A Primer on Women’s Life in 19th Century America

19th century womanI’m getting closer to being able to tell all of you exactly who my next historical fiction book is about. I sent it off to the freelance editor whom I worked with on the first Guinevere book yesterday, as well as the first reader. I should get edits back in 4-6 weeks, then I’ll put it out for a quick beta read and be able to finally reveal her identity.

Until then, I thought I’d give you a brief taste of what life was like for a woman during the period of my novel (mid-late 1800s in America). As with my previous post about the new book, I’m not listing my sources yet because their titles would give away who my main character is. I’ll come back and add them as soon as I can.

The early 19th century had seen mostly traditional female roles centered around hearth, home and babies. But as war always seems to do, the Civil War gave some women an additional measure of independence, mostly out of necessity while her husband/father/brothers/sons were off fighting. However, after the cannon fire stopped echoing through the valleys and the guns went silent, she was expected to resume her traditional role.

Behavior
Personal ambition in a woman was considered evil. She was expected to obey her father or her husband without complaint. The less she showed intelligence, the better off she was. In fact, the quieter and more sickly looking a woman was – frail, thin, pale, prone to fainting – the more attractive she was. (Ironically, she had little recourse if she actually was sickly. Many male doctors believed all women were inherently diseased and refused to treat them.)

There were social taboos against women speaking in public. To call attention to oneself in public was unladylike and considered a form of treachery to one’s husband because when she strayed from her proper place in the home, a woman caused him shame. An interesting exception to this rule was made for mediums, who were exempt because they were instruments of God’s will. (More on the Spiritualism craze of the day in a future post.)

Laws
Unsurprisingly, the law was not on a woman’s side, especially if she was unmarried, divorced, or widowed. Women couldn’t vote, serve on juries or testify in court.

Beating a woman was not illegal, but some laws stipulated how large of an object could be used. (Thanks for that, lawmakers.)  A married woman had no recourse if she was beaten and she couldn’t deny sex to her husband. As a result, families were large. Unwanted infants were wrapped in rags and abandoned on doorsteps or tossed in the river.

Women were considered property of their husbands. Divorce was legal, but the laws by which it was enforced or allowed varied by state. In many, adultery was the only reason a woman could ask for a divorce. And if she did, she faced steep consequences: she could lose her property, children and reputation.

Work
Some women did work, usually out of necessity, and many made barely enough to keep themselves alive. Acceptable occupations included teaching (there were even some schools for girls by the second half of the century), factory work and domestic service. Wages paid to married women went straight to their husbands.

Prostitution was very common and in many ways, much accepted, at least for men. It was expected that young, unmarried men would frequent brothels. It was also acceptable for married men to go there. After all, sex within marriage wasn’t about pleasure; it was about procreation. In many areas of the country, guidebooks to the local brothels were created and disseminated among the male population, rating the establishments, profiling certain women and giving a summary of ambiance and services offered.

Sex
In polite society, parts of the body normally covered by clothing were referred to only in whispers. Words related to sex – even pregnancy, rape and abortion – weren’t used in among anyone with class.

While a man could do as he pleased within or outside of marriage, a woman adultery was highly shamed, as was a woman who wasn’t a virgin on her wedding night.

Despite the acceptance of prostitution, the prostitutes themselves were considered the lowest class of woman. They were forbidden a Christian burial and could not get proper medical care. (Another ironic medical assumption of the day: women could carry sexually transmitted diseases, but could not become infected with them. Some doctors believed that all sexually transmitted diseases originated with women. The condom was originally developed to shield a man from diseases a woman might be carrying, not as contraception.)

Suffrage Movement
I’ll do a detailed post on the early years of the suffrage movement soon, but for now, let’s just say it was a haven for women who didn’t believe in the status quo. Most the exceptions to societies norms were involved in the suffrage movement. Women who were the first to receive degrees of higher education (especially in the areas of law and medicine) were involved. These women were not only campaigning for the right to vote; they were voices for change for women on all fronts.

Spiritualism
If a woman was clairvoyant, she could find a degree of power because she was allowed to speak and people listened. Spiritualists also sought temperance laws to protect women from abuse by drunken husbands and favored vegetarianism because they saw the killing of animals as a form of male violence. Many were involved in creating Utopian communities were women and men were considered equal and Free Love was the norm. (More on that to come as well.)

What questions do you have about women in the 19th century? What did you already know? What surprises you?

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