Women in the 1800s

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Despite the growth of industry, urban centers and immigration, America in the late 19th century was still predominantly rural. Seven out of ten people in the United States lived in small towns with populations under 2500 or on farms in 1870. In Indiana, the 1880 census reported a population of almost 2 million residents, about 55 per square mile, 1,010,000 men and 968,000 woman. About three out of four people lived in rural areas. Although much of the study done on woman's roles during this period looks at the roles of the emerging urban middle class or those of immigrant women, the changes that occurred affected rural women, too.

The "Cult of Domesticity, " first named and identified in the early part of the century, was solidly entrenched by late nineteenth century, especially in rural environments. The beliefs embodied in this ‘Cult' gave women a central, if outwardly passive, role in the family. Women's God-given role, it stated, was as wife and mother, keeper of the household, guardian of the moral purity of all who lived therein. The Victorian home was to be a haven of comfort and quiet, sheltered from the harsh realities of the working world. Housework took on a scientific quality, efficiency being the watchword. Children were to be cherished and nurtured. Morality was protected through the promulgation of Protestant beliefs and social protest against alcohol, poverty and the decay of urban living.

Pulling against these traditions was the sense of urgency, movement and progress so evident in the geographical, industrial, technological and political changes affecting the country. Women's roles were meant to steady all this uncertainty, but women could not help but see opportunities for themselves in this growth. Jobs opened up in factories, retail establishments and offices, giving single women new options. Education became mandatory for both genders in many states. Women sought higher education, too, first in all female institutions and then in co-ed environments. The push for women's rights, with suffrage in the forefront, also gathered momentum. Regardless of these changes, throughout the nineteenth century, 95% of married women remained "at home."

The proliferation of popular literature and the expansion of communications through the press and other means could not have helped but enlighten rural women to the opportunities opening up for their gender. Their lives, however, were tied to house and children, endlessly unacknowledged work, little opportunity for outside contact or variety of experience, and little relief from everyday triviality. The extent to which farm women felt any fulfillment or larger meaning may indeed have been tied to how well they could balance the tensions between the expectations of the culture and the day-to-day, unrelenting tasks of housekeeping, child rearing and farm life.

Keeping the Home
" A really good housekeeper is almost always unhappy. While she does so much for the comfort of others, she nearly ruins her own health and life. It is because she cannot be easy and comfortable when there is the least disorder or dirt to be seen." The Household, January 1884

"...some one said that woman's best work is that which is unseen by mortal eye...that this work is the steady uplifting and upholding of a higher standard of living; it is the reaching forward and upward, both for ourselves and others, towards a loftier life... Yes, it is hard. But, sisters, it is work that belongs to us. It is work that, if not done by us, will never be done at all. For man cannot do it - as far as the family is concerned...For as a rule, and it is a rule that has few exceptions, woman creates the atmosphere of the home." Mrs. Julia C.R. Dorr, The Household, Vol. V, 1872

Women's popular literature of the period is full of advice about and encouragement for proper housekeeping. Implicit in this advice is the notion that by keeping a clean, neat, pious home and filling it...
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