In 1776, Abigail Adams famously wrote to her husband to, “remember the ladies” in an effort to eradicate the unlimited power that husbands had over their wives. As the Nineteenth Century began, women had very few rights and little power. Society in the Nineteenth Century on through Jacksonian America continued to be male-dominated politically, economically, and especially sexually. During the course of the century, women had to navigate their often limited social lives in ways that began to form a type of identity, but also ways that were a bit contradictory.
One important way in which woman began to challenge traditional roles was through religion. From the Seventeenth Century on, women began to become a majority in Protestant churches and by the Nineteenth Century, it became a part of their perceived human characteristics. Formally, women were considered to be sexual or carnal, but this belief became replaced with a view that women were moral and virtuous. This change occurred at the same time as the Second Great Awakening, a time when religious, Evangelical fervor was at an all time high in America from the cities to the frontiers.
According to Nancy E. Scott in her article, “Passionlessness” in MP, “By the mid-Nineteenth Century, ‘Christian’ values and virtues and ‘female’ values and virtues were almost identical” (MP, 139). Scott presents a version of a Nineteenth Century female ideology called passionlessness that implies that women lacked sexual aggressiveness.
In women’s exchange for the stereotype of being the more moral and virtuous of the genders, they gained a sense of preservation and even some social advancement (MP, 141). Their new role came as the rest of American society was changing as well. From the 1830’s to 1860’s many advances occurred in political democracy, citizens economic, social, and geographical mobility increased, and a new phenomenon occurred: pursuit of moral reform. At this point in history, change was considered good and nothing was impossible- whether it was the conquest of a continent, the reform of a society, or the eternal salvation of mankind (Carol Smith-Rosenberg, 564). In this way, women used their reputation as the moral beings to attempt to reform society in many ways through reform movements. The moral reform movement was an organization of women who sought to transform society by reforming sexual habits and curbing the licentious actions of men. In May 1834, the New York Moral Reform Society was born an took on a strict program of reforming behavior though exposure and ostracism, lobbying, and education. They had their own weekly paper, The Advocate of Moral Reform, which had over 16,000 subscribers at its height. The paper notoriously called out men who were rumored to be engaging in ‘immoral’ sexual activity, and sought to reform prostitutes as well.
The society took on a reputation for being extremely militant toward the reform of male behavior. The women believed that they had moral superiority which granted them both the right and ability to call for these changes (Rosenberg, 578). This was one of the first times that women banded together to forge their own path- one that was followed by women seeking the right to vote, temperance, and many other issues as well regarding women.
Of course, those moral reformers were middle-class women who were typically confined to the home, but they were not the only type of women fighting to forge their own path in the changing society. The 1830’s also saw the emergence of a working class culture between men and women that changed their relations from previous generations. Working class culture was different than men and women working together in a place like a farm because of the new introduction of the commercial culture that wages promoted. In MP, Christine Stansell identifies “the Bowery” in New York as one of the first places that this working class culture of men and women became prominent. The Bowery is in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There, the Bowery “B’hoys” and the Bowery “G’hals” interacted in ways not yet seen in American history. While both were working for wages, the B’hoys were very paternalistic over their G’hals. They saw them as ‘their women’ and refused to let outsiders in. While there may seem like there were be a sense of equality among the working B’hoys and G’hals, that was wasn’t necessarily the case. The G’hals were theirs to protect from outsiders, but the B’hoys continued to prey on them in the dance halls and oyster houses. In addition, Stansell points out that the commercial culture often led to sex being a type of commercial courtship. It led to the assumption that women, in this case the G’hals owed the B’hoys sexual favors in return for generosity (Stansell, 131).
All of this together makes it obvious that the sexual culture of the Nineteenth Century was complicated. While women finally found a new role in Republican motherhood and the promotion of pious vales, they also still have to navigate their way through a society that was increasingly changing and rarely changing in their favor.
Information gathered from:
“Male License and Working-Class Women’s Sexuality.” Stansell, Christine. Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. Print.
“Passionlessness.” Scott, Nancy F. Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. Print.
Smith-Rosenberg, Caroll. “Beauty and the Beast, and the Militant Woman. “
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