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

Notable Women in the Public Sphere

women using power looms to weave
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 educate the young to be good citizens of the new country. 

The other dominant ideology on gender roles at the time was separate spheres: Women were to rule the domestic sphere (home and raising children) while men operated in the public sphere (business, trade, government.)

This ideology would have, if followed consistently, meant that women were not part of the public sphere. However, there were a variety of ways women participated 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 clearly describes the limits placed on women in public life before that time.

Minority Women

Women of African descent who were enslaved usually had no 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, was almost certainly his wife’s half-sister. She was also the mother of children most scholars accept Jefferson fathered. Hemings 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 by others.

Sojourner Truth, 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 took her first journey to emancipate herself and others in 1849.

Not only were schools segregated by sex, but also by race. In those schools, some African American women became educators. For instance, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was a teacher in the 1840s, and also published a book of poetry in 1845. In free black communities in northern states, 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. In Philadelphia, Sarah Mapps Douglass not only taught students but also founded a Female Literary Society for African American women aimed at self-improvement.

Native American women had major roles in making decisions for their own nations. But because this didn’t fit the dominant white ideology that was guiding those writing history, most of these women have been overlooked. Sacagawea is known because she was a guide for a major exploratory project. Her language skills were necessary for the success of the expedition.

White Women Writers

One area of public life assumed by women was the role of a writer. Sometimes (as with the Bronte sisters in England), they would write under male pseudonyms and other times under ambiguous pseudonyms.

However, Margaret Fuller not only wrote under her own name, but she also published a book on Woman in the Nineteenth Century before her untimely death in 1850. She had also hosted famous conversations among women to further their “self-culture.” Elizabeth Palmer Peabody ran a bookstore that was a favorite gathering place for the Transcendentalist circle. 

Women’s Education

In order to fulfill the aims of Republican Motherhood, some women gained access to higher 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. These women were not only teachers but founders of schools. Catherine Beecher and Mary Lyon are among notable women educators. In 1850, the first African American woman graduated from college.

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

Women Social Reformers

Lucretia Mott, Sarah Grimké, Angelina Grimké, Lydia Maria Child, Mary Livermore, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and others became publicly active in the abolitionist movement.

Their experiences of being put in second place and sometimes denied the right to speak publicly or limited to speaking to other women also helped lead this group to work 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. Through three marriages, she continued her work as a seamstress and businesswoman. Many other women worked in various jobs, either alongside husbands or fathers, or 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 after her husband died. In 1828, she became the editor of a magazine that later evolved into Godey's Lady's Magazine. It was billed as "the first magazine edited by a woman for women ... either in the Old World or the New."

Ironically, 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.