Section 2: The Nature of “Women’s Work”

Although domesticity was isolating, much of what was viewed as “women’s work” was surprisingly communal, beginning with the experience of childbirth. Because so many women died in the process of giving birth, women instinctively gathered to support each other. Together, they raised and cared for children and performed many domestic tasks: quilting, cooking and preserving food, caring for the sick, and preparing the dead for burial. During these activities, women discussed a variety of topics beyond the task at hand. They talked about current events within the community, the pastor’s last sermon, and new things that they had read. They also talked about other women, especially those who were facing difficulties, such as infidelity, verbal abuse, and domestic violence (problems that were often viewed as being fueled by excessive drinking). Though these “secrets” were shared within the community, women could do little about them. Married women had no legal recourse. Even the pastor said it was unconscionable to disobey fathers and husbands.

Tennessee Woman Suffrage Trivia: In what year did Abigail Adams ask her husband, John, to “remember the ladies?” Was it 1773, 1776, 1783, or 1796?

Answer:  1776

Woman subservience began to wane as communities coalesced into towns shortly after statehood (1796). Within these burgeoning urban environments, women gathered, began to identify specific community problems, and brainstormed solutions. As an example, women took action after witnessing the aftereffects of orphaned children becoming charges of the county courts. They created orphanages which not only provided food and shelter but also prevented courts from assigning orphans to families seeking unpaid domestic or agricultural labor. Some women reached across denominational lines to create religious societies which distributed Bibles, organized Sunday Schools, and provided housing to young women without financial support. These organizations were the forerunners of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA).

Trends towards urbanization in the early 1800s did not wholly eliminate what some have termed the “Cult of Domesticity,” the belief that women must be the center of the family and “the light of the home.” Godey’s Lady’s Book, published 1830-1878, for example, was an influential, national magazine that reinforced the Cult of Domesticity, especially in the developing middle and upper classes. At the same time, its editor, Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), encouraged women to study, write, and actively improve the moral character of their communities. For white women, educational opportunities, especially those outside the home, were slow to emerge. For women of color, higher education remained almost nonexistent until the 1880s.

Sarah Josepha Hale by Auguste Edouart, ink, chalk, and cut paper, 1842; courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Robert L. McNeil, Jr.

Godey’s Lady’s Book, cover, June 1867