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Women in the 19th Century

What was the status of women in the second half of the 19th century? Why did they grow discontented with their lot? To what extent had they improved their position by 1914? What tactics did they use? Was the emancipation of women inevitable?

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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.

he middle and upper class ideal of woman was that of an 'invalid.' Professional medical theories at the time stated that woman's normal condition was to be sick. Corresponding to the idea of "separate spheres" for women and men in society, the idea that women were, by their nature, sickly, complemented the idea that men were robust, aggressive, healthy and thus naturally predisposed to the harsh, competitive world of work while women were more suited to the quiet, sanctified life of the home. This is not to say that the illness which did afflict women were inconsequential. For example, for every 100 women who were twenty in 1865, more than 5 would die of tuberculosis by age 30, more than 8 by age 50. Disease was real, and devastating.

Rural women were required, by the nature of their work, to be healthy and strong. But that was often not the case. Beset by long days of labor, they were often exhausted, mentally and physically. It was generally accepted, however, that the prevalence of sickness and decline was the result of the "peculiarity" of her anatomy - woman as a natural invalid. Contemporary writings often noted the preponderance of nervous disorders and "fretfulness."

Middle and upper class women could and did seek medical care from (male) doctors. Working class women sought help in patent medicines and an increasing number of self-help books and magazines. Cures calling for eggs, tar, soot, herbal extracts and other household ingredients illuminated the pages of popular magazines.

Childbearing and child mortality remained two of the most serious health issues for women and their families. There is evidence that white women in the later part of the century were controlling their fertility. Between 1800 and 1900, their birthrates dropped by half, while those of blacks and European immigrants grew, even though their childhood death ...

Solution Summary

How and what the status of women were in the later half of the 19th century, compared to the first half.