Early Nineteenth Century Attitudes Toward Women and Their Roles as Represented By Literature Popular in Worcester, Massachusetts

by Elaine Fortin

Type Papers and Articles: OSV Research Paper

This paper will deal with the attitudes of the early nineteenth century toward women and their roles. The paper will examine these attitudes by utilizing primary sources such as newspapers and advice and housekeeping books and by comparing them to books written today on the topic of nineteenth century women. Many examples taken from period newspapers represent the opinion of historian Barbara Welter that attitudes of women were based on their possession of certain well?defined virtues. This paper will concentrate on the vitues of piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity. This paper will also address the question of female education, as an issue of the period was whether a formal or practical education would accent these virtues and better prepare women for their stations in life. The attitudes represented are those of the working class. The locations concentrated on are small or medium sized towns such as Athol, Barre, Fitchburg, Millbury and Southbridge that are influenced by the city of Worcester. The sources represented are those available to the common man. They tend to exclude the feelings of the upper and lower classes.

Newspapers were written for the purpose of informing the community of world and national events. The varied topics suggests they catered to a diversified audience. Newspapers included stories about people in history, anecdotes which represented moral attitudes, sentimental poems and advertisements. The classifieds indicate that the audience was made up of both men and women. There were advertisements for boy apprentices and tailoresses, and manufacturers advertised everything from harnesses to bonnets. To afford these, the audience need not have had a large income nor have held a powerful position in the community. The advertisements represented items in which the average citizens might have an interest.

Magazines were published less frequently than newspapers and, therefore, one issue of a magazine printed quarterly would include the same amount of information found in twelve newspapers. Unlike the newspapers, which were distributed at the local level, magazines had a larger audience. This audience was national and represented people from different backgrounds and different experiences. Though topics discussed were the same as those in newspapers, magazines included articles from different points of view.

Books were written for a more selective audience. The books used in this paper were housekeeping and advice books. Interestingly enough, much advice was written on the topic of housekeeping. These books were expected to be read by women. One of the major topics of discussion was the most efficient utilization of a husband's income. If the books were for men as well, they would not have excluded the husband from advice on managing something of his wife's.

Novels were written as a form of entertainment for women. They were often sentimental, a characteristic attributed in the nineteenth century to women. In a single novel, the topics discussed were fewer than in other forms of literature. Novels presented a very limited view of the society in which they were written. The novel Live and Let Live, for example, discussed intemperance, piety, and the proper treatment of servants. It studied the lives of the lower and upper classes and did not deal with the middle classes who neither depended solely on their daughter's income, nor maintained servants enough to abuse. A novel's audience was smaller and more selective. It involved a conscious decision to purchase and read a single novel unlike receiving the weekly newspaper or the quarterly magazine. Diaries and journals were written with no audience in mind. They were personal records of progress in school, of harvests, of religious salvation and of individual thoughts. They represent personalized accounts of events. The same events might appear in a newspaper but they are far removed from the person who experienced them. Letters differed in that they intended to be read, but they were composed with a particular individual in mind. The topics and approaches may be specific and limited. For example, information about life, which would be obvious to persons living in the early nineteenth century, might be intentionally omitted for that reason. This is also the case in diaries and journals, which is why they are not concentrated on in this paper. Other sources have proven much too useful to condense them and include sources which provide only sketches of information. The opinions in this paper have developed from reading all these sources. These opinions are maintained because of the frequency with which the same attitudes were expressed by people of the period.

Carried into the specialized and industrialized communities of the nineteenth century, the eighteenth century agrarian view of women participating in the work close to the home while their husbands went into the fields, dominated. Traditionally, it was believed that women were essentially different in character from men. This was a convenient necessity because, it was maintained, they were here on earth for a different purpose than a man. Women were homemakers. They nourished their families and kept them safe from the cruel world. Husbands depended on their wives to maintain solace in their homes. In an article written for Freedom's Sentinel, the characteristics of the feminine mind were described as tenderness and simplicity, characteristics which made home life more amiable to the man who had to deal with the corrupt, complex world. Men were encouraged to trust a woman as a confident and a friend. Women expressed disappointment if they were not able to serve their husbands as mental, as well as physical, companions. "For if the character of women were thoroughly understood, they would be found too good to be hated and yet not good enough to be idolized."1 It was determined that the more virtuous women maintained a more stable home life.

"What virtues do you wish more of?"

Patience, Love, Silence,
Obedience, Generosity, Perseverance,
Industry, Respect, Self?denial.

"What vices less of?"

Idleness, Wilfulness, Vanity,
Impatience, Imprudence, Pride,
Selfishness, Activity, Love of cats.2

Piety was a valued asset in a woman. Piety brought her social advantages in the form of active participation in the community as a member of a church?affiliated charitable society. Such a useful, Christian position commanded the respect and praise of the community. Particpation in religion encouraged women's self?esteem.

The trend in the belief of feminine inferiority was halted as women effectively managed organizations not directly related to the family. To alleviate the fears of men that their wives were concentrating on issues unrelated to the family, piety did not keep a wife from her proper sphere. Meetings could be held in the home. Young children could be brought along the same way they would be when visiting friends. The lady of the house would demonstrate her domestic skills by cleaning the house before her guests arrived and by making sure they had something to accompany the tea which could be served during a meeting.

It was believed that a woman's gentler nature better suited her to piety and charity. The number of women that ministers found among their congregations was great. The obituary in June, 1835, of Mrs. Debby Thompson, the wife of the minister, cited the benefits of religion to women. The virtuous character of the deceased gave example of how religion could bring pleasure to the mind and be the controlling power over the conduct of life. Furthermore, other women could take example from Mrs. Thompson who did not regard the duties of domestic life as beneath the Christian notice of character and professed it was not inconsistent with her obligations to God and the Savior.

Women may have found peace from the corruption of the world through religion. It also provided an outlet for the personal trials which women were forced to confront from day to day. Men could use their job to take their mind off of trouble at home, but women's job was at home. The death of a child was one example of a woman's involvement with religion. Religion instructed to love God before all others. The mother was often torn between the belief that her piety had provided salvation for her child and the thought that a moment of impiety on her part may have invoked God's wrath.

Piety was not always good for all women. It had its dangers and disadvantages. "Mental derangement caused by religious excitement" was given as the cause of suicides among women.3 And men were not to be excluded from piety. An article in the National Aegis, from the Boston Centinel, examined how religion tended to form a manly character.

Women were expected to be pure and magazines provided sufficient fear of the dangers of impurity. But, only women were coached directly on remaining pure. Men were advised what to do to get back on the track once they had strayed. They were first advised about the importance of their desires and satisfaction. The fact that it was basic to educate a woman on keeping her husband's heart as pure as possible indicates that women expected a high rate of activity on the part of the man. A man of the period was expected to respect purity. If he made any overtures and a woman stopped him from violating her purity, he was expected to be grateful to her. The implication was that he would think much more of a woman who saved him from himself than he would of a woman who allowed him to ruin her purity. A woman's wisdom in these matters of delicacy was her means of influence over the nature of man.

Women, through religion and purity were helping others. Being self?sacrificing by nature, they could only damage their own character by asking more of themselves. Women were taught that to be true, they were required to submerge their own talents to work for their husbands. It was totally acceptable for a wife to complement her husband by paying lip service to him. One husband praised his wife for her "quick, womanly perception," when all she had done was agree with him.4

Women, it was supposed, had no reason not to be submissive, as their men would only give them the best. The Fitchburg Gazette of July 22, 1828, reported a tale of "Cruelty and Suicide" in which a young lady, long subject to the beatings of her father, in anticipation of another, committed suicide.

"But the treatment which she received at the hand of her father, we rejoice to believe, is as uncommon as it is outrageous." The tone implies that the young lady had fictionalized most of the danger, men rewarded submissive women. Submissive wives, who followed the, advice not to retort an abusive husband, received praise and were supposedly rewarded with a happy home and a faithful husband. Assertive women were bound to be punished for violating the natural order of the universe. The December 18, 1827 issue of the same paper ran a story called "The Mitten" in which a woman's vanity had precipitated her to respond negatively to a humble gentleman's advances. Later, he came into some money and the young lady was reduced to the station of governess of his children. Women were caught in the middle of a society where men complained that companionship was difficult with women because they had to treat them as little children, at the same time women were encouraged to act that way. Women were told that men only asked their opinions out of politeness and not out of a genuine interest in their conclusions. And their concern for the feelings of their husbands increased women's desire to submit.

"The World Corrupts, Home Should Refine," according to Mrs. William Parkes, author of Domestic Duties. This basic notion gave rise to the importance of the virtue of domesticity. This was the ability of women to make their homes refuges from the problems of the world. The focus of domesticity was on the wife and mother of the household. The only way to become a wife and mother was through marriage. Marriage was, therefore, the proper state in which to exercise domesticity.

Advisors warned women against marrying for the wrong reasons. They favored a sensible over a romantic choice. They felt the romantic choice would not satisfy the ideas of a young woman. This would lead to her unhappiness and her home would suffer as a result. If a woman chose a sensible partner, then her awareness of the responsibilities of marriage would not be clouded by romance and she would be better able to perform her duties as a wife.5

The wife's role was to complement her husband, reflecting credit on him and herself. A man took a wife to look after his affairs, and to prepare his children for their proper stations in life. It was a wife's duty to care for her husband's interests.6 To these ends, she was to be mistress of the family and run it well enough so that her husband would only enjoy it and could focus his attention on the matters of the world.7 As long as the household could be managed within the bounds of the husband's income by a woman who practiced and taught piety, purity and submissiveness, then "all [was] as it should be."8 Books devoted to housekeeping and cooking, made it perfectly clear that a woman's domain was her home and she was expected to have total charge of all within. If she was unfamiliar with family management, she was urged to consult the authorities.9

Men had pretty particular ideas about the qualifications of their wives. They had been trained since ancient times to look for specific examples of perfection. The January 10, 1832 issue of the Fitchburg Gazette included this poem to give prospective husbands an example of the prerequisites they might want to require:

"I'd have her reason, all her passions away???
"Easy in company—in private gay???
"Coy to a fop—to the deserving free???
"Still constant to herself, and true to me;
"I'd have the expression of her thoughts be such
"She should not seem reserv'd, not talk too much.
"Her conduct regular—her mirth refined???
"Civil to strangers—to her neighbors kind."

If the spouse was not quite what was in mind prior to marriage, there was direction given to men on how to make a perfect wife after marriage.

Articles were just as specific about what a woman should look for in her husband. She was urged to avoid men who used profanity as these might corrupt the children. She was asked to avoid men who frequented taverns or were known as gamblers. Later, wives were advised on how to make men love marriage, and consequently, be good husbands. The Plebian and Millbury Workingman's Advocate ran an article entitled "Female Accomplishments" which emphasized that when a man married, he wanted a companion, not an artist. She should be someone to comfort and counsel, someone who is able to reason and reflect. This would insure that she could think on her own and would not have to bother her husband with petty problems. She should have the capacity to feel, judge, discourse and discriminate. She should be able to assist her husband in his affairs, lighten his cares, soothe his sorrows, strengthen his principles and educate his children.

The early life, it was believed, was the determining factor in the character of a child. Most of the child's early life was spent with its mother. It was important that she set a proper example. As mothers, women were endowed with the specialized task of raising a generation of Christian statesmen.10 Entrusted with such an important mission, public opinion tended to favor full?time mothering. Women in Montpelier, Vermont were reprimanded in the Fitchburg Gazette. The paper expressed curiosity as to how patriotic mothers managed "to get rid of their responsibility for a day of sentiment and song," in celebration of Independence Day in July, 1831. The paper presumed the women were negligent in their responsibilities as mothers. It was their patriotic duty to be with their children. The paper did not express preference to keeping the mothers at home or including the children in the celebration. In contrast, there was an article in which the author expressed annoyance that so many parents should bring their children to church. He found them distracting. Again, no solutions were suggested.11

Women were commended for their devotion to their families. A lawyer wrote in the Barre Gazette, in regard to women comforting their loved ones appearing in court, that shame, sorrow, degradation, contempt were all forgotten in the strength of a woman's love. This love extended beyond the living. Many could sympathize with the widow of DeWitt Clinton who "since the deep bereavement which has occurred to her, has sunk beneath the weight of her affliction, and has been in a situation of total mental alienation, insisting that he is not dead, but only sleeping, and imploring those around her to awaken him."12

The importance of domesticity incited a great debate over the issue of female education. For the most part, it was decided that females should receive some education, but many disagreed about the subjects to be included. Many believed a "finished" education took away from the practical knowledge required for housewives. Men feared that an emphasis on academics would take away from her domesticity and the home life would suffer. Many believed that the natural order of things was with women cooking and performing other household tasks. Fearing the possible upset of this order, men created a defense mechanism to keep women from venturing from the domestic sphere.

They became openly hostile agaist women's education. Hostility toward women's education was thwarted by convincing men that an educated wife could only be an asset to him. Marriage could be jeapodized by a wife who could not keep house.13 One who had been properly trained, would not keep her husband from his business because she could not manage a house. Women were encouraged to go to school in hopes of getting a good husband.14

Foreigners commented on American women as being well?read, good company as they were educated with the duties they would have to their husbands in mind.15 Roman women, they compared, were not so nearly allied with barbarianism, as to only know motherhood and wifery.16 Used as arguments in favor of female education, these statements suggest that few expected women to be solely wives and mothers and expected them to cultivate their own talents if their situation allowed. An article entitled "Female Education," from the North American Review, reported that evils happened in the uncultivated mind. This would explain the condition of Grecian females who owed their degradation to faulty education and seclusion from society.17

Many sources emphasized the need for female propriety???behavior.18 One interested party stated, "little things, are everything with females. As you have no opportunity to display an extraordinary intellect in public, provided heaven has endowed you with one, as sphere of action is limited to domestic fireside, and an estimate is formed of your character from the commonest appearances. Elegance and grace and polite conversation among friends as well as in front of strangers....If it were in my power to endow my daughter with only one of two faculties???taste or genius???I would for a female select good taste."19 Newspapers encouraged the practical education of women, citing the difficulty with which a child raised by an ignorant mother had adjusting.20 They also included advertisements for less practical and more academic subjects, but these were few and far between. In October, 1831, Miss E. Gardner began advertising for the Fitchburg Academy which would instruct young ladies in reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar, geography, history, natural philosophy drawing, painting, French and plain and ornamental needlework, if desired. Some found shortcomings in an academic education. Women were dangerously adicted to novels according to literature of the period. They would not have gotten this way if their education had not exposed them to the novels. Reading became a very dangerous pasttime in the case of "a young lady, a passenger in a Canal Boat between Schenectady and Amsterdam, New York, was instantly killed while the boat was passing under a low bridge, her head being dreadfully crushed between the timbers of the bridge, and a trunk on which she was leaning. She was intently engaged in reading a book at the time of the accident."21 An argument against the education of females might have found its way into this example.

It was the issue of education and the natural order of the universe which most brought out the question of feminine inferiority. Public opinion supported the notion that virtue, innocence and submissiveness were the positive attributes of womanhood. These virtues symbolized the order of nature which enlightened thinkers agreed reflected the structure of the mind. Taught in a tradition which, for their sex, emphasized sentimentality, women deliberately avoided reason. Those who argued against women's education shared the assumption that the feminine mind had only limited capabilities. People continued to evaluate the feminine intellect and its accomplishments by how directly they manifested the established female virtues.22

The examples in the sources followed a trend. There were certain written and understood laws governing the behavior of women. These were very strict and limiting on the women. And then there were the real actions. There were the husbands who asked their wives' opinion even though some members of society thought it shortsighted and useless. And there were the wives who wanted the mental, as well as physical, relationship with their husbands that society said they were not qualified to receive.

Attitudes were harshly defined, but the roles performed were based on the practicality of performing them. For example, women were forced to remain at home because their husbands were expected to go out into the world, and someone had to manage the house and care for the children. If attitudes had allowed women to work outside the home, their roles may have been different, but they would still have been based on the practicality of their actions.

These conclusions, and any represented in the text, have been the result of comparisons and interpretations of the different sources involved. Some attitudes, for example, recurred in different sources and agreed with what has been written about the period. It is these opinions which this paper represents.


"American Women," from NY Mirror, Fitchburg Gazette, Fitchburg, MA, December 11, 1832.

"A Victim of Fanacticism," Freedom's Sentinel, Athol, MA, January 8, 1828.

"A Wife," Fitchburg Gazette, Fitchburg, MA, January 10, 1832.

Barre Gazette, Barre, MA, June 5, 1835. Conrad, Susan P., Perish the Thought, Oxford University Press, NY, 1976.

Cott, Nancy, The Bonds of Womanhood.

"Cruelty and Suicide," Fitchburg Gazette, Fitchburg, MA, July 22, 1828.

"Economy in a Family," National Aegis, Worcester, MA, July 21, 1830 (appeared as "Family Economy," Barre Gazette, Barre, MA, February 12, 1836).

The Experienced American Housekeeper, Johnstone and Van Norden, NY, 1823.

"Female Education," from North American Review, Freedom's Sentinel, Athol, MA, October 14, 1828.

Fitchburg Gazette, Fitchburg, MA, July 19, August 2, September 13, 1831.

Freedom's Sentinel, Athol, MA, March 4, 1828.

"Grecian Females," from Hughes' Travels in Greece, National Aegis, Worcester, MA, November 24, 1830.

Henderson, W.A., Modern Domestic Cookery, Isaac Tompkins, Boston, 1847.

Ladies Magazine, L.A. Godey, Philadelphia, 1831, 1832.

Lerner, Gerda, The Female Experience, The Bobbs?Merrill Company, Inc., Indianapolis, 1977.

"Letters From a Father to His Daughter," from the Portland (ME) Advertiser, National Aegis, Worcester, MA, November 17, 1830.

"The Mitten," Fitchburg Gazette, Fitchburg, MA, December 18, 1827.

National Aegis, Worcester, MA, June 16, 1830.

"Obituary," Barre Gazette, Barre, MA, June 5, 1835.

Parkes, Mrs. William, Domestic Duties, J. and J. Harper, NY, 1829.

"Religion Tending to Form a Manly Character," from the Boston Centinel, National Aegis, Worcester, MA, December 29, 1830.

"The Roman Women," Freedom's Sentinel, Athol, Ma, February 12, 1828.

"School for Young Ladies," Fitchburg Gazette, Fitchburg, MA, October 18, 1831.

"Suicide," from the Pittsfield Sun, Fitchburg Gazette, Fitchburg, MA, July 19, 1831.

Village Courier, Southbridge, MA.

Welter, Barbara, Dimity Convictions: The American Woman in the 19th Century, Ohio University Press, Athens, 1976. "Woman," Barre Gazette, Barre, MA, April 15, 1836.

"Woman," written for Freedom's Sentinel, Athol, MA, June 24, 1828.

"Young Children at Church," Fitchburg Gazette, Fitchburg, MA, October 25, 1831.



1. National Aegis, Worcester, MA, June 16, 1830.

2. Alcott, Louisa May., "Training the Girl to Patience," The Female Experience, Gerda Lerner, The Bobbs?Merrill Company, Inc., Indianapolis, 1977.

3. "Suicide," from the Pittsfield Sun, Fitchburg Gazette, Fitchburg, MA, July 19, 1831.

4. Welter, Barbara, Dimity Convictions; The American Woman in the 19th Century, Ohio University Press, Athens, 1976.

5. Lerner.

6. "Economy in a Family," National Aegis, Worcester, MA, July 21, 1830 (appeared as "Family Economy," Barre Gazette, Barre, MA, February 12, 1836).

7. The Experienced American Housekeeper, Johnstone and Van Norden, NY, 1823.

8. Henderson, W.A., Modern Domestic Cookery, Isaac Tompkins, Boston, 1847.

9. The Experienced American Housekeeper.

10. Welter.

11. "Young Children at Church," Fitchburg Gazette, Fitchburg, MA, October 25, 1831.

12. Freedom's Sentinel, Athol, MA, March 4, 1828.

13. Welter.

14. Cott, Nancy, The Bonds of Womanhood.

15. "American Women," from NY Mirror, Fitchburg Gazette, Fitchburg, MA, December 11, 1832.

16. "The Roman Women," Freedom's Sentinel, Athol, MA, February 12, 1828.

17. "Grecian Females," from Hughes' Travels in Greece, National Aegis, Worcester, MA, November 24, 1830.

18. Fitchburg Gazette, Fitchburg, MA, September 13, 1831.

19. "Letters From a Father to His Daughter," from the Portland (ME) Advertiser, National Aegis, Worcester, MA, November 17, 1830.

20. Fitchburg Gazette, Fitchburg, MA, August 2, 1831.

21. Barre Gazette, Barre, MA, June 5, 1835.

22. Conrad, Susan P., Perish the Thought, Oxford University Press, NY, 1976.

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