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Women in Antebellum America

 

While women in the antebellum period were far from being seen as equal citizens in the American Republic, many benefited from increased opportunities and changes in social attitudes which became apparent before the Civil War. More women were able to receive an education, although they often faced opposition and ridicule in their attempts. More women were able to find work, although the jobs and salaries available to them were more limited than for men. American women began their first organized effort to right the gender wrongs of society and achieve political, social and economic equality for women. Although many of their goals, including the right to vote, were not achieved until the twentieth century, the activist women of antebellum America laid the vital groundwork upon which progress could be made.
Through the nineteenth century, higher education became more widely available to women. Womens academies were established, including the two most famous: Troy Female Academy (founded in 1821 by Emma Willard) and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (founded in 1837 by Mary Lyon). Troy was the first private secondary school for women in the United States, while Mount Holyoke became the first womens college in the United States. Oberlin College, a coeducational institution, was founded in 1833, and was the first American college to accept women and African Americans.

Oberlin was one of the few placed at which African American women could receive an education. Between 1835 and 1865, at least 140 African-American women attended Oberlin College, many of whom were former slaves. Most took only a few classes, often to strengthen their basic literacy skills. Twelve of them graduated from the ladies course, which was not as rigorous as the bachelors degree program. Three, however, graduated with B.A. degrees. The first African-American woman to receive a bachelors degree was Mary Jane Patterson, graduating from Oberlin in 1862. Patterson went on to become the principal of a high school for black students in Washington, D.C.

The most popular occupation for educated women was teaching. Teaching was considered an extension of motherhood, so female teachers faced little opposition on the basis of gender. In fact, many schools wanted to hire women, since they could get away with paying women lower wages for doing the same work male teachers would be doing. Young ladies set up schools or were hired to teach all over the country. The more adventuresome traveled to the West and to the frontier areas to set up schools and teach the children of settlers.

Nursing was another occupation in which many women worked. Professional training did not exist until after the war, so women learned from experience. The medical field had long been dominated by women, who worked as midwives up to the beginning of the nineteenth century. At that point, males began dominating medicine, by requiring certification for practicing medicine and making the role of the doctor more important than it had been in the past. Of course, the resistance of men in the profession and of American medical schools made it exceedingly difficult for women to become doctors. Some, such as Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, were able to circumvent conventions somewhat, and study medicine.

In 1850, the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania opened -- the first American medical school for women in the United States. Other medical schools for women followed, including the New England Female Medical College (1856) and the New York Medical College for Women (1863). Victorian modesty about male doctors seeing female patients in the nude helped make American society more open to the idea of female doctors, if only to treat female patients. The American law profession, however, refused to allow women to be trained in or practice law until the 1860s and 1870s.

A number of women earned money as writers, although few could earn their living solely from literary pursuits. Some served as correspondents for magazines and newspapers, especially ladies periodicals. In 1853, Paulina Wright Davis established one of the first journals dedicated to the cause of womens rights: Una. (Una is the feminine form of the Latin word unum, meaning one.)

Some women published works in more literary genres, such as fiction. Many novels by women were based on domestic plots or were in the melodramatic genre of the gothic novel. There were few distinguished novelists among American women, although European women had made greater strides in literature (e.g., Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters). The most widely-read novel by an American women was probably Harriet Beecher Stowes Uncle Toms Cabin (1852). The novel is remembered, however, more for its subject matter (the cruelty of American slavery) and its power to reveal the polarization of the nation rather than for its literary merit.
Even women who were not well educated had more opportunities for employment than they had had in the previous century. Factories such as the Lowell mills hired many women in the Northeast, especially in Massachusetts, to make things ranging from cotton textiles to shoes. While these factories paid meager wages, the amounts were still higher than most other occupations open to women at the time. Some did piece work at home in their spare time, sewing or embroidering items which were purchased by factories by the piece. Many women, especially free African Americans and Irish immigrants, worked as domestics; cooking, cleaning and tending the children of well-to-do families. All over the country, but especially in the West, women took in boarders or set up boardinghouses, or baked pies or other items in their homes for sale to families or bachelors. A number of women, living in dire circumstances, opened brothels or worked as prostitutes.

In 1843, the Sisters of Mercy, an order of nuns, set up an organization called Mercy House in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to help women in need. Soon, they established Mercy Houses in cities such as New York, Chicago, Baltimore, San Francisco, St. Louis and Philadelphia. These Mercy Houses provided refuge for women, and also included boardinghouses, training programs in nursing and clerical work, employment agencies and day care for children of mothers who worked outside the home. While these services were open to all women, many of the beneficiaries were immigrants, especially from Ireland.

Even women who were not employed for paid work became increasingly involved in activities outside the home. Charitable and social reforming organization provided outlets for womens skills and creativity, as well as opportunities for women to make contributions to society beyond their roles as wives and mothers. Associations were organized to do everything from reform prostitutes to improve prison conditions. The most popular causes for which women fought, however, were temperance and abolition.

Both temperance and abolition were actually closely, if indirectly, related to the cause of feminism. Men who drank alcohol heavily were known to use precious family funds for their excesses, beat their wives, and place greater family responsibility on their wives and children. The cause of abolition was clearly tied to the issue of the rights of African American women, who were denied rights both because of their gender and their race. Many women were activists for two, and sometimes three of these interrelated causes.

Among the most famous female activists were the Grimke sisters, Angela and Sarah. The children of a South Carolina slaveowner, their anger at the unfairness of slavery drove them to move to Philadelphia and become Quakers. Initially working as abolitionists, the two found their abilities to preach and demonstrate for the cause hampered by the restrictions on their gender. Thus, they also became activists for womens rights.

Because of the large number of women involved in abolitionist activities and the confining social conventions of womanhood, the issue of womens rights was bound to come up. In fact, gender discrimination in the abolitionist movement helped spark that gave birth to the modern womens rights movement. In 1840, the First World Anti-slavery Convention was held in London, England. Among the American delegates were Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. The discovered that the convention seated female delegates separately from male delegates and did not allow women to address the body. Outraged, Stanton and Mott decided that the rights of women needed to be addressed in a serious fashion. According to Stanton, they resolved to hold a convention as soon as we returned home, and form a society to advocate the rights of women. Several years later, they organized the Seneca Falls Convention, held on July 19, 1848.

Before the convention, Stanton and Mott drafted a document to present to the convention, both as a declaration of the concerns of women and as a blueprint for the future struggles of the womens rights movement. They used the American Declaration of Independence as their model. Stanton and Mott listed their grievances, which included political, social and economic injustices against American women. One of their demands was that married women be given the right to own property in their own names, and have a right to her own earnings from work. About 300 people, including about 40 men, attended the convention. This was a large crowd to have come out to the remote upstate New York town of Seneca Falls, especially during the summer haying season. The assembly passed Stanton and Motts document, entitled the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, easily, except for the section on womens right to vote. At that point, one of the male attendees, former slave Frederick Douglass, spoke to the assembly on behalf of womens suffrage. After Douglass speech, the convention voted in favor of the articles calling for womens right to vote.

Other conventions were held in the following years. Despite criticism from numerous sources, the womens rights movement grew. Among the new faces in the later antebellum period was Susan B. Anthony. In the 1850s, she began a working partnership with Elizabeth Cady Stanton that would become pivotal in the fight for womens rights, especially after the Civil War. Another prominent activist was Sojourner Truth, a former slave. In 1843, Truth began travelling and speaking on behalf of the rights of African Americans and women. In her famous Aint I a Woman (or Arnt I a Woman) speech, delivered in Akron, Ohio in 1851, she dispelled the notion that all women were weak, fragile creatures.

African American women were not new to the cause of feminism, however. One of the most noted speakers on behalf of womens rights was Maria Stewart. In an 1832 speech in Bostons Franklin Hall, she declared: Daughters of Africa, awake! Arise! Distinguish yourselves. O do not say, you cannot make anything of your children; but say, with the help and assistance of God, we will try. Mary Ann Shadd, daughter of free Blacks, was another African American feminist activist. In Canada, she set up and edited the Provincial Freeman (1854-1859), and urged African Americans to migrate to Canada because of the greater availability of employment and the less-racist Canadian culture and society. She lectured widely in Canada and the United States. Before the Civil War, she seems to have focused more on issues of African American freedom than womens rights. Nevertheless, after the Civil War, Shadd worked hard to unite the women of the African American community to work for equal rights for women.

The efforts of the many womens rights activists were rewarded when, in 1848, New York State passed the Married Womans Property Act. This law gave married women the right to own property which they had inherited or acquired. Before the Civil War, the law was amended to allow married women to keep their own earnings, invest money and perform any business transaction in their own names without the permission or even the involvement of their husbands.

As the Civil War approached, the issues dividing the nation began to take precedence over other concerns. In the 1850s, as the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, the Dred Scott decision was handed down, and tensions over slavery and tariffs grew, many women who had focused their efforts on womens rights and temperance turned their full attention to abolition. Nevertheless, in the years between the Seneca Falls Convention and the Civil War, these women had prepared the foundation for the organized effort to achieve equal rights for American women.
This war was marked by a series of bloodless skirmishes on the border between Maine and Canada. This border had never been clearly defined and thus was disputed by both sides. President Van Buren sent General Winfield Scott to negotiate a deal. Scott was able to arrange a truce.