women's silent sadness -- 3/25/24

Today's encore selection -- from A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn. After the Revolution in the United States, American society coalesced around controlling women's behavior and sexual activity while exploiting their labor. Women's "reduced rate," or free labor in the case of slaves, was critical to the growing economy. And they were coerced, compelled, and conditioned to be meekly submissive. They were encouraged to "not expect too much":

"[A]fter the Revolution, none of the new state constitutions granted women the right to vote, except for New Jersey, and that state rescinded the right in 1807. New York's con­stitution specifically disfranchised women by using the word ‘male.’

"While perhaps 90 percent of the white male population were literate around 1750, only 40 percent of the women were. Working-class women had little means of communicating, and no means of recording whatever sentiments of rebelliousness they may have felt at their subor­dination. Not only were they bearing children in great numbers, under great hardships, but they were working in the home. Around the time of the Declaration of Independence, four thousand women and children in Philadelphia were spinning at home for local plants under the ‘putting out’ system. Women also were shopkeepers and innkeepers and engaged in many trades. They were bakers, tinworkers, brewers, tan­ners, ropemakers, lumberjacks, printers, morticians, woodworkers, stay­makers, and more.

"Ideas of female equality were in the air during and after the Revolution. Tom Paine spoke out for the equal rights of women. And the pioneering book of Mary Wollstonecraft in England, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, was reprinted in the United States shortly after the Revolutionary War. Wollstonecraft was responding to the English con­servative and opponent of the French Revolution, Edmund Burke, who had written in his Reflections on the Revolution in France that 'a woman is but an animal, and an animal not of the highest order.' She wrote:

I wish to persuade women to endeavor to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and to convince them that soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonymous with epithets of weakness, and that those beings who are only the objects of pity and that kind of love ... will soon become objects of contempt. ... I wish to show that the first object of laudable ambition is to obtain a character as a human being, regardless of the distinction of sex.

"Between the American Revolution and the Civil War, so many ele­ments of American society were changing -- the growth of population, the movement westward, the development of the factory system, expan­sion of political rights for white men, educational growth to match the new economic needs -- that changes were bound to take place in the sit­uation of women. In preindustrial America, the practical need for women in a frontier society had produced some measure of equality; women worked at important jobs -- publishing newspapers, managing tanneries, keeping taverns, engaging in skilled work. In certain profes­sions, like midwifery, they had a monopoly. Nancy Cott tells of a grand­mother, Martha Moore Ballard, on a farm in Maine in 1795, who 'baked and brewed, pickled and preserved, spun and sewed, made soap and dipped candles' and who, in twenty-five years as a midwife, delivered more than a thousand babies. Since education took place inside the fam­ily, women had a special role there.

"There was complex movement in different directions. Now, women were being pulled out of the house and into industrial life, while at the same time there was pressure for women to stay home where they were more easily controlled. The outside world, breaking into the solid cubi­cle of the home, created fears and tensions in the dominant male world, and brought forth ideological controls to replace the loosening family controls: the idea of 'the woman's place,' promulgated by men, was accepted by many women.

"As the economy developed, men dominated as mechanics and tradesmen, and aggressiveness became more and more defined as a male trait. Women, perhaps precisely because more of them were moving into the dangerous world outside, were told to be passive. Clothing styles devel­oped -- for the rich and middle class of course, but, as always, there was the intimidation of style even for the poor -- in which the weight of women's clothes, corsets and petticoats, emphasized female separation from the world of activity.

Social Theorist Harriet Martineau by Richard Evans

"It became important to develop a set of ideas, taught in church, in school, and in the family, to keep women in their place even as that place became more and more unsettled. Barbara Welter (Dimity Convictions) has shown how powerful was the 'cult of true womanhood' in the years after 1820. The woman was expected to be pious. A man writing in The Ladies' Repository: 'Religion is exactly what a woman needs, for it gives her that dignity that bests suits her dependence.' Mrs. John Sandford, in her book Woman, in Her Social and Domestic Character, said: 'Religion is just what woman needs. Without it she is ever restless or unhappy.'

"Sexual purity was to be the special virtue of a woman. It was assumed that men, as a matter of biological nature, would sin, but woman must not surrender. As one male author said: 'If you do, you will be left in silent sadness to bewail your credulity, imbecility, duplicity, and prema­ture prostitution.' A woman wrote that females would get into trouble if they were 'high spirited not prudent.'

"The role began early, with adolescence. Obedience prepared the girl for submission to the first proper mate. Barbara Welter describes this:

The assumption is twofold: the American female was supposed to be so infinitely lovable and provocative that a healthy male could barely control himself when in the same room with her, and the same girl, as she "comes out" of the cocoon of her family's protectiveness, is so palpitating with undi­rected affection, so filled to the brim with tender feelings, that she fixes her love on the first person she sees. She awakes from the midsummer night's dream of adolescence, and it is the responsibility of her family and society to see that her eyes fall on a suitable match and not some clown with the head of an ass. They do their part by such restrictive measures as segregated (by sex and/or class) schools, dancing classes, travel, and other external controls. She is required to exert the inner control of obedience. The combination forms a kind of societal chastity belt which is not unlocked until the mar­riage partner has arrived, and adolescence is formally over.

"When Amelia Bloomer in 1851 suggested in her feminist publication that women wear a kind of short skirt and pants, to free themselves from the encumbrances of traditional dress, this was attacked in the popular women's literature. One story has a girl admiring the 'bloomer' cos­tume, but her professor admonishes her that they are 'only one of the many manifestations of that wild spirit of socialism and agrarian radical­ism which is at present so rife in our land!'

"In The Young Lady's Book of 1830: ' ... in whatever situation of life a woman is placed from her cradle to her grave, a spirit of obedience and submission, pliability of temper, and humility of mind, are required from her.' And one woman wrote, in 1850, in the book Greenwood Leaves: 'True feminine genius is ever timid, doubtful, and clingingly dependent; a perpetual childhood.' Another book, Recollections of a Southern Matron: 'If any habit of his annoyed me, I spoke of it once or twice, calmly, then bore it quietly.' Giving women 'Rules for Conjugal and Domestic Happiness,' one book ended with: 'Do not expect too much.'

"The woman's job was to keep the home cheerful, maintain religion, be nurse, cook, cleaner, seamstress, flower arranger. A woman shouldn't read too much, and certain books should be avoided. When Harriet Martineau, a reformer of the 1830s, wrote Society in America, one reviewer suggested it be kept away from women: 'Such reading will unsettle them for their true station and pursuits, and they will throw the world back again into confusion.'

"A sermon preached in 1808 in New York:

How interesting and important are the duties devolved on females as wives ... the counsellor and friend of the husband; who makes it her daily study to lighten his cares, to soothe his sorrows, and to augment his joys; who, like a guardian angel, watches over his interests, warns him against dangers, com­forts him under trials; and by her pious, assiduous, and attractive deport­ment, constantly endeavors to render him more virtuous, more useful, more honourable, and more happy."

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Howard Zinn


A People's History of the United States




Copyright 1980, 1995, 1998, 1990, and 2003 by Howard Zinn


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