Women of the Nineteenth Century
During the early nineteenth century, women were subjected to stereotypes that limited what their gender was thought to be capable of. No woman was able to escape the inferior label. The level of so-called inferiority differed between races. African American and Native American women surprisingly held much importance and responsibility in caring for the family and the community, whether it was a plantation or tribe. From hard labor to excelling at certain jobs that increased respect amongst their peers, these two races of women often handled much more of the workload. They also held a higher status when compared to men within their own race than did Anglo American women. Prior to the nineteenth century, Anglo women were perceived as submissive homemakers who married for social status or to protect what the family already owned. They were responsible for far less than African and native women of the time were. The social reform movement and women s rights movement changed women s roles differently between races. The movements provided Anglo American women with opportunities and new thought processes that raised the expectation of themselves as members of society while hindering the previous lifestyles of Native American women(this essay will focus on Cherokee) and doing little to change the lifestyles of free or slave African American women.
Because of horrible racism and the fact that the majority of African Americans were still slaves in the first half of the nineteenth century, social reform and women s movements did little to change how they were perceived by white society. Free African Americans were no longer the legal property of a slave owner, but were considered outcasts by whites. With little political or legal rights, free blacks had difficulties finding jobs that paid even remotely well. The women of these families struggled along with her husband and children to make ends meet. Struggling was something slave woman knew all too well.
African American slave women were not really affected by the movements of the nineteenth century since they were, still in fact, the property of someone else. The roles slave women played within the plantations were, however, of much more significance than any responsibility Anglo women held during that time.
Slave women performed many jobs that males also were accustomed to such as carrying and spreading manure as fertilizer, hoeing the fields, and carrying wood. In addition to these responsibilities, women of the plantations took on jobs that were strictly considered female work like cooking, sewing, weaving, and midwifery.
Excelling at a task offered some women slaves opportunities others could not receive. An exceptional seamstress might sew clothes for her master to sell, sometimes retaining a bit of the profit she made for him. Midwifery was difficult and took several years to learn, but once a woman was able to assist in childbirth, she often found herself helping in many other areas. Midwives responsibilities usually extended to caring for men and children, as well as pregnant women. In fact, the majority of a slave s medical care was provided by these women slaves.3 Not every female slave had such opportunities, though.
Many spent their existence in the fields from sunup to sundown, where the teachings of their youngest daughters took place. Some larger plantations had groups of women called trash gangs. These were made up primarily of children being introduced to plantation labor, pregnant women, and elderly members of the slave population. With such a difference in age amongst members of trash gangs, many lessons on life, religion, and culture were passed down to the youngest of the female slaves.4
The important thing to realize about slave women was their self-reliance. They lived largely independent lives from slave men. Women were not as submissive on plantations as were other races of women. Male dominance was based on ownership of land and property and the ability to provide for his family. On a plantation, neither male nor female owned the land they lived on or the roof over their head for they were dependent on their master for these things. Putting slave men and women on an equal plane like this contributed to a slave woman s sense of independence.5
This mentality carried throughout the nineteenth century, as only the results of the Civil War would truly alter free and slave African American s lives. Other races of women would not have to wait so long.
Anglo American women entered the nineteenth century passively as the colonial times were being absorbed by industrialization, but would quickly change. Romance novels were introduced, stressing the idea that marriage should be out of love and not for monetary gains. Soon marriages were being based more on physical attractiveness, leading to wives being looked at as companions and not servants by their husbands. Along with finding more fulfillment in their marriages, Anglo women began being incorporated into the social reform ideas for creating the perfect society.6
These ideas of how women should behave in the role of society became known as the Cult of True Womanhood. 7 Anglo women were supposed to be spiritual rather than physical. A woman s place was in the home, which she was responsible for filling with love and morality. The home was a separate entity from the outside world in which the woman created a comfortable haven for her husband and children. Another important part of this mind frame was being openly submissive to men.8 The alliance of women began taking shape during this time, also.
The concept of sisterhood formed as sexual identity drew more and more women together. By the 1820 s, middle and upper class women formed organizations to help poor and less fortunate women. The reasons for these foundations were to pick up the weaker women who needed help and to raise the concept of womanhood to a national level.9
Education also took on importance to Anglo women. There was a growing voice by some feminists that education needed to be offered and more readily available to the female gender. Individuals such as Emma Willard, Mary Lyon, and the Beecher sisters spurned this movement, while adapting to the concerns of parents and husbands. The first seminaries started by these women had to disguise their teachings as learning s valuable to any woman in the home. Many men felt that an educated woman would no longer be able to perform her domestic tasks. Chemistry was taught under the promise that what they learned could be applied to the kitchen. Mathematics would be useful around the house. The key concept these women grasped was that they had to assure men that their women would not desert them once she became even modestly educated.10 Teaching soon became a role Anglo women would take over.
As population grew and the expansion of the United States widened, so did the need for qualified teachers. The pay was lousy and the living conditions were often far from home and lonely, but women quickly enveloped the role of teacher. This need for more teachers quieted many opposers of educating women as no man wanted the job.11 The schoolroom became an extension of the home, which was a woman s zone to begin with.
The social reforms of the nineteenth century domesticated Anglo women but also provided for their education and ability to gain new jobs like teaching. This reform movement did little to further the advancement of Native American women.
Many tribes experienced different outcomes as Anglo Americans reformed to create a perfect society. The Cherokee Indian women occupied a separate sphere from men like Anglo American women, but held much more importance on the Indian economy, politics, and society. Their responsibilities included usual domestic tasks such as cooking, sewing, and caring for children. Like African American women, they took on additional roles. Native American women did most of the farming and labor as it was believed to be a part of their gender, just as hunting was a part of being male. Husbands lived with their wives families as property and ownership was mainly matriarchal.
Polygamy was common as husbands split his time between wives.12 Manifest Destiny soon altered this way of living as the eighteenth century drew to a close.
Anglo Americans began showing the Cherokees how to raise sheep and cattle while at the same time teaching the women to spin and sew. Although the men resented raising animals instead of hunting, women welcomed the sewing as it was a way to profit from their interaction with the Anglo Americans.13 The influence on Native Americans soon progressed.
Missionaries began teaching the Cherokee that polygamy was sinful, and that women needed to spend more time focusing on domestic matters rather than farming and other labors. Taking care of the home was taught not to be degrading, but required to maintain a well balanced society. Schools were set up to teach academics, as well as instruct on knitting and sewing for girls. In essence, the Native American women were taught how to behave like Anglo American women.14
This mentality did not win over all Cherokee women. They enjoyed the economic gains of their interaction with white people, but fought the teachings of the missionaries. Many continued living traditionally and ignored leaders enforcing the white way of life. Some of the Cherokee women s independence and responsibility was eventually stripped from them through legislation.14 Thus, the Native
Women in general faced similar stereotypes and oppression during the early nineteenth century. How the social reforms of that century affected women depended on their race. African American women continued to struggle, regardless of advances others were making during this time. Anglo American women gained social status as education and women s rights became predominant during the time. Native American women, predominantly Cherokee, lost some of their independence and responsibility as the Anglo American idealism of Manifest Destiny absorbed much of their culture. Advances were made and set backs occurred, but women overall took steps towards equality that would be resumed after the Civil War.