe. They enjoyed less social, economic, and legal rights as their societies gave more importance to male dominance. Many men also saw women to have less intelligence, and can be prone to make naïve decisions. Being a wife and a mother is also their considered profession due to their lack of education and intellect. As they can do domestic work, the society has emphasized on the domesticity of women to take roles in the church and the school. Aside from these conceptions about them, women still wanted to fight for their femininity since poets and writers ascribed what they envision as their ideal woman.
The domesticity of women was caused by the notion that business and politics would only corrupt women. Women are also seen as the spiritual guide for the family, and if they are influenced by the corrupt world of politics and business, they may no longer be able to do their spiritual mission. Some experts believe that women are living in a separate sphere, immune to any influence. Since it was a patriarchal society, women also lose their ownership with property once they get married and everything goes to her husband’s family. This is the similar case in the Victorian Era in England as women by the age of 21 must be wed and must have children immediately after. Marriage also reduces their economic and social power, which was seen before as honourable career. Many have accepted their fate, despite losing what’s left of their rights. Women also had to marry because of economic need, as the 19th century was still on the verge of developing itself as the superpower it is today. The lack of work and lower wages also forced women to marry. Singlehood does not even give women the chance to prove themselves as they are only given positions related to being a mother and a wife. Some of these jobs are teachers, governesses, or domestic helpers. Some women would even go as far as being a prostitute because they no longer have an alternative job to do for their living.
Despite the rise of women wanting to marry in this period, birth rates have dropped due to the birth control happening in the United States.
This eventually paved the way for the creation of the modern family in the US since an average woman could only have 2 to 4 children. Historians pointed that birth control through coitus interruptus may have influenced how families can be formed in that era. Others noted that it may be caused by abortion or infanticide. Nevertheless, the family was the main factor in most middle-class groups in the United States in the period and it founded the idea of patriarchal dominance. Men provided for the family by working for their income while women stay at home to take care of the children and do the domestic chores like cooking, cleaning and washing . Families also fostered the spirit of togetherness like Christmas and the Fourth of July. Family for middle class Americans also became ideal to replace the church as a refuge for the family. It also became the status symbol in the 19th century. The wife is subjected to her husband, and was often treated as the servant and not as the wife alone. They were also not allowed to do outside work and were asked to only concern herself with cultural activities rather than education. Alfred Lord Tennyson summarized the position of women in the family by stressing “Man for the field, woman for the heath, man for the sword, and for the needle she; man with the head and woman with the heart, man to command and woman to obey, all else confusion.”
As a wife and a mother, women are called “angel of the house” since they combine spirituality and love in the household. They are also responsible for teaching their children before they enter schooling in public or private institutions. The wife is also tasked as the spiritual advisor of her husband, especially if the husband needs to be lifted out of his moral depression. It is also her duty to help her husband to free his mind out of worry and help him decide. The title “lady” is also given to married women in the 19th century, but it does not have the same powers as the title “Lord” which is reserved for men. Women in the 19th century are also seen as God’s vessels since their task as a mother and a wife is to give life, growth and nurturer. The Bible even illustrated a woman’s role in the family and stated that the husband is the head of his wife, not the wife controlling the head of his husband. They were also taught to be silent and never to question anything around them unless they were at home or in the mercy of their husbands. Wives also give their bodies to their husbands and provide them with pleasure and sensual desire. Christianity also noted that women should be the life and energy of the family.
Caroline Gillman supported this concept that women in the 19th century were reluctant to deviate from normalcy because it was against the laws of God and they wanted to have a strong family. Gillman even pointed out that women should sacrifice their thoughts and actions to their husband for them not to stray away from them, or leave them. She even admitted that her decisions on most household changes had to customize themselves with her husband’s tastes. Although it may be unfair for her, she admitted that being given the feeling of contentment makes her married life a sacred feeling. She also noted that a wife in that century must take charge of her duties as a wife and a mother even if she is sick. There must be no tears, apologies or arguments between the husband and the wife as this may remove the harmony marriage can give to her home. This subservient role of women as wives and mothers were also done by other American women in the 19th century and would try to withstand even the pain because if they do not, they may find it hard to keep up with society as they are labelled as powerless over men.
Women from working-class families are also familiar with hard work due to the domesticity prominent in the 19th century. Even young daughters are trained to work in domestic activities as preparation for their weddings. Once they are married, they also help in their ancestral home to support the family in chores and other related support activities. Children aged nine to ten are also given odd jobs to practice for their marriages. By the time 1890 came up to 1914, family patterns changed as it made men and their grown up children capable of supporting their families without the need for the women to work. This trend continues up to the 20th century even for high class women.
Working-class families also slowly limited their family sizes as children became dependents that must be sent to school than to work .
Should in case the marriage fails to bear fruit or one of the couple is not fulfilling his or her oath, there is a problem on divorce and the separation of ownership. Both the American and English laws share the same sentiments as an engagement between a man and a woman would mean the woman’s properties belong to the man’s family. Married women are also forbidden to make contracts of any kind, appear as witnesses for court hearings, and suing their husbands or anyone in particular. The wife‘s legal rights are also given entirely on the husband, except for high offenses like murder. Experts noted that this setup by married couples is due to the notion that they are now one body and thus the wife, who is weaker, should be represented by the husband in all affairs. Some women have asked for the reformation of the marriage laws since divorce is not easily granted to them. Men can easily get divorce as long as they can show evidences of his wife’s actions. Once it is granted, the man can easily get the properties and child custodies, to leave the woman with nothing. For women, they had to show evidences aside from adultery to be granted divorce, this includes cruelty, abuse, and abandonment. If they were granted, they will still not get the property and child custody as they will have to apply for it. As they do not have immediate funding, they would take a while before they can file an application .
Physical features and image also defined women’s position as a wife and a mother in the 19th century. Women were seen to be frail when they are alone. They were also considered to be pure, childlike, and untainted once they are married to men since their families do not allow them to engage in tainted acts. Dresses also dictate what women are and which class they belong to. Women from the upper class are seen to wear corsets which cause several ailments. Many note that this was done so that men can wrap their hands on their wives. Some would even remove a part of their ribs to fit this category. Others opt to wear long clothing to cover their bodies and reserve it for their husbands .
There have been sentiments in the case of some women when it comes to education as they believe that the opportunity to study is against religion and tarnishes the quality of spiritualty and life in American families that women provide. Some women even had the sentiment that God did not create man and women equally which is why women should not be given the same rights as men. Having the same rights would cause strife between a relationship of couples and ultimately influence social balance in the US. There were notable women who had expressed their position in these sentiments by opposing women for education especially like M. Carey Thomas. Thomas, upon her time as Bryn Mawr’s President, noted that she was scared of the experience she had when she read the letters of Paul in the Bible. She recalled that the letters showed to her that women are subservient to men. She deeply expressed that she would rather die than to have a life inferior to men if that was all her goal in life is. Her essay contradicted to the lessons taught by families in that period as women are seen to have lesser intelligence, small foreheads, and they were incapable of controlling their emotions. This became the central thought of American image of women especially in the 19th century up to the 20th century .
Many have disagreed with the 15th Amendment, especially women as they believe it is against their right not to be given a chance to select their representative and fight for equality. In 1878, the Susan B. Anthony Amendment was said to grant women the right to vote and it was first introduced to members of the U.S Congress. However, by 1887, the US Senate debated with regards with the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, but it lost considerably due to the 25 senators who did not vote for it . Women hoped that the 15th Amendment could have been the key for their change of standing in the US. Susan B. Anthony, whose name is attached to the women suffrage amendment, felt that the government is flushing women out of the picture. She also believed that if the women cannot vote, so does the Asian and Black men population of the country since they are not from the country. This placed her under an argument with Frederick Douglass, who fought for black suffrage.
In lieu of this debate on the 15th amendment, two groups of suffragists women have emerged. Through a meeting in May 1869, the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association came to be. The NWSA supported Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton as they believed that the 15th Amendment should be boycotted because women are not included in the act. They also believed that it was contradictory to what the government is advocating for, which was equality of all. The AWSA on the other hand, believed that the 15th Amendment should be supported and they must focus on gaining suffrage in all the states in the country. The AWSA was led by Lucy Stone and Alice Stone Blackwell. The two groups have battled in their position in the issue of suffrage, but as they argued, Wyoming granted women to vote in 1869. It was seen as a victory for the suffragists as women are slowly getting their rights. This was not the same case for Missouri when Virginia Minor, the WSA President in the region tried to vote in the 1872 elections. She tried to sue the registrar of voters, under the pretence it was against her right as a citizen of Missouri. In the filed case Minor v. Happersett (1875), the Supreme Court intervened in the ruling and stated that suffrage is not included in the rights given to citizens as gender is not an element of US citizenship. Many women then thought that for them to get the male dominated country to treat them fairly, they would have to rewrite the whole US constitution and mandates .
Women never wavered in their desire to claim equality and their own rights despite the misconceptions on their capabilities, which prevent them to study. 1870 paved the way for them to finish high school, estimated to be almost 9,000 in total around the US. This number is bigger than the 7,000 men that have graduated from high school. This caused a stir in the state colleges and universities to open their doors to these women. By 1972, the number of higher institutions that opened their doors to women students reached up to 100. This included Cornell University in New York, which granted M. Carey Thomas her B.A with the rest of her batchmates in 1877. She then earned her Ph.D. after studying in a German university after five years. She became the first president of the Bryn Mawr in 1890, a known women’s college outside Philadelphia .
Many women still noticed that men are slowly trying to prevent them from taking over the men-dominated society by imposing stricter requirements to practice their professions. This trend could have continued if not through the help of medicine. Elizabeth Blackwell became known as the first woman to graduate from medical school in 1849, and provided the means for other women to enter in her medical school in 1868. The success of the medical school was visibly seen in 1900 as 3% of medical graduates were women. After this period, however, medical schools around the country imposed stricter admissions policies which reduced female medical students, and physicians. Many also did not get the chance to access legal professions like law or politics. Arabella Mansfield took on this challenge and became the first woman to pass the bar in 1869. Myra Bradwell also finished her law degree and tried to enter a law firm in Illinois. Her application was rejected by the state bar association, which caused her to sue the association in the federal court. Sadly, she lost the battle in 1873 as the Supreme Court ruling stated that the law did not allow women like her to take part in the bar. One judge even stressed “the paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfil the noble and benign offices of wife and mother”. Ironically, the licensing of lawyers was allowed in 1869 which meant even women lawyers can try getting their licenses. A year later, however, only five women lawyers were granted their licenses. Some law schools even refused women applicants to their school. Other fields also refused women students, despite the acceptance of some schools for these women .
Some professional careers pertaining to other fields also started gaining the attention of women aside from the chance to enter colleges and universities. Most middle-class and upper-class women became involved in joining women activities such as clubs and organizations. Women clubs fighting for equality and the right to suffrage were popular in the late 19th century and by 1890s, 100,000 women became members of these clubs. Aside from fighting for equal rights, clubs offered forums for women, especially to try out new literature and art.
One of the notable clubs or organization which still retains its power in the United States is the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, organized in 1874. The Union was established by women who believe that alcohol is the prime culprit for men to abuse them and their families. WCTU also fought for protection of their homes by promoting prohibition of alcohol. The group’s members slowly grew to almost 150,000 members. Frances Willard became the group’s founder and light as they fought for various women rights until her death. Their crowning advocacy was the 1882 endorsement on women suffrage, the first of many supporters for women to be given the right to vote aside from the AWSA and NWSA .
The issue on gaining the same rights and the equality women yearned for became slow as the 19th century progressed. As stated above, men were unprepared to give women a chance to gain power and take the reign over a region they fought for and sacrificed for. It slowly moved as women were ostracized like how a man ostracizes other religions and races. Despite the openings in the professional world and the opportunity to enter educational facilities, restrictions are still in place to stop all form of development for women. At present, there is still a hint of this 19th century thinking that women are beneath men. Women did not take this lightly as they showed men that they can also do the same tasks and responsibilities men can do. Eventually, what moved women rights to the frontlines was their increasing economic power due to the starting trend of purchasing power for wives and mothers. The opportunities for women to pursue education also helped women to gain grounds to gain power over the male-led American society. If these opportunities did not open for women in the 19th century or in 1870, American women would be treated like slaves longer, even in the present time. They may even be treated like the American Blacks who were ostracized and abused due to the misconceptions surrounding them.
Adams, Colleen. Women’s Suffrage: a primary source history of the women’s rights movements in America. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 2003. – Colleen narrates how several women’s suffrage movements fought against the 15th Amendment that stated they did not have the right, nor the equality to vote like men due to their destiny to be as wives and mothers. She also pointed out one case, the Wyoming approval of women suffrage in the said state.
Ayers, Edward, Lewis Gould, David Oshinsky, and Jean Soderlund. American Passages: A History of the United States Since 1865. Boston: Cengage Learning, 2011. – The authors for this book pointed out several women who made a mark on the 19th century as they successfully finished their college degrees for their selected fields as they see this as a way to develop themselves as a person. They also noted how hard it was for these women to gain approval from the men as they tried to stop them from practicing their professions.
Berkin, Carol, Christopher Miller, Robert Cherny, James Gormly, and Douglas Egerton. Making America: A History of the United States: Since 1865. Boston: Cengage Learning, 2010. – The authors have cited in their book that women were mostly connected to domestic terms especially in the 19th century. Most Americans define women with anything related to a wife, mother, guardian, and spiritual guide. Politics and business were deemed to be bad for women in this period as this will defile their positions as the spiritual guide of the family. The term domesticity is used by the authors to summarize women’s separate sphere which is caused by their role as the mother and wife of the family.
Duiker, William, and Jackson Spielvogel. World History: From 1500. Boston: Cengage Learning, 2006. – In terms of explaining the position of American women over the 18th century, both authors support various claims that women in the earlier centuries were economically dependent and mostly knew household roles. Marriage was considered an honourable career for women since it was both a glorified position, and a means to escape poverty. Many women also were accustomed to hard labor and even young girls are taught to accustomize themselves to hard home labor.
Holmes, Marbeth. “Circumcision of the Female Intellect: 19th Century Women Who Opposed Scholarly Education.” Forum on Public Policy, 2009: 1-13. – Holmes pointed out that there were women in the 19th century that did not have the same thoughts as the women who fought for reform. She also noted that it was against the teachings of God for these women to ask for equality as in the first place, men and women were created differently from one another.
Hymowitz, Carol, and Michaele Weissman. A History of Women in America. New York: Bantum, 1978. – Upon the discussion of women’s roles in the 1870s as a wife and a mother, both authors noted that upon the mid-1800s, women were seen as slaves to men as they are only seen as a wife and a mother. They did not have rights and only were deemed to be a wife and a mother once they get married and it is seen as their ultimate profession. If they remained to be single, they can only take jobs related to activities done by wives and mothers such as teaching or cleaning. But, both authors have cited that this situation improved by the mid-1800s as equity laws gave women rights to fight for their right and be deemed as important as men.
Madigan, Jennifer. “The Education of Girls and Women in the United States: A Historical Perspective.” Advances in Gender and Education 1 (2009): 11-13. – Madigan supported other authors that in the 19th century, women slowly took the advantage to find an alternative from their position as a wife and mother as they took the chance to study. Some universities such as the Byrn Mawr became the way for 19th century women to learn and finish their diplomas for their chosen profession.
Morantz, Regina. “Making Women Modern: Middle Class Women and Health Reform in 19th Century America.” Journal of Social History 10, no. 4 (1977): 490-507. – Morantz cited that aside from seeing women as pure and untarnished, they were also defined by their physical and sexual characteristics. Some women were even known to cut a couple of their bones to fit in their husband’s arms.
Rice, Joy. “Family Roles and Patterns, Contemporary Trends.” In Encyclopedia of women and gender: sex similarities and differences and the impact of society on gender, by Judith Worell, 411-423. San Diego: Academic Press, 2001. – Rice noted that 19th century women and girls were accustomed to domesticity or hard work at home since they were resigned into being married. It was also a way to practice their roles for the future since it was the honorable thing to do in the period.
Zaher, Claudia. “When a Woman’s Marital Status Determined Her Legal Status: A Research Guide on the Common Law Doctrine of Coverture.” Law Library Journal 94, no. 3 (2002): 459-493. – Zaher explains that marriage laws and divorce laws in the 19th century were hard for women as they no longer have the same legal power they had before marriage. Zaher also pointed that these laws are more advantageous to men.
Adams, Colleen. Women’s Suffrage: a primary source history of the women’s rights movements in America. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 2003.
Ayers, Edward, Lewis Gould, David Oshinsky, and Jean Soderlund. American Passages: A History of the United States Since 1865. Boston: Cengage Learning, 2011.
Berkin, Carol, Christopher Miller, Robert Cherny, James Gormly, and Douglas Egerton. Making America: A History of the United States: Since 1865. Boston: Cengage Learning, 2010.
Duiker, William, and Jackson Spielvogel. World History: From 1500. Boston: Cengage Learning, 2006.
Holmes, Marbeth. “Circumcision of the Female Intellect: 19th Century Women Who Opposed Scholarly Education.” Forum on Public Policy, 2009: 1-13.
Hymowitz, Carol, and Michaele Weissman. A History of Women in America. New York: Bantum, 1978.
Madigan, Jennifer. “The Education of Girls and Women in the United States: A Historical Perspective.” Advances in Gender and Education 1 (2009): 11-13.
Morantz, Regina. “Making Women Modern: Middle Class Women and Health Reform in 19th Century America.” Journal of Social History 10, no. 4 (1977): 490-507.
Rice, Joy. “Family Roles and Patterns, Contemporary Trends.” In Encyclopedia of women and gender: sex similarities and differences and the impact of society on gender, by Judith Worell, 411-423. San Diego: Academic Press, 2001.
Zaher, Claudia. “When a Woman’s Marital Status Determined Her Legal Status: A Research Guide on the Common Law Doctrine of Coverture.” Law Library Journal 94, no. 3 (2002): 459-493.