The Role and Perception of Women in 19th Century America

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WOMEN IN THE MIDDLE CLASS IN THE 19TH CENTURY

The nineteenth century for Europe and America has been called the "century of the middle class." Growth in both power and prestige of the middle class was perhaps the most important single development in social and economic history. Prior to the nineteenth century, there was a recognizable middle class, but it was not large. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, new wealth was created, and concomitantly the middle class became the harbingers of morals, the work ethic, and numerous other characteristics that have become part of our fabric of society. Who were the middle class? It was not a homogeneous unit in terms of occupation or income, but usually one received a salary rather than hourly wages. What today we would call a white collar worker. Included in this group called the middle class were ministers, lawyers, teachers, doctors, bureaucrats, business tycoons, traders, and shop keepers. The middle class were devoted to the ideal of family and home. During this time the home displaced the church as a refuge and spiritual haven. Home became a status symbol and emotional bulwark against the rude commercial world. The father was the master of the household. Middle class family rituals helped to sustain this hierarchy, with the father at the head of the table during meals. A popular adage of the day was "children were to be seen not heard." The wife was to be subject to her husband as well, and often treated as a superior servant not as an equal. Alfred Lord Tennyson's immortal words convey the wife's task to keep the household functioning smoothly and harmoniously: "Man for the field, woman for the hearth, 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." Home became the center of virtue and the proper life for women. The wife was not to do outside work. Historians are not certain why this happened. For centuries the wife aided her husband in his business. Many times the rearing of children was left to nurses and governesses. Now men began doing business only with other men. With the wife not contributing economically to the family finances, there was a definite lessening of her status within society. Middle class women were encouraged to be only dabblers in education and to pursue cultural endeavors of drawing, painting, singing or playing the piano. Finishing schools will eventually be established to foster these "talents." Women were to be married by twenty-one, and expected to begin having children immediately. Marriage was viewed almost as the sole vocation open to middle class women. These Victorian women (from 1837 to the end of the century, Queen Victoria ruled Great Britain, giving her name to this period of history) were given the epitaph "angel of the house" for their supposed innate spirituality. Not only were the women held responsible for the moral education of their children, but a wife was

2 supposed to elevate her husband's morality by being his spiritual advisor. A wife was expected to woo her husband to the benefits of home and family, and away from his natural instincts. As Sara Ellis, whose guide was widely read stated: "wife's principal duty was to raise the tone of her husband's mind and to lead his thoughts to repose on those subjects which convey a feeling of identity with a higher state of existence beyond this present life." Now the word "lady" no longer was reserved just for aristocratic ladies, but applied to middle class women in general. "Lord" was still used for aristocratic men only, however. Throughout the century and into the next one, the double standard prevailed regarding marriage and divorce laws. When a couple became engaged in England, her property was now his. Married women were barred from making contracts, appearing as witnesses in court, and initiating lawsuits. A wife's legal personality was subsumed under her husband's. Criminal...
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