Women in the 19th Century: Crash Course US History #16
Hi, I’m John Green; this is CrashCourse
U.S. history and today we’re going to talk about wonder women.
Mr. Green, Mr. Green, finally we get to the history of the United States as seen through
the lens of Marvel comic superheroes. Oh, Me from the Past, you sniveling little
idiot. Wonder Woman is from the DC Universe. Also this is the study of history, which means
a constant reexamination and redefinition of what it means to be a hero, and in the
case of this episode, it’s about taking the first steps towards acknowledging that
not all heroes worthy of historical recognition are men.
So we’re going to talk about how women transformed pre-Civil War America as they fought to improve
prisons, schools, decrease public drunkenness, and end slavery. And while fighting for change
and justice for others, American women discovered that the prisoners, children, and slaves they
were fighting for weren’t the only people being oppressed and marginalized in the American
So in the colonial era, most American women of European descent lived lives much like
those of their European counterparts: They were legally and socially subservient to men
and trapped within a patriarchal structure. Lower and working class women were actually
more equal to men of their own classes, but only because they were, like, equally poor.
As usual, it all comes back to economics. In general, throughout world history, the
higher the social class, the greater the restrictions on women—although high class women have
traditionally had the lowest mortality rates, which is one of the benefits of you know doors
and extra lifeboats and whatnot. So at least you get to enjoy that oppression for many
years. As previously noted, American women did participate
in the American Revolution, but they were still expected to marry and have kids rather
than, like, pursue a career. Under the legal principle of “coverture” actually husbands
held authority over the person, property and choices of their wives.
Also since women weren’t permitted to own property and property ownership was a precondition
for voting, they were totally shut out of the political process.
Citizens of the new Republic were therefore definitionally male, but women did still improve
their status via the ideology of “Republican Motherhood.”
Women were important to the new Republic because they were raising children—ESPECIALLY MALE
CHILDREN—who would become the future voters, legislators, and honorary doctors of America.
So women couldn’t themselves participate in the political process, but they needed
to be educated some because they were going to potty train those who would later participate
in the political process. What’s that? There were no potties? Really?
Apparently instead of potties they had typhoid. Actually it was a result of not having potties.
So even living without rights in a pottyless nation, the Republican Mother idea allowed
women access to education, so that they could teach their children. Also women—provided
they weren’t slaves–were counted in determining the population of a state for representation
purposes, so that was at least an acknowledgement that they were at, like, five fifths human.
And then the market revolution had profound effects on American women, too, because as
production shifted from homes to factories, it shifted away from women doing the producing.
This led to the so-called “cult of domesticity,” which like most cults, I am opposed to.
That’s right, Stan, I’m opposed to the Blue Oyster Cult, The Cult, The Cult of Personality
by In Living Color, and the three remaining Shakers.
Sorry, Shakers. But who are we kidding? You’re not watching. You’re too busy dancing.
The cult of domesticity decreed that a woman’s place was in the home, so rather than making
stuff, the job of women was to enable their husbands to make stuff, by providing food
and a clean living space, but also by providing what our favorite historian Eric Foner called
“non-market values like love, friendship, and mutual obligation,” which is the way
we talk about puppies these days. And indeed that’s in line with actual story
titles from early 19th century American women’s magazines, like “Woman, a Being to Come
Home To” and “Woman: Man’s Best Friend.” Oh, it’s time for the Mystery Document?
I hope it’s from “Woman — Man’s Best Friend.”
The rules here are simple. I either get the author of the Mystery Document right…oh,
hey there, eagle…or I get shocked. Let’s see what we’ve got.
“Woman is to win everything by peace and love; by making herself so much respected,
esteemed and loved, that to yield to her opinions and to gratify her wishes, will be the free-will
offering of the heart. … But the moment woman begins to feel the promptings of ambition,
or the thirst for power, her aegis of defense is gone. All the sacred protection of religion,
all the generous promptings of chivalry, all the poetry of romantic gallantry, depend upon
woman’s retaining her place as dependent and defenseless, and making no claims, and
maintaining no right but what are the gifts of honor, rectitude and love.”
Well it was definitely a dude and I have no idea which dude, so I’m just going to guess
John C. Calhoun because he’s a bad person. No? Well, what can you do? It wasn’t a dude?
It was apparently Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sister Catharine who was an education reformer
and yet held all of those opinions, so aaaaAAAAH. So I assume Stan brought up Harriet Beecher
Stowe’s sister to point out that it wasn’t just men who bought into the Cult of Domesticity.
The idea of true equality between men and women was so radical that almost no one embraced
it. Like, despite the economic growth associated with the market economy, women’s opportunities
for work were very limited. Only very low paying work was available to
them and in most states they couldn’t control their own wages if they were married. But,
still poor women did find work in factories or as domestic servants or seamstresses.
Some middle class women found work in that most disreputable of fields, teaching, but
the cult of domesticity held that a respectable middle class woman should stay at home.
The truth is, most American women had no chance to work for profit outside their houses, so
many women found work outside traditional spheres in reform movements.
Okay, let’s go to the Thought Bubble. Reform movements were open to women partly
because if women were supposed to be the moral center of the home, they could also claim
to be the moral conscience of the nation. Thus it didn’t seem out of the ordinary
for women to become active in the movement to build asylums for the mentally ill, for
instance, as Dorothea Dix was, or to take the lead in sobering the men of America. Many
of the most famous advocates for legally prohibiting the sale of alcohol in the US were women,
like Carry Nation attacked bars with a hatchet and not because she’d had a few too many.
The somewhat less radical Frances Willard founded the Women’s Christian Temperance
Union in 1874, which would be one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the United States
by the end of the 19th century. And women gave many temperance lectures featuring horror
stories of men who, rather than seeking refuge from the harsh competition of the market economy
and the loving embrace of their homes, found solace at the bottom of a glass or at the
end of a beer hose. And by the way, yes, there were bars that allowed you to drink as much
beer as you could, from a hose, for a nickel. Today, these establishments are known as frat
houses. These temperance lectures would tell of men spending all their hard earned money
on drink, leaving wives and children—there were always children—starving and freezing,
because in the world of the temperance lecture, it was always winter. Now don’t get me wrong:
Prohibition was a disaster, because 1. Freedom, and 2. It’s the only time we had to amend
the constitution to be like, “Just kidding about that other amendment,” but it’s
worth remembering that back then people drank WAY more than we do now, and also that alcohol
is probably a greater public health issue than some recreational drugs that remain illegal.
But regardless, the temperance movement made a huge difference in American life because
eventually, male and female supporters of temperance realized that women would be a
more powerful ally against alcohol if they could vote.
Thanks Thought Bubble. So, in 1928, critic Gilbert Seldes wrote that if prohibition had
existed in 1800, “the suffragists might have remained for another century a scattered
group of intellectual cranks.” And to quote another historian, “the most
urgent reasons for women to want to vote in the mid-1800s were alcohol related: They wanted
the saloons closed down, or at least regulated. The wanted the right to own property, and
to shield their families’ financial security from the profligacy of drunken husbands. They
wanted the right to divorce those men, and to have them arrested for wife beating, and
to protect children from being terrorized by them. To do all these things they needed
to change the laws that consigned married women to the status of chattel. And to change
those laws, they needed the vote.” Many women were also important contributors
to the anti-slavery movement, although they tended to have more subordinate roles. Like,
abolitionist Maria Stewart was the first African American woman to lecture to mixed male and
female audiences. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the terrible but very import ant Uncle Tom’s
Cabin. Sarah and Angelina Grimke, daughters of a South Carolina slaveholder, converted
to Quakerism and became outspoken critics of slavery.
Sarah Grimke even published the Letters on the Equality of the Sexes in 1838, which is
pretty much what the title suggests. By the way, Stan, you could have made Sarah
Grimke’s letters the Mystery Document. I would have gotten that.
But I want to say one more thing about Harriet Beecher Stowe. There’s a reason we read
Uncle Tom’s Cabin in history classes and not in literature ones, but Uncle Tom’s
Cabin introduced millions of Americans to the idea that African American people were
people. At least in 19th century readers, Uncle Tom’s
Cabin humanized slaves to such a degree that it was banned throughout most of the south.
So many women involved in the abolitionist movement, when studying slavery, noticed that
there was something a little bit familiar. Now, some male abolitionists, notably Frederick
Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison became supporters of women’s rights, but ultimately
the male leaders of the anti-slavery movement denied women’s demands for equality, believing
that any calls for women’s rights would undermine the cause of abolition.
And they may have had a point because slavery only existed in parts of the country whereas
women existed in all of it. In fact, one of the arguments used by pro-slavery
forces was that equality under the law for male slaves might lead to a slippery slope
ending with, like, equality for WOMEN. And out of this emerging consciousness of
their own subordinate position, the movement for women’s rights was born. The most visible
manifestation of it was the issue of woman’s suffrage, raised most eloquently at the Seneca
Falls Convention of 1848 where Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony and
many others wrote and published the Declaration of Sentiments, modeled very closely on the
Declaration of Independence. Except, in some ways this declaration was
much more radical than the Declaration of Independence because it took on the entire
patriarchal structure. Okay, so there are three things I want to
quickly point out about the 19th century movement for women’s rights. First, like abolitionism,
it was an international movement. Often American feminists travelled abroad to find allies,
prefiguring the later transatlantic movement of other advocates for social justice like
Florence Kelley and W.E.B DuBois. Secondly, for the most part, like other reform
movements, the women’s movement was primarily a middle-class or even upper class effort.
Most of the delegates at Seneca Falls, for instance, were from the middle class. There
were no representatives of, like, cotton mills, but this didn’t mean that 19th century feminists
didn’t acknowledge the needs of working women.
Like, Sojourner Truth, probably the most famous black woman abolitionist, spoke eloquently
of the plight of working class women, especially slaves, since she’d been one until 1827.
And other women recognized that women needed to be able to participate in the market economy
to gain some economic freedom. Now, of course all the women who wrote about
the moral evils of 19th century America or spoke out or took hatchets to saloons were
doing what we would now recognize as work. But they were not being paid.
Amelia Bloomer got paid, though, because she recognized that it was impossible for women
to easily participate in economic activities because of their crazy clothes.
So she popularized a new kind of clothing featuring a loose fitting tunic, trousers,
and eponymous undergarments. But then Bloomer and her pants were ridiculed
in the press and in the streets, and this brings up the third important thing to remember
about the 19th century women’s movement. It faced strong resistance.
Patriarchy, like the force, is strong, which is why Luke and Yoda and Darth Vader and Obi-Wan
and whoever Samuel Jackson played…all dudes. By the way, why did they train Luke up and
not Princess Leia who was cooler and had more to fight for and was less screwed up? Patriarchy.
Many women’s rights advocates were fighting to overturn not just laws, but also attitudes.
Some of those goals, such as claiming greater control over the right to regulate their own
sexual activity and whether or not to have children were twisted by critics to claim
that women advocated “free love.” It’s interesting to note that the United
States ended slavery more than 50 years before it granted women the right to vote and that
although much of the march towards equality between the sexes has been slow and steady,
the Equal Rights Amendment, despite being passed by Congress, was never ratified.
But by taking leading roles in the reform movements in the 19th century, not just when
it came to temperance and slavery, but also prisons and asylums, women were able to enter
the public sphere for the first time. And these great women changed the world for
better and for worse, just as great men do. And along the way, they made “the woman
question” part of the movement for social reform in the United States. And in doing
so, American women chipped away at the idea that a woman’s place must be in the home.
That might not have been a presidential election or a war, but it is still bringing real change
to our real lives on a daily basis. Thanks for watching. I’ll see you next week.
Crash Course is produced and directed by Stan Muller. Our script supervisor is Meredith
Danko. The associate producer is Danica Johnson. The show is written by my high school history
teacher Raoul Meyer, and myself. And our graphics team is Thought Café.
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Thanks for watching Crash Course and as we say in my hometown, don’t forget to be awesome…oh,
lights! Everything’s fine.