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The role of women has greatly changed since 1840. One of the most significant changes for women has been with the power to have control over their bodies. In the 1840’s women had the idea that they were only housewives and that was their duty. This idea is significantly different from that of the 20th century.
The ideology of true womanhood was a widespread idea that women and men were complete opposites with almost no common traits that transcended the differences of gender in 1800’s. There were two separate spheres; women were in charge of the private sphere, or the family sphere, while the men controlled the public sphere, which contained all the politics. Women had the responsibility of teaching their young children, especially educating their young sons to be prominent members of society. This mainly was an ideology that was embraced by the middle-class white women. Working class women did not fit into this category. Some women began to work in factories instead of doing domestic housework, such as the mill girls of Lowell. Black slave women were also exempt from this category. Slave women were not allowed to live with their families, be educated, marry, or raise children-all of which are some of the basic needs to fulfill the ideology of true womanhood. Even though the ideology of true womanhood was a widespread idea, it does not include all women.
1843 saw the beginning of the westward movement of Americans. The role of women has not changed in recent years. On the trail, women had the responsibilities of childbearing and childrearing. These women lived out of wagons for half a year or longer, where they cooked and cleaned and raised the children as best they could. This decision to uproot and make the journey to the west caused a great deal of domestic tensions. One woman, Keturah Belknap, recorded a fight between a wife and a husband from a near-by wagon, “She wants to turn back and he won’t, so she says he will go and leave him . . . with that crying baby.” She wrote, “[I heard a] muffled cry and a heavy thud as if something was thrown against the wagon box.” She then heard the woman cry. “Oh you’ve killed it,” to which the husband replied, “he would give her more of the same.” When women had to deviate from their distinct responsibilities, such as “keeping house,” and help the men with their responsibilities, they were reluctant rather than seizing the chance to show that they could do a man’s job. Women did not complain that the work was difficult, but more that it was “unladylike.” White women were not the only women that suffered along these journeys. Mexican women that were living in the south were pushed aside as American women moved their way into their lands. These self-identified “respectable” white women shunned prostitutes and female adventurers. Indian women were degraded to the status of domestic servants and at the time of the outbreak of the civil war, Mexican women were beginning to be of the same status.
Women’s sexuality was heavily suppressed during these time periods. The average period between births for whit women specifically in 1850 was twenty-nine months, it is a reasonable assumption that many, possibly most, women were either pregnant, nursing or caring for infants while living on the wagons. However, pregnancy was not discussed publicly even though “confinement” of the pregnant women was not possible while living on the wagons. Historians can only deduct that a woman was pregnant was through a woman’s references to “getting sick”, followed soon afterward by mention of a new child. An example of this comes from the writing of Amelia Stewart Knight in her 1853 trail diary. She wrote, “Got my washing and cooking done and started on again . . . (here I was sick all night, caused by my washing and working too hard).” Then, within two weeks and her trip almost to an end, she gave birth to her eighth child. The entire time she had been pregnant and had not directly referred to it in her diary.
Once the journey was at an end and the white Americans begin their lives in the West, the Native Women and Mexican citizens were not fairing so well. They were pushed aside in the beginning were violently pushed to the side, were now experiencing conquest and displacement. This expansion set women against each other on the basis of race, culture and ethnicity. Hunger and diseases that were brought by the emigrating white Americans were spreading through the Plains Indian tribes. The Indian women were forced to beg for food and money. Many Native women began to hang around US Army forts and trade posts where they had informal sexual and domestic unions with white men. Unfortunately, these relations never worked out. Once the white men found a white woman he wanted to marry, he abandoned the Native woman. In many cases this happened and the woman’s Native communities would not allow them to return, so they ended up on the edge of white culture, serving as domestic servants to white women and prostitutes to white men. As prostitutes, these women were often met with scorn and called a “black dirty squaw. The word squaw was originally used as a name for “Indian Woman” but had come to have a negative implication of sexual degradation and unrelenting, unrewarded, and unskilled female labor.
The Antebellum reforms came in 1840 and continued up until the Civil War. These reformers pushed beyond established social and cultural norms in their attempts to improve, even perfect, both the individual and society. Women played a prominent role in these reforms. Their modest efforts on behalf of their community’s welfare were compatible with domesticity and female respectability. Over time their dedication to moral and social causes pushed them beyond their homebound roles and allotted sphere. Some women even made the step into new gender territory. Women’s enthusiasm for moral reforms suggests that family and sexual life were important concerns to women antebellum reformers. The nuclear family that was central to the idea of domesticity was also a place of domestic violence, sexual abuse and female disempowerment. Many women antebellum reformers called for more radical changes in women’s sexual and reproductive lives. Women’s menstrual, reproductive and sexual dissatisfaction made them eager advocates and consumers of health reform. These women did not trust the questionable diagnoses of regular physicians so many health activists developed alternative therapeutic methods to increase body vitality using only natural and non-evasive approaches. They also urged women to take cold water baths and wear loose-fitting clothing which would offer comfort to those women who were worn out from too many and too frequent pregnancies. Mary Gove Nichols was an outspoken critic of the sexual abuses hidden with in marital life. She gave speeches about women’s sexuality, their frustrations and sufferings in marriage. Few nineteenth century women ever encountered such direct speech about female sexuality. Women’s rights were talking a big stride during this time period and women were being more outspoken about their bodies and their sexual well-being.
There was a great reconstruction period from 1865 until the 1900. During this time there came a great change in women’s lives. In the North, women were challenging the government and looking for equal rights for women. Black women in the South were confronting the challenges and dangers of their newfound freedom. After the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War, slaves were beginning to become educated and have families of their own. However, there were many racial conflicts in the aftermath of slavery. Whites charged that black men were sexual predators seeking access to white women. The irony to these accusations was that under slavery, it was the white man who took advantage of their slaves and had unrestricted access to black women. Middle class and upper class women created today what is called the “Women’s Era” as they pursued new opportunities in
education, civic organization and public authority. As the industrial society grew, more women wage earners entered the system and brought with them their determination to join in the efforts to bring democracy to American class relations.
Immigration was a big change that came in the nineteenth century as well. Immigrant mothers stayed at home while teenage daughters became their family’s secondary wage earners. Young daughters tried to move toward modern society while their mother’s tried to keep them in the Old-World traditions. These women also often became domestic servants for white women and they had no choice but to do this degrading work because of poverty.
In 1914, there was a great surfacing of feminism. As the votes-for-women campaign gained momentum, the idea of modernizing womanhood and feminism began to grow. The agenda of these feminists, who were suffragists-but not all suffragists, were feminists- was to embrace female individuality, sexual freedom and birth control. This feminism was more of a cultural development rather than a movement. Rheta Childe Dorr wrote, “Feminism was something with dynamite in it. It is the state of mind of women who realize that their whole position in the social order is antiquated . . . made of old materials, worn out laws, customs, conventions, fetishes, traditions and taboos.” This feminism brought along with it the birth control movement. Earlier women’s rights campaigns had urged women to undertake pregnancy only voluntarily. Harriot Stanton Blach said in her speech in 1891 that, “Motherhood is sacred-that is, voluntary motherhood; but the woman who bears unwelcome children is outraging every duty she owes the race . . . [Women] should refuse to prostitute their creative powers, and so jeopardize the progress of the human race.” (pg.349). Margaret Sanger, a daughter of Irish immigrants, opened the first American birth control clinic. Days after it opened she was arrested for promoting birth control. When she was released, she continued to dedicate herself to the cause. Contraception became more acceptable and more widely advertised in the 1920s. But in the prewar years, birth control was a radical idea that challenged traditional ideas of women’s sexuality and reproduction.
During the Cold War years, another great emphasis was put on domesticity and family life because of the “red scare,” or the scare of communists. During this time the idea of “feminine mystique” was brought about. One woman, Betty Friedan, captured this idea. She attacked mass media for encouraging women to gain a sense of personal creativity through the use of cake mixes and floor waxes. She criticized popular magazines for psychologists for prescribing tranquilizers for “neurotic” women instead of examining the social bases of their unhappiness. In her book, The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan wrote, “. . .the problem that has no name stirring in the minds of so many American women today is not a matter of loss of femininity or too much education, or the demands of domesticity. . . It was in these women that I first began to notice the tell-tale signs of the problem that has no name; their voices were full and flat, or nervous and jittery; they were listless and bored, or frantically “busy” around the house or community. They talked about “fulfillment” in the wife-and-mother terms of the mystique, but they were desperately eager to talk about this other “problem” with which they seemed to be familiar with.” The ideology of feminine mystique is best understood as a prescription for female behavior indicted by those Americans eager to reinforce strict gender roles, and therefore find a means of social order.
The feminist movement also encouraged women to exercise control over their bodies. Women liberation groups particularly addressed women’s health and reproduction along with the issues of abuse and violence. A major concern was rape and other sorts of violence towards women and to bring it to the attention of the public. Before women’s liberation groups, rape victims were accused of dressing provocatively and asking for it.” As they women brought this problem forward, it came clear how many sexual assaults went unreported. This campaign by women liberators gave women more control over their bodies and focalized also on women’s quest for sexual self-determination and its relationship to abortion.
As you can see, the idea of control over a woman’s body and its reproductive rights has greatly changed over since the 1840s. Women used to believe that their only responsibility was childbearing, childrearing and “keeping house.” Also, that they were subject to their husbands and had no voice. Reforms that began at the beginning of the century allowed women to have a voice and gain the control they rightly deserved over their own bodies. If these women were not brave enough to make the steps toward individualism, we would not be where we women are today.
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