Aspects of the Changing Status of New England Women, 1790-1840

The present discussion will focus on aspects of women's life chiefly outside the home, an area frequently ignored by historians and sociologists who generally subsume women under the general category of "women and the family," or some similar topical definition that equates the human female with maternal and wifely functions alone. There is evidence, I believe, for pointing out a significant change in attitudes toward women during this period, a change that had an impact on their roles both within and outside the home. To put it too simply, for attitude changes of such profundity are never simple, Americans and New Englanders of the middle class shifted from viewing women functionally to viewing them sentimentally and ornamentally. New England was particularly affected by this shift because of the developing surplus of women in the general population, I think (unfortunately census figures are not at hand, but a look at early 19th century statistics will bear this statement out, especially in long-settled areas of the eastern and southern portions of the region).

To amplify the argument, colonial New England women were regarded as active agents in the domestic economy. It must be remembered that throughout the colonial period and much of the 19th century, the American economy, for the most part, centered on the rural household, whether large plantation or individual farm. The household was a basic unit combining production and consumption, and woman occupied a central role in this economy, working generally in or near the house at the fire, with her needle or spinning wheel, her broom and the implements of child-rearing. She worked outside too, at the well, in the kitchen and herb gardens, and often in the poultry yard. Her role was functional and necessary to the economy's functioning, just as was her husband's role in the field, or in a craft, or at a mercantile or maritime occupation. In the rural domestic economy, although a general division of labor existed on a sexual basis, much overlapping of function occurred. Women engaged in many trades, acted as midwives and prescribed medicine, even worked in the fields when emergencies developed. The Freeman Farm at Old Sturbridge Village embodies the essential elements of the self-sufficient domestic economy in a rural setting.

The functional attitude toward women is well represented in a small volume of advice by Cotton Mather, Ornaments for the Daughters of Zion, or the Character and Happiness of a Virtuous Woman (1694). While piety should be woman's chief aim, Mather emphasized numerous practical efforts at which she should excell:

Such is her Industry, that she betimes herself to learn all the Affairs of Housewifry, and besides a good skill at her Needle, as well as in the Kitchen, she acquaints herself with Arithmetic and Accomptanship [perhaps also Chirurgery] and such other Arts relating to Business, as may enable her to do the Man whom she may hereafter have, Good and not Evil all the days of her life. If she have any Time after this to learn Musick and Language, she will not loose her time, and yet she will not be proud of her Skill.1

Woman should be naturally subordinate to man, yet her economic function was valued and her mind respected. But the alternatives open to women seem to have diminished as the economy matured.2

What happened? A number of changes in economic and professional life took place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries: status definitions became more rigid, assigning men and women more distinct and less overlapping roles; professions, especially medicine, grew tighter in their qualifications, eliminating women; and the economy began to shift gradually from the predominance of individual domestic units combining production and consumption toward large-scale industry. As industrialization proceeded many women's tasks were removed from the household into large factories, and men and women alike shifted their employment away from the domestic environment, separating the processes of production and consumption. Overriding these institutional changes, however, was a major change in attitudes toward women, emphasizing a "feminine mystique" which defined the female role in sentimental terms and supported the total separation of men's and women's economic and social roles. Sentimentality dictated that women should be governed by feelings, exaggerated, even grotesque emotions of love, pity, grief, and other (but never hatred). The new view emphasized women's physical weakness and moral strength: man was agressive, animalistic, productive, clever; in contrast, woman was passive, spiritual, consumptive (literally tubercular), intellectually weak. The middle classes who could afford to dispense with her productive labor deemphasized woman's economic role, insisting that the "genteel female" should be ornamental, guided by her emotions, oriented toward family and religion. Ideally the women who responded to these attitudes would not dare to be drawn from their households, yet by a curious paradox the attitudes themselves and circumstances of the times combined to open new opportunities for women's non-domestic roles.

At the apex of woman's status was her duty of moral guardianship. Sentimentality put her on a pedestal and constructed its base of purity and moral superiority, emphasizing the double moral standard (man could stoop to infidelity, woman was too good for such base interests), woman's role in protecting the home and making it an island of quiet, a haven of purity in man's rough world of affairs. Quantities of popular literature reflected these attitudes toward women: "It is for her to keep man within the sphere of duty, of charity, of virtue, religion, and peace. . .". "Woman was destined to a holy and honourable office. . .as the most effective instrument in the moral regeneration of a fallen world. . ."3

Motherhood should be woman's most noble calling. Hear Catherine Beecher (herself cheated out of motherhood by the tragic death of her fiance) crying out in behalf of mother:

Oh, sacred and beautiful name! How many cares and responsibilities are connected with it! And yet what noble anticipations, what sublime hopes, are given to animate and cheer! She is to train young minds, whose plastic texture will receive and retain each impress for eternal ages,. . .until a whole nation will have received its character and destiny from her hands. No imperial queen ever stood in a more sublime and responsible position, than that which every mother must occupy. . .4

Contrast the practical advice offered women by Cotton Mather with the sentimental vaporizing of Lydia Sigourney, the "sweet singer of Hartford:"

You are sitting with your child in your arms. How this new affection seems to spread a soft, fresh green over the soul. Does not the whole heart blossom thick with plants of hope, sparkling with perpetual dew-drops?. . . Never before have I been so blest, as to nurture the infant, when as a germ quicked by Spring, it opens the folding-doors of its little heart, and puts forth the thought, the preference, the affection, like filmy radicles, or timid tendrils, seeking where to twine.5

One wonders who changed this baby, or arose to answer its cries in the small hours of the morning. Were such effusions at all relevant or of any value to farm wives with eight children or to mill operatives who had to be more concerned with keeping their 12-hour-a-day jobs than wondering about the "folding-doors" of the infant's heart?

The prevalence of sentimentality in popular literature during the period is suggestive of attitudes, yet it does not demonstrate how these attitudes were manifested, or even whether their impact penetrated widely. Simply because prose and poetry became suffused with sentiment one cannot conclude that sentimental attitudes toward women replaced functional attitudes on a large scale, or that they had any practical application. In fact, evidence is insufficient to show conclusively that most New England women responded to the new attitudes. Sentimental views probably had direct impact on a minority of New England women but they presented an ideal to which many aspired. It is clear that they were promoted by leaders in attitude-formation: clergymen, educators, journalists, female writers, and others. I would argue also that certain specific movements among women represented sentimental attitudes, permitting actual application of the new views in the society as a whole. I propose to survey some of these applications.

Motherhood, as indicated above, gained profoundly in stature because of the sentimental approach, as women learned that in the nursery or the playroom they might change the Republic's destiny by their virtuous examples and their training of character. Whether or not most women agreed with or practiced the sentimental approach is unknown, but literature and much private correspondence of the period provide evidence that the child-rearing process took on greater prestige and became more exclusively a feminine activity. Indeed, none must agree with Anne L. Kuhn that certainly by 1840 there existed in New England a maternal "movement" or cult, with its apostles, its organizations, and its mythology.6 The enhanced prestige of mothers was undoubtedly related closely to the changing attitudes toward children, recognizing in childhood a distinct stage of life with its own special virtues.7

Women's religious activity quickened markedly between 1790 and 1840, taking on quite new though not unprecedented forms as sentimental piety became a great force in bringing women into organized religious enterprises. During the various religious awakenings or revivals that occurred in the late 18th and early 19th centuries women were to a greater extent than men the subjects of converson. Their emotional enthusiasm contributed significantly to the quality of revival movements. In New England female religious leaders exerted themselves in both the Quaker and Shaker sects. In some respects, however, the most interesting and far-reaching impact of woman's role in the various denominations came after the Second Great Awakening in New England when women were motivated to participate extensively in religious and church-related organizations. Two forms of such organizations may be identified: the benevolent or charitable societies which aimed to relieve distress among the poor and helpless, and societies for the advancement of evangelical religious influence such as tract and missionary organizations (nomenclature here is a problem—some so-called benevolent societies were actually tract or missionary groups).

One of the earliest New England organizations of this kind was the Boston Female Society for Missionary Purposes, formed in 1800. In the next two decades literally hundreds of local societies throughout New England followed its example in organizing under the patronage of a clergyman or a congregation to raise money and pray for the advancement of Protestantism. Many such organizations took the name "cent society," indicating a pattern which required each member to contribute one cent a week for the cause of missions, tract or Bible distribution. New Hampshire alone contained more than fifty local female cent societies in 1816. By 1820 female societies existed in many rural and village churches of every denomination. They sought to obtain support from the leading women in each congregation, certainly including the pastor's wife and spouses of other respectable professional men. Their functions were numerous: they helped to define and stratify social relationships in small towns, they provided a respectable gathering place for women who might ordinarily be rather isolated—a place for prayer and religious fellowship, but also for visiting, even exchanging gossip, and not the least in importance, they provided financial support of some magnitude for many evangelical purposes—home and foreign missions, the support of indigent young men to study for the ministry, tract and Bible distribution, and Sabbath schools.

A few particular features of the religious organizations may be identified. For the most part they were beholden to local clergymen who generally gained financially or in terms of authority and prestige from their anxious good deeds. On the other hand, these organizations functioned as female groups, largely segregated except for the occasions when clergymen or prominent laymen addressed them, usually for purposes of raising money. The situation became more and more ambivalent. Although dedicated to the ends of masculine clerical domination, the women's religious associations seem to have become agencies of increasing female self-consciousness. The ministers who advocated and gained numerous benefits from the women's societies may not have been aware of the precedents they set, for the apparently innocent activities of such groups could become quite worldly, even public, in the form of fundraising enterprises, bookeeping, investing, conducting meetings, and engaging in similar entrepenurial actions. What might have appeared as a contradiction between woman's delicacy and her moral superiority was obscured by the urgent need for Christian commitment. Women's organized religious and benevolent work necessarily carried them beyond their individual thresholds, beyond the limited environment of home and garden, into activities which had more general visibility and consequences reaching far beyond their intimate world, to faraway missions, or to more immediate institutions asserting responsibility for the material and spiritual support of suffering sisters. The societies represented the sentimental idea of woman's moral guardianship. They also helped to give New England women a special sense of their responsibilities and their vocation, beyond the household—an impact which their ministers had certainly not anticipated.8 In practical terms women's societies engaged in local activities such as sewing circles, prayer meetings, and other non-domestic enterprises.

Moving still further away from their strictly domestic activities during the 1830s, yet still invoking woman's moral responsibilities, a small number of New England women participated actively in reform work, attempting through agitation and pressure to bring about social change. The female moral reform movement, which sought to enforce a single moral standard and elevate prostitutes from their degraded condition, engaged the interest of some small-town women. Local organizations might raise money, much as they did for circulation of Bibles and tracts, and subscribe to periodicals such as the Friend of Virtue and the Advocate of Moral Reform. They aimed of course to stamp out vice in urban areas, for seldom were sexual irregularities widespread in country towns. Women's temperance work began in the 1830s but did not grow into a large-scale effort until the '40s when numerous local female temperance societies appeared, setting the stage for a massive national movement after the Civil War. A few New England women subscribed also to the peace movement. The spread of reform among women occurred naturally as an outgrowth of their involvement with religious and charitable activities.

The next step in radicalization of New England women was also a natural one, but it had far-reaching consequences. As early as 1832 in the Liberator and in private correspondence, William Lloyd Garrison, leader of the militant wing of the American antislavery movement, urged women in New England to follow the example of their British counterparts, to engage actively in the campaign against slavery. Lucretia Mott, the great Hicksite Quaker minister, spoke at the first meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society and exerted much influence in her denomination. In the small town of Canterbury, Connecticut, a young Quaker school teacher, Prudence Crandall, attempted to open a select school for Negro girls in 1833. The audacity of this effort quickly became evident as prominent townspeople fought with every legal device at their disposal and eventually with mob violence against the school. Miss Crandall even spent a night in jail, but her determination finally failed after arsonists attempted to burn the school, and the enterprise was forced to close. The site of Miss Crandall's school in Canterbury was recently purchased by the Connecticut Historical Commission for development as a memorial to this courageous woman and the movement for racial equality.

Other women's antislavery activities aroused less controversy and followed the pattern of religious and benevolent movements: local societies which met, heard lectures, raised money, and stimulated interest in their cause. In one very crucial respect, however, the female antislavery societies differed from other women's groups. They participated directly in the political process by circulating petitions among women, appealing for state and federal legislation to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, eliminate the interstate slave trade, or otherwise undermine the legal status of slavery. Hundreds of these petitions remain today in the National Archives, yellow with age, to bear witness to the labors of these earnest ladies. The petition campaign, which probably reached its height in the late 1830s, illustrates the significant advance in women's roles represented by the antislavery movement. Formerly women's societies had been formed to support worthy causes with which few persons could quarrel and which most prominent citizens could applaud. But by agitating the slavery issue, women engaged in a movement that was not only moral but political in its implications. The dangers of this semi-political involvement were foreshadowed at a meeting of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1835 which was broken up by a mob. Nevertheless women's antislavery organizations spread to many New England communities, local societies growing in number from thirty in 1836 to sixty-nine in 1838.

The circumstances leading to a major controversy over woman's status began in eastern Massachusetts during the spring of 1837. Two Southern gentlewomen, members of a prominent Charleston, South Carolina, family, embarked on a lecture tour that evoked a remarkable response in the state. Sarah and Angelina Grimke, for a complex series of reasons, had been converted to abolitionism, and as Southerners, they became stars in the galaxy of antislavery lecturers. After speaking to audiences almost exclusively composed of women in New York, they found in Massachusetts that their listeners were "promiscuous," men and women mingled in the same group. At first the circumstance disturbed the Grimkes, but they quickly found that it was no great problem. Between June and late October of 1837, they gave scores of antislavery lectures in large and small communities in eastern and central Massachusetts to audiences that were often large, usually interested, sometimes hostile. Being women, they naturally aroused much curiosity among their sex.9

One group was offended enough by the Grimke lecture tour to denounce the sisters openly. Orthodox Congregational clergymen, meeting at Brookfield in late June, attacked woman's right to speak in public and asserted the sentimental view that female influence should be primarily domestic. They argued of course on strict Biblical grounds. The Grimkes, Garrison, and other abolitionists responded to the ministers, denying that God differentiated between men and women in terms of moral responsibility, thus raising the issues of sexual equality and freedom of speech. The controversy begun in the towns and villages of Massachusetts became the subject of much public debate, contributed to the formation of a new anti-Garrison antislavery movement in the state, and helped to bring about a split in the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1840. Were women persons, by definition of the Society's constitution, asked the Garrisonians. If so they should be qualified to speak in meetings and hold office, but more orthodox abolitionists insisted membership in the organization itself did not qualify persons with equal rights. With the Garrison faction accusing them of hypocrisy, orthodox members left the American Anti-Slavery Society to form a new organization whose constitution gave gentlemen the right to hold office and speak. The issue of woman's equality which grew out of the Grimke sisters lecture tour led directly to the first woman's rights convention in 1848 and ultimately to the Woman Suffrage crusade and the 19th amendment to the Constitution in 1920.

Besides opening up discussion concerning woman's rights and equality between the sexes, the New England antislavery movement had other impacts on women's situation and their self-consciousness. One of the more dramatic consequences of their antislavery work occurred in the House of Representatives where former President John Quincy Adams discovered the necessity of defending the right of petition against fellow-legislators who asserted that petitions on the slavery issue should not be received in the House. Petitions bearing the signatures of thousands of New England women came to Adams in the late 1830s. A few women from the area became notable abolitionists. Lydia Maria Child, a leading popular author in 1833, lost her popular following immediately after publishing her Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans, but went on to become one of the ablest antislavery writers and editors. Maria Weston Chapman, of Weymouth and Boston, one of Garrison's most aggressive followers and the principal organizer of Boston's antislavery fairs, was the financial mainstay of militant abolitionism in Massachusetts. Lucy Stone, after growing up in West Brookfield and graduating from Oberlin College, began lecturing on slavery but found that she could not avoid defending her right as a woman to speak in public. In the 1850s the woman's rights issue predominated over slavery in her vocation as an agitator. Another leading feminist spent her formative years in small-town Massachusetts, served an apprenticeship in the antislavery movement, and devoted fifty years to woman's emancipation: Susan B. Anthony was a native of Adams, Berkshire County.

Less well known today, but perhaps more influential in the cause of the slave, Abby Kelley Foster grew up on a farm in the town of Worcester, taught for a time at Lynn where she became involved in the local female antislavery society, then embarked on a career as an abolitionist lecturer. Abby Foster, a Quaker, was particularly impressed and influenced by the Grimke sisters' example, and after talking and corresponding with them, studied and prepared herself for her new vocation. Fearful at first, she commenced her lecture tour in 1839 in Connecticut where she received a harsh baptism. Opposition to women speakers in the "land of Steady habits" was pronounced and in some towns she could not obtain a meeting place. Many people made vile comments about her and more than once she was attacked as being worse than a prostitute. She returned to Connecticut during the following year, nevertheless, and occupied the next twenty years of her life in traveling for the cause, having great effect in New York state and Ohio. No other woman in the movement was more tireless and determined than this Massachusetts farm girl. Portions of her correspondence, preserved at the American Antiquarian Society and the Worcester Historical Society, make fascinating reading even now.

Women in New England contributed much to the national antislavery movement, not only in the form of leading agitators, but through the less exciting but no less important activities of their followers: money raising, an audience for radical lecturers, support for publications, petitions to Congress and state legislatures, prayers for the slaves. They helped to make New England a center of radical abolitionism during a period when slavery was developing into the most critical national issue. It must be said that just as women contributed mightily to the crusade against slavery, so that crusade educated and in a few cases radicalized the participants. For women discovered in the process of campaigning that they too had grievances, not as severe as those of slaves, but in some respects analogous. Like slaves, women existed under the law as a species of chattel, without power or independence. Then too, the antislavery movement, like other movements of the time, offered women a role outside the household, a role defined as morally significant and socially useful. With such opportunities, it is little wonder that New England women of this period seem to have been increasingly self-aware and, to some extent, self-confident in their public roles. Thus, by a curious circular process, the sentimental attitudes that justified woman's ascendence to a moral pedestal led her into pathways that would undermine the very passivity and weakness which constituted the pedestal. Carried into public life, the principle of moral guardianship inevitably led toward politics.

During the 1830s another major non-domestic opportunity opened for women, the profession of school teaching. While women had taught in "dame schools" during the colonial period and in district schools after 1800, there was no regularity or professionalism in their employment. One of the major aims of the reformers who attacked education practices during the 1820s and '30s was the improvement of instruction, and to this end the reformers determined to replace men with women teachers. Typically in 1835 men taught district schools in winter when older boys attended, leaving summer schools and younger pupils to women instructors. Horace Mann, Henry Barnard, Thomas Gallaudet, and other New Englanders proposed that schools be graded and that younger pupils be taught, year-around, by women in district elementary schools, with older boys taught in central secondary schools by men.

The rationale for employing women teachers was well stated in 1839 by Horace Mann:

That females are better fitted by nature than males to train and educate young children is a position, which the public mind is fast maturing into an axiom. With economical habits in regard to all school expenditures, it is a material fact, that the services of females can be commanded for half the price usually paid to males. But what is of far higher moment is, that they are endowed by nature with a stronger affection for children; they have quicker sympathies, livelier sensibilities, and more vivid and enduring parental instincts. They are more free from coarse and vulgar practices, and their ears are unassailed by the voice of that political ambition, which constitutes the madness of our times.10

Mann's order of priorities is instructive: woman's greatest advantage as a teacher would be her cheapness, for she could be employed at half or less than half the wages paid to men. Other reformers pointed out this fact at length. The second argument for women teachers emphasized sentimentality: women possessed special moral and maternal qualities, the same qualities described more excessively by writers such as Mrs. Signourney and Catherine Beecher. Not mentioned explicitly by Mann was another justification for employing women in the schools, namely that adequate numbers of qualified men were simply not available to staff a rapidly expanding school system.

In the 1840s and '50s women came to dominate elementary teaching in Massachusetts, and increased dramatically in the schools of other New England states. Even in 1840 the school master was en route to oblivion at the district level. With the rapid increase in women teachers a critical need appeared for training facilities. Before 1840 most young women who entered education had little or no special preparation beyond an elementary understanding of common branches obtained at a local district school. A minority of such young women, and by the 1830s it was a growing minority, had obtained more advanced training at private academies or female seminaries. Some seminaries, such as those of the Rev. Joseph Emerson at Byfield and Saugus, Massachusetts and Wethersfield, Connecticut, offered programs that included pedagogical instruction. Two of Emerson's best students, Zilpah P. Grant and Mary Lyon, carried forth and expanded his effort to teach and recruit teachers at Ipswich and Mt. Holyoke female seminaries. Public support for teacher training, advocated in Massachusetts during the 1820s, became a reality with the opening of Lexington Normal School in 1839, the first normal institution with public sponsorship in this country. Carrying out the wishes of Horace Mann, the school was devoted exclusively to training female teachers. Lexington Normal, with its model school for practice teaching and observation, and its lectures on instructional techniques, served as a model for other normal institutions that shortly opened at Barre and Bridgewater, Massachusetts, and during the 1840s and '50s in other states.

Teaching possessed attractions for women, despite the obvious and calculated descrimination in salaries. For young ladies of respectable backgrounds, teaching represented a more prestigious vocation than textile labor or domestic work, among the few occupations open to single women. Through the labors of the school reformers, teaching had taken on at least some of the trappings of a professional occupation. There was a sense of mission also involved in teaching that must have attracted many zealous young women, for if the school promoters were correct, teachers had a profound responsibility for building a responsible, hard-working, pious, and patriotic citizenry. Perhaps it was this challenge that motivated hundreds of New England girls to go forth as educational missionaries to the West and South, or perhaps as some critics charged, they were more anxious to secure proper husbands. Then too, for a young woman of spirit and intelligence, school teaching could be a demanding intellectual pursuit, offering more of a field for the employment of imagination than most woman's work. It was, moreover, a semi-public occupation, conferring prestige and allowing a considerable degree of self-expression.

For all of its appeal to women, however, teaching was no panacea. In truth, and most of the promoters of female teachers admitted this truth and took advantage of it, teaching was to a great extent motherhood warmed over and spiced up. The same sentimental arguments used to elevate maternity into a noble calling served to make teaching seem an instrument of God's and the nation's will. Thus like textile manufacturing which had been women's work for centuries and remained women's work after industrialization, child rearing —women's work long before it gained the title "education"—was transferred into another kind of factory—the school. For all the advantages it gave the women who taught, school teaching served as a means of exploitation, giving men virtually all decision-making and administrative power, and offering women almost no chance to advance from the lowest rungs in the educational hierarchy. Men made the decisions, women did the work. Despite the drawbacks and limitations of teaching for women, many New England young ladies of the 1830s and '40s seem to have embraced the new occupation and found it in some sense liberating.11

One other manifestation of the impact of sentimental attitudes in education deserves consideration here. The female seminary movement was a vital and influential force in the training of New England women between 1815 and 1840. I have no figures on the number of such institutions, but they were scattered throughout the region. A few, like those conducted by the Rev. Joseph Emerson, the Hartford Seminary of Catherine Beecher, the seminaries at Londonderry, New Hampshire and Ipswich, Massachusetts, with Zilpah P. Grant as principal and Mary Lyon as assistant, and the Mt. Holyoke Seminary founded by Mary Lyon, gained reputations that extended beyond their immediate environs. The female seminaries offered training above the elementary level for the offspring of professional men and prosperous farmers. Steeped in sentimental values, they emphasized emotional piety and encouraged religious revivals. They seem to have functioned as major carriers and disseminators of sexual stereotypes. Dedicated not to the liberation of their pupils or the broadening of their limited horizons, the seminaries inculcated discipline, correct decorum, and domesticity. But if they produced few liberated women, the seminaries did train many teachers, some missionaries, many ministers' wives, and numerous other useful citizens. They reflected but did little to change the accepted values of the age, and their contributions should be remembered by more students of this period. The New England seminaries had numerous direct descendants in the West including Lake Erie and Mills Colleges. The female seminary was a conspicuous feature of many New England towns between 1815 and 1840.

The sentimental attitudes failed dramatically in one important area of influence: although textile manufacturers endeavored to create a genteel cultural enviroment at Lowell, their greatest industrial site, the attempt did not succeed. Along with strict regulations concerning behavior which gave boarding houses in the factory town an atmosphere not unlike that of female seminaries, the management encouraged their operatives to embark upon a literary venture, the Lowell Offering. This periodical provided an outlet for verses, inspirational writings, and other compositions in the sentimental vein written by the young mill workers themselves. The Offering existed for about five years, but in the end its aim of cultural uplift was clearly irrelevant to the purposes of the textile mill owners and the operatives themselves who, after working twelve or thirteen hours each day, could muster little enthusiasm for sentimental literature.12 In other factory communities management made no pretense of encouraging cultural uplift. The triumph of economic interests over sentiment illustrated in women's factory employment may suggest that sentimental attitudes were less pervasive than they have been made to appear. I would judge that for working women in manual occupations, who quite possibly aspired to the ideals of taste and behavior represented in the sentimental attitudes, employment and economic security were more important. To put it simply, the new attitudes dominated the lives of articulate, middle class women, but affected only indirectly the outlook of working women through the growing influence of public schools, popular literature, and sentimental piety.

In addition to their impact on women's nondomestic and organized activities, sentimental attitudes had considerable influence on taste. I am not prepared to discuss this influence at length, although it is certainly worthy of close attention. As previously indicated, sentimentality dominated much popular literature of the early 19th century. It was manifested particularly in the decorative arts. One thinks of the ornamental needlework created by so many young women with religious or mourning themes and overwrought decorative motifs. While such work is commonly associated with a later time period, it is evident before 1830. Fashion, furnishings, music, and graphic arts began to show the impact of sentiment before 1840. A worthwhile and revealing study could be made of the relationships between taste and attitudes toward women during the first half of the 19th century. I suspect it would bear out the suggestions offered here.

While not intended to be conclusive or comprehensive in any way, this discussion has offered several interpretations of the ways in which changing attitudes toward New England women in the early 19th century affected their lives and responsibilities outside the home. Unfortunately, as I have indicated, insufficient detailed research has been done to verify these interpretations, to determine the impact made by sentimental views of woman in local communities. This impact deserves careful detailed examination to assess the roles of local clergymen and community leaders, of individual strong-minded women. Comparisons should be made between women's organizations in active and relatively inactive communities. And records of village societies should be preserved and studied with care. Whether comprehensive collections of records exist is doubtful, although parish church and denominational archives may contain some treasures. Many emphemeral published reports are recorded in institutions such as the Boston Public Library, although some of these have not been obtainable for several years. Religious and reformist periodicals also contain local information. The library at Old Sturbridge Village holds the records of three female organizations representing various dimensions of women's non-domestic concerns. Studies of local situations should not isolate women's activities, however, but treat them in the context of total community environments.

The sources and impact of women's changing attitudes and roles remain obscure or in dispute. These developments clearly relate to more massive social, economic, industrial, and demographic changes. It has been suggested that sentimentality grew in direct proportion to industrialization and the dislocations and ugliness that accompanied urban industrial growth. Faced with crowded, dirty cities, English and later American women turned away toward a fantasy world of sentimentality. Attitude change was influenced by increasing emotionalism in the evangelical religious movements of this period and the massive religious organizations that emerged from these movements. The new attitudes were also a response to a growing emphasis on individuality and personal responsibility which seemed to characterize New England during this period. Children in particular were treated increasingly as individuals and the duties of their parents became accordingly more significant. American mothers, functioning in a republic, had a special unique responsibility in rearing, training, and improving the character of future citizens and voters. Also the period was one of rapid change and uncertainty. One detects in so much of this literature a profound uneasiness, an almost frantic effort to stabilize cultural and behavioral standards. The sentimentalizing of women may be interpreted as one attempt to establish a firm value-cluster in a nation of diverse cultural traditions and extensive geographical mobility. Perhaps it is significant that the new attitudes seem to have had their greatest impact among members of the middle classes, many of whom were unsure of their social position. Whatever the sources of change, they were deeply involved in the entire pattern of American growth during this time period. It is an axiom, certainly for the early 19th century, that women's history was profoundly involved in the whole history of the United States. How did the changing attitudes affect women? Some relationships have already been described, but a more general summary is in order. To the extent that the new duty of moral guardianship led to organized activity, it motivated women to band together in thousands of local groups which learned how to raise money, conduct business, and fulfill responsibilities to a constituency beyond the boundaries of domesticity. The experience of organizing to perform good works brought about a self-consciousness among many participants, or in modern parlance, led to "consciousness-raising." Many earnest ladies who met to sew and pray for a worthy cause experienced a sense of exhileration which could only be enhanced by the many occasions when their roles as mothers, teachers, missionaries, soul-saviors, and reformers were glorified by admiring groups of clergy and laymen. Thus numerous women attained a kind of primitive feminist consciousness, a sense of their distinct and important roles as women, from their work in the various movements. But some of their activities created grievances and opposition, which acted as additional stimulants to militancy. Women abolitionists, in particular, became highly controversial figures and the more radical of their number moved toward political action, beyond the usual rhetorical moralism. They discovered as their opponents—most notably orthodox clergymen-moved to attack them and deny their full humanity, their own kinship with the slaves whom they sought to make free. Similarly, the thousands of women who entered teaching discovered their second-class citizenship in terms of financial rewards. For doing a man's work they received far less than a man's pay. A very few radicals carried such grievances beyond mere complaint into a totally new and unprecedented movement to emancipate the female sex from prejuduice, discrimination, and outworn inequities.

My basic point should by now be clear: as I interpret the situation of women in New England between 1790 and 1840, it seems apparent that changing attitudes and practices played a significant part in releasing women from their domestic restraints and providing an environment in which a feminist movement could emerge and flourish. It is also clear that women's non-domestic activities enlivened many New England communities during this period, although details of their impact must be studied on a local basis in order to deliniate specific relationships. Women made many New England communities more interesting places and in the process made themselves more interesting people, more capable of exercising their innate abilities. They deserve to be remembered.



  1. Cotton Mather, Ornaments for the Daughters of Zion, or the Character and Happiness of a Virtuous Woman (London, 1964), p. 98, pp. 105-110. This summary of New England conditions is based largely on my Ph.D. dissertation, The Beginnings of the Women's Rights Movement in the United States, 1800-1840 (Yale, University, 1963), plus additional research carried out since the dissertation was completed. Numerous articles and some books have appeared within the last ten years dealing with women's history in this period, among them Robert E. Riegel, American Feminists (Lawrence, Kansas, 1963), Andrew Sinclair, The Emancipation of the American Woman (New York, 1965), William L. O'Neill, Everyone Was Brave: The Rise and Fall of Feminism in America (Chicago, 1969), and Page Smith, Daughters of the Promised Land: Women in American History (Boston, 1970). Not one of these general volumes treats changing attitudes toward women and changing patterns of behavior in New England between 1790 and 1840 satisfactorily.
  2. Julia C. Spruill, Women's Life and Work in the Southern Colonies (Chapel Hill, 1938); Elizabeth A. Dexter, Colonial Women of Affairs (Boston and New York, 1924), and Career Women of America, 1776-1840 (Francestown, N. H., 1950).
  3. Elizabeth Erskine, "Female Education, its Importance and in What it Should Consist," Common School Assistant (Albany, N. Y.), vol. 4, no. 6 (June, 1839), p. 44; Margaret Coxe, Claims of the Country on American Females (Columbus, Ohio, 1842) I, p. 32.
  4. Catherine E. Beecher, "An Address to the Protestant Clergy of the United States," (n. p., n. d.).
  5. Lydia Sigourney, Letters to Mothers (Hartford, 1838), preface. The prevalence of sentimental attitudes is well summarized in Barbara Welter, "The Cult of True Womanhood, 1820-1860," American Quarterly vol. 18, no. 2 (Summer 1966), pp. 151-174; other approaches include Page Smith, op. cit. ch. 4, and Clifton J. Furness, The Genteel Female: An Anthology (New York, 1931), esp. pp. 207-236.
  6. Anne L. Kuhn, The Mother's Role in Childhood Education: New England Concepts, 1830-1860 (New Haven, 1947).
  7. This issue too has recently been subjected to various approaches, but not to any conclusive analyses; most suggestive is Philippe Aries, Centuries of Childhood, A Social History of Family Life (New York, 1962). Charles Strickland, "A Transcendentalist Father: The Child-Rearing Practices of Bronson Alcott," in Perspectives in American History, ed. by Donald Fleming and Bernard Bailyn (vol. 3, Cambridge, 1969) pp. 5-73, describes a radical approach to childhood based on romantic and sentimental principles which, carried to a lesser extreme, were accepted by many New Englanders. Despite recent investigation, attitudes toward children in the period under discussion here need much additional research and interpretation.
  8. For a preliminary survey of early women's benevolent activities see Keith E. Melder, "Ladies Bountiful: Organized Women's Benevolence in Early 19th-Century America," New York History, vol. 48 (July, 1967), pp. 231-254.
  9. The impact of the Grimke sisters has been surveyed in Gerda Lerner, The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina: Rebels Against Slavery (Boston, 1967), chs. 9-14, and Keith E. Melder, "Forerunners of Freedom: The Grimke Sisters in Massachusetts, 1837-38," Essex Institute Historical Collections, vol. 103, no. 3 (July, 1967). The practical and philosophical aspects of women's antislavery work have been treated in Aileen S. Kraditor, Means and Ends in American Abolitionism (New York, 1969), ch. 3.
  10. Common School Journal (Boston), vol. 1, no. 6 (March 15, 1839), p. 85.
  11. I have discussed these issues in an unpublished paper delivered at the 16th annual meeting of the Midcontinent American Studies Assn., Lawrence, Kansas, March 27, 1971, entitled "Woman's High Calling: the Teaching Profession in America, 1830-1860." Suggestive and somewhat extreme interpretations of various problems attacked by the school reformers are contained in Michael Katz, The Irony of Early School Reform: Educational Innovation in Mid-Nineteenth Century Massachusetts (Cambridge, 1968).
  12. See Hannah Josephson, The Golden Threads: New England's Mill Girls and Magnates (New York, 1949), for an interpretation of Lowell and cultural pretensions in that community.

Curators Notes

Keith Melder, Aspects of the Changing Status of New England Women, 1790-1840, (Old Sturbridge Village, Sturbridge, MA).

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