The American experiment that began as a Republic after ratification of the Constitution created political, social, and economic participation for its citizens, but not for women. The status of women in the early 19th century was shaped by economic considerations, religious beliefs, and long-held notions of female inferiority. While poor, laboring women suffered the most, the characteristics of inequality were evident in all social classes. The Proper Role of Women in the Early Republic
The early 19th century experienced a shift, at least for women in the urban centers of the Northeast, from the household economies that reflected an agricultural society to the necessity of linking female responsibilities with their husband’s careers. For lower class women, this meant supplementing family income by working either in early industrial mills, as domestic servants, or vending on city streets. Upper middle class women focused on social endeavors tied to their husband’s employment and continued social upper mobility. This included supervising servants, facilitating parties, and raising the children. Women who voiced any political activism were frowned upon. Perhaps the only place a woman might venture such opinions was around the dinner table. Above all, women were equated with virtue and purity. Middle and upper class women devoted time to helping charities that sought to alleviate the plight of the poor, especially widows and abandoned mothers with children. They worked with Protestant missions and labored to save poor women from prostitution. Due to the cult of female purity, they were viewed as being the best teachers, the “moral guardians” of society. Women in the Working Class
In the early 19th century, many Northeast cities, especially port cities, saw an increase in crude mass production industries, as in the first textile mills. One result was the use of poor class women working for cheap wages, often to augment their husband’s meager incomes. Some poor women...
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