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Women in 19th century America

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In prehistoric 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 in America 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.


             The 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 today.


            Lowell Mill Girls

Francis 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 standings.




Irish Immigrants

According 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

A common 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.




      General State of white American women

In 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.

Once 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.



Although there were a few exceptions, such as the Iroquois women, female slaves who worked in the fields and Lowell Mill girls, in the 19th century, a woman’s place was generally in the home; whether it was her own or someone else’s. Did she enjoy this? A magazine of that time says “A really good housekeeper is almost always unhappy. While she does so much for the comfort of others, she nearly ruins her own health and life. It is because she cannot be easy and comfortable when there is the least disorder or dirt to be seen." The Household, January 1884. Even in the midst of all of that, people recognized that women were not always happy, even if she was a ‘really good housekeeper’. The way that they explained this however was by saying that a woman’s natural tendency is to clean, and make life comfortable for others, she cannot enjoy her own life if there is cleaning to do or work to be done.


For More information:


Barbara Welter. Dimity Convictions : the American Woman in the Nineteenth Century. Athens : Ohio University Press, 1976.

Adam Peter, Jefferson and his slave mistress. New York: Harpers. 1993

John Mark Faragher, Women and Men on the Overland. 1979

Julie R. Jeffrey, Frontier Women. 1979

Catherine Clinton, The other civil war. 1984


Webpage created by Kathleen Steele and Jessica Brislen.