|Possibly the most important, and most broadly
felt pattern dominating the life of the Victorian woman was what
the reformer Jane Addams once called the "family
claim." According to the family claim, women, far more than
men, were regarded as possessions of their families.
In much of the world at the turn of the century, families
regarded their sons as possessions too, but by the end of the 18th
century in the U.S. important political and economic forces had
begun to weaken the ties of parents and sons, but not – to
anything like the same extent – between parents and
daughters. There were many reasons women continued to be
regarded as family possessions.
- Physical demands of Home Work -- America
remained an overwhelmingly rural society. In rural homes,
technology had made relatively few inroads, and the burden of
work for women remained immense. Whether a woman married (which
90% did) or remained single, her life was largely confined to
the care of family members and home.
Housework alone required enormous physical effort.
Few women stayed in bed past daybreak, even when they were sick.
They ran the house, made the clothes, cared for the sick, and
grew and processed much of what the family ate. Middle class
families in urban areas were beginning to install indoor
plumbing and electrical wiring.
But the typical housekeeper's sole labor-saving devices were
her treadle sewing machine, the mechanical wringer she used to
do the wash, and the great cast-iron stove she fired up each
morning to cook the meals and boil the water.
Nursing: In addition, at unpredictable times
throughout the year women had to abandon some part of their
housework to care for someone who was sick. The major killer,
then as now, was heart disease, but tuberculosis, pneumonia,
influenza, gastritis, cancer, typhoid fever, diphtheria,
malaria, polio, and measles also took a heavy toll, killing many
hundreds of thousands every year. Alcoholism and mental illness
also added to women's burdens.
Maids: Well-to-do housewives employed cooks, maids,
nurses, and laundresses to free them from many of these tasks,
but nine out of ten homes never had any domestic help.
Home Production: The burdens of housework kept most
wives out of the labor force. Only 3% of white wives (25% of
black wives) worked for wages. But farm wives earned money by
selling butter and eggs; poor city women took in boarders and
did piece work for the garment industry; black women did laundry
in their homes.
- Weak State - The physical burdens that women faced
were especially great because the US had such a weak state at
that time. The US provided none of the social services that we
now take for granted: medical services, old age pensions,
nursery schools. Women were the doctors, nurses, psychiatrists,
teachers, and social workers of the day. Without the services
that they provided privately, American society would have
- Lack of Reliable Contraception - The physical
burdens of family and social care that women shouldered were
accentuated by the difficulty they faced in controlling their
fertility. As land became more scarce in the US and providing
for new generations more difficult, American men and women
struggled to limit the number of children they brought into the
world. Ever since 1800, the birth rate in America had been
declining, from roughly 7 children per family to an average of
3.5 by 1900. This figure excluded blacks, who bore an average of
five children, and it masked enormous variation among whites.
Women with husbands in the professions or in business routinely
had two or fewer children, while rural farm wives and urban
immigrants gave birth to as many children as had women in
Birth Control: The decline in the birth rate took place
before the widespread availability of birth control. Some
couples favored abstinence to limit the number of children they
bore. Many more favored withdrawal, the rhythm method, or one of
a wide range of contraceptive devices then available, including
condoms, sponges, douches, and cervical caps. Unfortunately,
none of these methods was very effective, and some posed special
problems. Abstinence required utter self-denial, withdrawal
considerable self-control. Many men objected to using condoms.
Douching proved difficult for the great majority who had no
bathroom. And the rhythm method often failed because medical
texts disagreed about the timing of ovulation. (Many couples
carefully restricted intercourse to the period midway between
the menses, thinking it to be safe, only to find the wife
pregnant nonetheless.) When contraceptive methods failed, one
in five pregnancies ended in abortion. Poor women, in
particular, relied on this most drastic means of birth control.
The imperfect nature of birth control affected women in two
First, and most obviously, it made it impossible to
plan their lives, because a woman could never predict
whether she might become pregnant.
Second, and more subtly, the haphazard nature of birth
control had a powerful effect on sexuality. Wherever the
appearance of children posed an economic threat, women, more
than men, were forced to assume responsibility for sexual
control. To achieve economic success men had to be aggressive
and out-going; to protect that success, women had to be
restrained and modest -- qualities that did not enhance women's
chances of becoming economically independent of their families.
Legal Constraints - Wherever private forces were
insufficient to enforce the family claim, the law stepped in to
guarantee women's compliance.
The marriage contract into which the vast majority of
women entered resembled an indenture agreement between master
and servant. Indeed, economically speaking, women might be
viewed as the last large class of indentured servants in
America. Under the terms of the marriage contract, a husband
promised to support his wife in return for her promise to serve
and obey him, and many men objected to their wives working
outside the home on the grounds that doing so violated this
solemn agreement. [Note that this agreement limited men as well,
by making them single-handedly responsible for the economic
support of the family]
Divorce: Once married, only one in ten women divorced.
The permanence of most marriages was due to several factors: the
relative maturity of those who wed; the cost of maintaining
separate households; the difficulty most women found in
supporting themselves; as well as the stigma attached to
divorce. But the law played an important role as well,
especially as legislators became aware of a modest, but
nonetheless unsettling, rise in the divorce rate at the end of
the century. Between 1889 and 1906, state legislatures, seeking
to tighten their laws, greatly reduced the statutory grounds for
Comstock Laws: The law added force to the traditions that
bound women to the family in other ways as well. Women's efforts
to control their fertility met especially severe legal
resistance. Since the middle of the nineteenth century a
movement of middle-class men, led by doctors, but also including
such prominent political figures as Theodore Roosevelt, had
sought to inhibit what they believed to be an immoral trend
among white, middle-class women to restrict childbearing.
Warning of "race suicide," by which they meant
the extinction of White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestants, these crusaders
fought to ban contraception and abortion. By 1900 doctors and
their sympathizers had persuaded Congress to outlaw the
dissemination of birth control information through the mails;
many states restricted the sale or advertising of contraceptive
devices; and the Society for the Suppression of Vice, headed by Anthony
Comstock was waging a campaign to enforce these laws.
Moreover, every state in the country banned abortion except to
save the life of a mother.
Economic Restrictions: Women who managed to circumvent
the law's effort to control their fertility and enforce the
family claim found themselves restricted in other ways. Despite
a movement since the middle of the nineteenth century to
increase women's economic liberty, most states continued to
reinforce patriarchal authority within the home by restricting
women's ability to engage in the economic world beyond their
households. In Pennsylvania a woman could not enter a business
contract without her husband's approval. In Georgia, a woman's
earnings belonged to her husband. And in Louisiana a married
woman did not have legal title even to the clothes she wore.
It was in the area of public affairs, however, that women
suffered the broadest legal disability. Viewed as the dependents
of their husbands or fathers, women, for the most part, could
not serve on juries; could not hold elective office; and, except
in four sparsely populated western states -- Wyoming, Colorado,
Idaho, and Utah, could not vote. Thus did the law bind women to
the domestic sphere.
Despite the strength of the family claim, structural changes
in economic life were beginning to undermine it. By the turn of
the century improved technology, an expanding transportation
network, and burgeoning cities were pulling women out of
the household into jobs and professions that had never existed
before or that had long belonged exclusively to men. Indeed, the
large-scale migration from farm to city that began as
industrialization accelerated in late 19th century America may
well be the most important change taking place in women's
lives in the early twentieth century. It created jobs and
the chance for a limited independence they could not find in
In 1870 60 percent of the women employed outside the home
worked as domestic servants. These jobs allowed working-class
daughters to contribute to family income, yet still confined
them to a familial setting. By 1900, however, the proportion of
women engaged in domestic service had declined to one-third.
Meanwhile, factory, office, retail, teaching, and other
professional jobs grew at a rapid pace. As a consequence, the
number of working women expanded far faster than the growth of
the female population. By 1900 about 40% of all unmarried women
were working for wages. Young women's increasing separation from
family control and their intermingling with men in the world of
work fostered a growing spirit of independence.
Domestic Service: The most common employment for women
in 1900 was still domestic service, accounting for a third of
all women workers. But long hours limited freedom.
Factory Work: Most women, given the chance, chose factory
work over life as a servant, and manufacturing claimed the next
largest group of women workers, slightly less than a third. The
typical female factory worker tended to be young, single, and an
immigrant or the daughter of immigrant, and she tended to be
working in the garment industry.
White Collar Work: If a family could afford to keep a
daughter in school through the eighth grade and if she spoke
good English, the path would be opened to a position as a sales
clerk, teacher, secretary.
Prostitution: Between 2-5% of all young women workers
turned to prostitution. Contemporaries usually blamed
women's low wages for the problem, but other factors were
often more important. Among the Chinese lived many
prostitutes who had been kidnapped in China and brought to
the United States to live in virtual slavery. In the case of
many other women, lack of education, trouble at home,
unscrupulous seducers, disreputable employment agencies, or
a desire for "easy money" often played a part. A
young woman making $5.00 a week in a store could make $35.00
as a prostitute. For some women prostitution led to a
miserable life of venereal disease, drugs, and crime. But
for most the experience seems to have been temporary,
lasting no more than five years and ending in a return to
menial work at low wages or marriage.
Liberation: Was the world of work liberating for
young women? In some ways no, but in others yes.
Sexual Segregation and the Wage Gap: The gender roles
that divided work in the family carried over into the world of
work outside the home. Rarely did women perform the same work
as men. Indeed, in jobs where both men and women were
employed, the men were almost always on the way out. Many male
workers resented women workers, and condemned them for taking
work needed by men. But in fact technological change made
direct conflict rare. Employers liked to reserve the growing
number of unskilled jobs for women, who were mostly young,
temporary workers. They hired men, on the other hand for the
higher paying, heavier, and more highly skilled jobs. Overall,
upward of 90 percent of all wage-earning women worked in jobs
where women workers were heavily concentrated, and where,
therefore, the values of the family claim tended to be re-imposed.
The Family Wage: Moreover, because women were
restricted in the jobs they could choose, they made about half
what men earned. Because women were young, temporary, and had
little training they found it difficult to command high wages.
But there was another factor, that prevented women from
earning as much as a man could, even when they were doing
exactly the same work, THE FAMILY WAGE.
Most young women went to work to help their families survive
in a world in which the family wage was more ideal than reality,
but the world of wage labor proved liberating in small, but
important ways. The heterogeneity of the city led women to
question traditional values. Mixing daily with men on the
streets and in the offices, violating by their very presence the
Victorian ideal of separate sexual spheres, they set a new
standard of female assertiveness. Their earnings, even if handed
over to their mothers, made them less dependent, for they had
contributed to the family support, and in doing so gained new
power. These experiences rendered their lives before marriage
less distinct from those of men and helped them loosen the