times, women were sometimes deified in early Native American civilizations. This however shifted, and women were no longer
thought of as being superior, and quite the opposite, for a long time were thought to be inferior. The 19th century
was a time of change, of development, and of war. There were many immigrants, and tension between the Northern and Southern
states about many issues, one of them being slavery. There were also many different people groups inhabiting the country,
among them the Native Americans, the African American slaves, the ‘White
Americans’ and the immigrants, mainly Irish at that time. What roles did
women play then? Were there similarities between the different groups then living in the United
States? The following few pages will give an overview of the women of these different backgrounds,
and give examples of their daily lives in the 19th century.
Native American Women of the 19th Century
To get a visual of a Native American or Indian
woman of the 19th century would be to envision a woman with smooth, dark hair, parted down the middle, wearing
a skirt and a type of corsage both made of leather. She would normally have stockings
to her knees and moccasins on her feet. This was the look of the typical Indian
woman of that time.
In almost every tribe polygamy was practiced. That is that a man could have as many wives as he could feed. Although divorce was allowed it was more uncommon than most would think.
To divorce a woman would bring down the husbands social status, making it harder for him to find future wives. If a woman was unfaithful to her husband he had the right to punish her by slitting
her ears and nose, or even killed her. If a visitor came to the tribe, he was
given a young Indian girl for his enjoyment during his stay.
role of an Indian woman was completely different and held far more responsibility than that of a white woman of that era. Indian woman did all the farming, raised the children, took care of household responsibilities,
and performed other odd jobs. The men were mainly responsible for hunting and
not much more. Women could also hold respectful jobs such as prophets, midwives,
medicine women, and even warriors. It was common to have big families. This was
a stressful life for these women, who often felt overwhelmed with all of their responsibilities, and it was not uncommon for
them to commit suicide.
Life was different for women in the Iroquois
Nation. When a man and woman were married, he married into her family. Her family was more important than his; the oldest females presided in the family. In the tribe, only the Indian women (the matriarchs) chose the chiefs and only they had the only authority
to decide if they should get rid of them if they thought it to be necessary. The
Iroquois women were the most powerful women in the United States during this time period.
African American Women of the 19th Century
The African American women of this time were
mostly enslaved. The female slaves worked mainly in the house; they did housework,
were nannies for their masters children, and were also used to work in the fields. A
majority of the slaves could not read or write, and had little to no education however, some letters from slaves to their
masters have been found, showing that a few were able to read and write.
When women were done working
everyday for their masters they often went back to their slave quarters and homes and did housework there. Few were lucky enough to have a family that stayed together. Normally,
women were separated from their husbands and children due to the slave trade. It
was also common for African American slaves to bear children who had white fathers.
A famous example of this is Thomas Jefferson’s mistress, Sally Hemings, who was also his father-in-law’s
illegitimate daughter by a slave woman, Betty Hemings. Although no one really knows how the relationship between Thomas Jefferson
and Sally Hemings was, there are several theories. One is that it was forceful, which was probably the case for many relationships
between white masters and their slaves. This did not seem to be the case for this couple, as they were together for over 20
years, and Sally Hemings, along with her children (all most likely sired by Thomas Jefferson) were eventually freed. Another
possibility is that Hemings used sex as a way to gain favor with her master, and possibly be freed. Female sometimes used
this to spare their children from the horrors of slavery, as masters were often kinder to their illegitimate children.
Free African American women lived mainly in the
North. They were freed by escape, Harriet Tubman a former slave helped thousands
of slaves to run away from their masters, other times slaves were freed due to technicalities, or else born free of previously
freed slaves. When they were freed they were sometimes able to get an education,
learning to read and write. Philadelphia,
Boston and New York had a lot of
freed slaves. These African Americans formed their own churches, with their own style of worship. Freed African American women were worse off than white women by far, but they were four times more likely
to have a job outside of the house than a white woman would.
White American Women
Lower class women
These women would have been mostly poor farmers’ daughters, often worked to support themselves, as their husbands
or fathers were not making enough money to support the family. Their jobs included working for higher class families, doing
household duties such as cleaning or cooking. They could also work as laundresses, seamstresses or nurses. The highest paying
positions these women could occupy were those of midwives or dressmakers, because these jobs required more skill and training.
In these ways, the underprivileged white American women were able to help support their families. In addition to their outside
jobs, these women, unable to afford help in the house, also had all the responsibilities of their household: cleaning, cooking,
taking care of the children, making clothes… A lot was expected from these women, and they were often tired and sickly.
The life expectancy in the 19th century was in the late forties, very low compared to the late seventies life expectancy
Cabot Lowell perfected the power loom in the early 19th century. After making a fortune off of it, he builds a
town, Lowell, where the workplaces (textile factories), living quarters and businesses
were all grouped together. He then hired 10,000 farm girls to work for him. They left their homes, as early as the age of
13, and came to work in the factories, to earn money for themselves and their families. Francis Lowell hired mainly farm girls
because they were used to following orders, hard work and no pay. These girls
were expected to work about 12 to 13 hours a day and all lived together, in boarding houses. They had their own publication,
“Lowell Offering” in which they wrote about work, love, women’s roles and religious reflections… These
girls were able to save up money, and return to their families with many more resources than they had left with. This also
enabled them to choose whom they wanted to marry, because they no longer had to marry for money. However, when the economy
crashed, the company had to find a cheaper labor force. The perfect solution seemed to be the Irish immigrants, who were hard
working, willing to work for next to nothing because of their situations of extreme poverty and their moral and religious
to the immigration records, nearly half of Irish immigrants were women, and a lot of those were young and unmarried women.
Irish men were treated in a very negative way, there was a common saying: “Let Negroes be slaves, and if not Negroes,
let Irishmen fill their place” but Irish women were often hired as chamber maids, cooks, caretakers of children…
These jobs were often looked down on, and Irish women were often prized as servants. In the 19th century, the worst
position to have in America
was thought to be that of an Irishman or woman. The Irish believed in solidarity, and usually lived together in shanty towns,
in very poor conditions. Thus, the Irish, escaping the poverty and famine of their homeland arrived in the United
States, only to be discriminated against and pushed into destitution again.
Upper class women
view of a young American girl in the 19th century is of a girl being waited on. This was only true until that young
girl was married. Growing up, a wealthy Southern girl would be pampered, and used to living in luxury. Once she had her own
household and plantation to run however, things changed drastically for that young lady. She had to take over all the responsibilities
involved in running a slave plantation. She was a nurse to the slaves and she was in charge of making their clothes, overseeing
the food preparation and supervising the work plans. Apart from these responsibilities, she also usually tended to a small
garden and took care of some chickens. These women were fortunate enough to have their slaves to take care of the household
chores like cleaning or cooking. Even so, these tasks often overwhelmed them.
State of white American women
general, a white woman had no or very few political rights. She was unable to vote, or have any political views. She also
had a very limited career selection, as women were excluded from most jobs. A factor in this exclusion could have been a lack
of education, since women were not often very educated. Before the civil war, there were only 3 colleges that women could
attend. This did improve; after the civil war, nearly 40% of college students were women.
a woman was married, everything she owned became her husband’s; her land, her life savings, any slaves that she owned
and her name. If there was a case of adultery, the woman lost most, if not all, respect in the society. The man however, lost
very little respect, if any. If a married couple divorced, unlike most cases today, the husband kept custody over the children.