Women's Participation in Public Life in the Early 1800s

Notable Women in the Public Sphere

Weaving By Power Looms 1835
Weaving By Power Looms 1835. Print Collector / Getty Images

In the early 19th century in America, women had different experiences of life depending on what groups they were part of. A dominant ideology at the beginning of the 1800s was called Republican Motherhood: middle and upper-class white women were expected to be the educators of the young to be good citizens of the new country. 

The other dominant ideology about gender roles that was common in the first half of the 1800s in white upper and middle class circles was that of separate spheres: women were to rule the domestic sphere (home and raising children) and men the public sphere (business, trade, government).

This ideology would have, if followed consistently, meant that women were not part of the public sphere at all. But there were a variety of ways that women did take part in public life. Biblical injunctions against women speaking in public discouraged many from that role, but some women became public speakers anyway.

The end of the first half of the 19th century was marked by several woman’s rights conventions: in 1848, then again in 1850. The Declaration of Sentiments of 1848 describes clearly the limits placed on women in public life before that time.

African American Women and Native American Women

Women of African descent who were enslaved had no real public life. They were considered property, and could be sold and raped with impunity by those who, under the law, owned them.  Few participated in public life, though some came to public view. Many were not even recorded with a name in the records of the enslavers.

A few participated in the public sphere as preachers, teachers, and writers.

Sally Hemings, enslaved by Thomas Jefferson and almost certainly his wife’s half-sister, and mother of children most scholars accept were fathered by Jefferson, came to public view as part of an attempt by a political enemy of Jefferson to create a public scandal.

Jefferson and Hemings themselves never publicly acknowledged the relationship, and Hemings didn’t participate in public life other than having her identity used.

Sojourner Truth, who was emancipated from slavery by New York’s law in 1827, was an itinerant preacher. At the very end of the first half of the 19th century, she became known as a circuit speaker, and even spoke on women’s suffrage just after the first half of the century. Harriet Tubman’s first trip freeing herself and others was in 1849.

Some African American women became teachers. Schools were often segregated by sex as well as race. As one example, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was a teacher in the 1840s, and also published a book of poetry in 1845.  In other free black communities in northern states, other African American women were able to be teachers, writers, and active in their churches. Maria Stewart, part of Boston’s free black community, became active as a lecturer in the 1830s, though she only gave two public lectures before she retired from that public role. Sarah Mapps Douglass in Philadelphia not only taught, but founded a Female Literary Society for other African American women, aimed at self-improvement.

Native American women in some nations had major roles in making decisions of the community.

  But because this didn’t fit the dominant white ideology that was guiding those who were writing history, most of these women are unnamed in history. Sacagawea is known because she was a guide for a major exploratory project, her language skills needed for the success of the expedition.

White Women Writers

One area of public life assumed by a few women was the role of writer. Sometimes (as with the Bronte sisters in England) writing under male pseudonyms, and sometimes under ambiguous pseudonyms (as with Judith Sargent Murray).  Margaret Fuller not only wrote under her own name, she published a book on Women of the Nineteenth Century before her untimely death in 1850.  She had also hosted famous conversations among women to further their “self-culture.” Elizabeth Parker Peabody ran a bookstore that was a favorite gathering place for the Transcendentalist circle.

  Lydia Maria Child wrote for a living, as her husband didn’t earn enough to support the family. She wrote domestic manuals for women, but also novels and even pamphlets supporting abolition.

Women’s Education

In order to fulfill the aims of Republican Motherhood, some women gained access to more education so — at first—they could be better teachers of their sons, as future public citizens, and of their daughters, as future educators of another generation. So one public role for women was as teachers, including founding schools.  Catherine Beecher and Mary Lyon are among notable women educators. Oberlin college first admitted women in 1837. The first African American woman to graduate from college did so in 1850.

Elizabeth Blackwell’s graduation in 1849 as the first woman physician in the United States shows the change that would end the first half and begin the second half of the century, with new opportunities gradually opening for women.

Women Social Reformers

Lucretia MottSarah Grimké and Angelina Grimké. Lydia Maria Child, Mary Livermore, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and others became publicly active in the abolitionist movement. Their experience there, of being put in second place and sometimes denied the right to speak publicly or limited to speaking to women, helped lead some of these same women to work later for women’s emancipation from the “separate spheres” ideological role.

Women at Work

Betsy Ross may not have made the first United States flag, as legend credits her, but she was a professional flagmaker at the end of the 18th century.

She continued her work through several marriages as a seamstress and businesswoman. Many other women worked in various jobs, sometimes alongside husbands or fathers, and sometimes, especially if widowed, on their own.

The sewing machine was introduced into factories in the 1830s. Before that, most sewing was done by hand at home or in small businesses. With the introduction of machines for weaving and sewing fabric, young women, especially in farm families,  began to spend a few years before marriage working in the new industrial mills, including the Lowell Mills in Massachusetts. The Lowell Mills also channeled some young women into literary pursuits, and saw what was probably the first women’s labor union in the United States.

Setting New Standards

Sarah Josepha Hale had to go to work to support herself and her children when she was widowed. In 1828, she became the editor of a magazine that later evolved into Godey's Lady's Magazine, and was billed as "the first magazine edited by a woman for women ... either in the Old World or the New."  Ironically, perhaps, it was Godey's Lady's Magazine that promoted the ideal of women in the domestic sphere, and helped establish a middle and upper-class standard for how women should carry out their home life.

Conclusion

Despite a general ideology that the public sphere should be exclusively male, some notable women did participate in public affairs.  While women were prohibited from some public jobs – such as being a lawyer – and were rarely accepted in many others, some women worked (enslaved, as factory workers, at home and small businesses), some women wrote, and some were activists.