Lives of Women

Author: Dorothy W. Hartman

"The average farmer’s wife is one of the most patient and overworked women of the time."
The American Farmer, 1884

Despite the growth of industry, urban centers and immigration, America in the late 19th century was still predominantly rural. Seven out of ten people in the United States lived in small towns with populations under 2500 or on farms in 1870. In Indiana, the 1880 census reported a population of almost 2 million residents, about 55 per square mile, 1,010,000 men and 968,000 women. About three out of four people lived in rural areas. Although much of the study done on woman’s roles during this period looks at the roles of the emerging urban middle class or those of immigrant women, the changes that occurred affected rural women, too.

The "Cult of Domesticity, " first named and identified in the early part of the century, was solidly entrenched by late nineteenth century, especially in rural environments. The beliefs embodied in this ‘Cult’ gave women a central, if outwardly passive, role in the family. Women’s God-given role, it stated, was as wife and mother, keeper of the household, guardian of the moral purity of all who lived therein. The Victorian home was to be a haven of comfort and quiet, sheltered from the harsh realities of the working world. Housework took on a scientific quality, efficiency being the watchword. Children were to be cherished and nurtured. Morality was protected through the promulgation of Protestant beliefs and social protest against alcohol, poverty and the decay of urban living.

Pulling against these traditions was the sense of urgency, movement and progress so evident in the geographical, industrial, technological and political changes affecting the country. Women’s roles were meant to steady all this uncertainty, but women could not help but see opportunities for themselves in this growth. Jobs opened up in factories, retail establishments and offices, giving single women new options. Education became mandatory for both genders in many states. Women sought higher education, too, first in all female institutions and then in co-ed environments. The push for women’s rights, with suffrage in the forefront, also gathered momentum. Regardless of these changes, throughout the nineteenth century, 95% of married women remained "at home."

Milking Cow
woman with cart

The proliferation of popular literature and the expansion of communications through the press and other means could not have helped but enlighten rural women to the opportunities opening up for their gender. Their lives, however, were tied to house and children, endlessly unacknowledged work, little opportunity for outside contact or variety of experience, and little relief from everyday triviality. The extent to which farm women felt any fulfillment or larger meaning may indeed have been tied to how well they could balance the tensions between the expectations of the culture and the day-to-day, unrelenting tasks of housekeeping, child rearing and farm life.

Keeping the Home

"A really good housekeeper is almost always unhappy. While she does so much for the comfort of others, she nearly ruins her own health and life. It is because she cannot be easy and comfortable when there is the least disorder or dirt to be seen."
The Household, January 1884

Women’s popular literature of the period is full of advice about and encouragement for proper housekeeping. Implicit in this advice is the notion that by keeping a clean, neat, pious home and filling it with warmth and inviting smells, women are achieving their highest calling. The movement to elevate the status of housework found an early voice in the writings of Catherine Beecher. Beecher devoted much effort to glorifying housekeeping and attempting to convince her readers that their daily duties, however tedious or distressing, constituted important works assigned to them by Nature and God. Beecher was one of the early proponents of ‘scientific housekeeping,’ believing that a good housekeeper should be a jack-of-all-sciences, and use those sciences to run the household efficiently. She went so far as to suggest a explicit weekly schedules and rational designs for the kitchen and cooking areas. Her many manuals and cookbooks offered not only a philosophy for housekeeping, but practical methods for accomplishing those philosophical ends.

A review of the popular literature of the time provides unique insights into the expectations for women’s lives and the realities of their existence. In his book, So Sweet to Labor, author Norton Juster looked at the advice given and the responses received in a few publications of the time. He notes that the term ‘drudgery’ appears again and again as a descriptive term. Women wrote letters that described the endless, repetitive work undertaken week by week. Not that it was all woe – many reported about the joys of fulfilling their womanly role as keeper of the house, or wrote to chastise their complaining sisters.

Housekeepers Manual
Civil War Family

The weekly schedule of "drudge" likely included laundry on Monday, ironing and mending on Tuesday, baking on Wednesday and Saturday, daily tidying of kitchen and parlor, and thorough cleaning on Thursday and again on Saturday. This was in addition to childcare, three meals a day, hauling water and keeping the fire burning in the stove, a chore that in itself took at least one hour each day. Then there was making the family garments and seasonal preserving of fruits, vegetables and meat. Often, too, the scope of work extended to the farm itself. Women had charge of the farm garden, livestock and poultry and work related to "civilizing" the farm. During planting and harvest, if she did not work in the fields herself, she provided room and board for the extra help that did.

It is evident from the conflicting opinions offered in literature of the period that women’s lives were fraught with tensions. How-to manuals, magazine and newspaper articles set high, if not impossible, standards for moral rectitude, cleanliness and cheerfulness. The realities posed by the sheer number of tasks to be completed daily, monthly and yearly stressed even the hardiest of women. Even so, many women responded to the challenges place before them with humor and pride.

Health and Childbearing

"None of the many mysteries displayed by the study of life has been to mankind more unintelligible than that of disease, and nothing is more striking about this than the terribly disproportionate amount of suffering which falls to the lot of women. All my life I have been engaged in the study of their special ailments, and no conclusion is more firmly rooted in my mind than a devout thankfulness that I belong to the other sex."
Sir Lawton Tait, 1890

Much was written in the closing years of the nineteenth century about the innate health – or lack of it – of the female. The middle and upper class ideal of woman was that of an ‘invalid.’ Professional medical theories at the time stated that woman’s normal condition was to be sick. Corresponding to the idea of "separate spheres" for women and men in society, the idea that women were, by their nature, sickly, complemented the idea that men were robust, aggressive, healthy and thus naturally predisposed to the harsh, competitive world of work while women were more suited to the quiet, sanctified life of the home. This is not to say that the illness which did afflict women were inconsequential. For example, for every 100 women who were twenty in 1865, more than 5 would die of tuberculosis by age 30, more than 8 by age 50. Disease was real, and devastating.

Rural women were required, by the nature of their work, to be healthy and strong. But that was often not the case. Beset by long days of labor, they were often exhausted, mentally and physically. It was generally accepted, however, that the prevalence of sickness and decline was the result of the "peculiarity" of her anatomy - woman as a natural invalid. Contemporary writings often noted the preponderance of nervous disorders and "fretfulness."

Middle and upper class women could and did seek medical care from (male) doctors. Working class women sought help in patent medicines and an increasing number of self-help books and magazines. Cures calling for eggs, tar, soot, herbal extracts and other household ingredients illuminated the pages of popular magazines. For example, a recipe for a cure for rheumatism states, "To a handful of blue flag root add a pint of good spirits; let stand for a week. Dose, a spoon full three times a day, and increase by degrees to three tablespoons full a day. Or, apply a poultice of hot potatoes; renew as often as it becomes hard or cool. It is said to be a very excellent remedy."

Similar concoctions were proposed for the cure of bleeding lungs, cancer, shortness of breath and cough. These home remedies were often supplemented with a myriad patent medicines, many with high percentages of alcohol, and the liberal use of laudanum.

Carter's Liver Bitters
cocaine toothdrops

Childbearing and child mortality remained two of the most serious health issues for women and their families. There is evidence that white women in the later part of the century were controlling their fertility. Between 1800 and 1900, their birthrates dropped by half, while those of blacks and European immigrants grew, even though their childhood death rates were higher. On average, women earlier in the century gave birth to seven live babies in her lifetime. One-third to one-half would not survive to age 5. By 1900, the birthrate had dropped to an average of 3.5 live births. Even with this reduction in birthrate, many families lost children early, before they reached adulthood.

Mrs Wilbur Sherman And Daughter Sarah By Ammi Phillips 1815


"That our dress may be more healthful, it must first be made looser about the waist, as loose as a man’s."
The Household, 1874

No description of the lives of women in the late nineteenth century would be complete without a discussion of the constrictions of clothing and the influence of style. Once again, the expanding mass culture, expressed in popular magazines and women’s publications, promoted the latest fashion styles to women of all classes, whether those styles were practical for their lifestyles or not. Elaborate dresses, with bustles, and nipped waists and yards of heavy fabric and lace, illustrated the pages of these magazines. One account reported that the "well-dressed" woman of the late nineteenth century wore 37 pounds of clothing in the winter, 19 which hung from her corseted waist.

Probably the most disputed piece of clothing during this period was the corset. Both physicians and early feminists decried their use. One report stated that a fashionable women’s corset exerted, on average, 22 pounds of pressure on the internal organs. Long term results of wearing the undergarment included fractured ribs, collapsed lungs, displacement of the liver and uterine prolapses.

Civil War Southern belle
corset craze

Physicians rallied around the idea that corsets compressed the genitals, thus weakening the woman’s ability to bear children. Another theory, proposed by physician Orson Fowler, was based on the assumption that "compression of any part produced inflammation." Consequently, the compression due to wearing a corset would cause blood to flow to the woman’s head, thereby putting pressure on her nervous system, causing, in Fowler’s theory, a personality change. Feminists attacked corseting because of its potential harm to internal organs and its restriction of movement. They advised physicians to counsel their female patients on the dangers of corseting. Even popular literature, where illustrations of the latest fashions prevailed, commented on corseting. One woman wrote to the Household in 1879, "I omitted corsets when speaking of underthings. They have been banished from my wardrobe so long I had almost forgotten there was such an article. One feels so perfectly free and easy."

Women's Education

"The proper education of a man decides the welfare of an individual; but educate a woman, and the interests of a whole family are secured."
Catherine Beecher, Treatise on Domestic Economy


The roots of the movement for women’s literacy can be traced to the end of the 18th century, when calls for the education of girls got underway. Few objections were raised to the idea that girls should be educated on par with boys. Instead the need for such education was tied to the needs of the new republic; women would make sure that patriot sons were reared properly. When boys’ schools could or would not admit girls, female academies were established and thrived. As publicly supported education expanded in the early decades of the 19th century, girls were included along with boys.

Art Class

By 1860, it was almost as likely for a white girl as a white boy to attend school, even in farming regions of the country. The success of these early ventures assured that when secondary education expanded after the Civil War, it would be overwhelmingly co-educational. In 1870, there were only 160 high schools in the country. By 1880, the figure was almost 800 and by the end of the century, the number had grown to 6000. From 1870 until the middle of the twentieth century, female high school graduates outnumbered male graduates. And, the Census of 1880 found that the proportion of literacy for young women was actually higher than of young men.

The movement for equal education for girls and boys moved forward almost without opposition. The idea fitted nicely into the social ideology that women were the rearers of children and the moral companions of men within the family, so some education seemed appropriate. Early in the century, though, this acceptance stopped short of college. Oberlin College in Ohio was the first to admit women in 1837. And when the Michigan legislature founded a state university that same year, it provided places for women, although women were not actually allowed to attend until 1870.

Even when women were admitted to some private and public colleges, they were not treated as equals. Colleges, for the most part, remained gender separated, opposing coeducation on the ground that it was ‘contrary to nature,’ and predicted that ‘young men would lose a proper sense of dignity of their pursuits’ while 'the delicacy of the female character would be destroyed.’ Educators of the day feared that, although women possessed the mental capability to do college work, their health was threatened if they were forced to follow the intellectual rigors of the male curriculum. Even so, a college educated woman was seen as benefit to herself, her husband and her family. Until, of course, the results of a college education on women became known.

Catherine Beecher

By the end of the 19th century, it became evident that college-educated women did not marry as often as other women. Regardless of who did the counting, the figures always showed that at least a fourth of women who graduated from college never married, more that double the proportion of non-college women. And, if they married at all, they did so later in life, and consequently had fewer children. As a result, women’s higher education came under fire for having a subversive effect on the traditional concept of women and family. The intent of educating women – making them better wives and mothers – showed every indication of doing just the opposite. Once doors had been opened, expectations raised and new skills learned, how women used their education or what conclusions they drew from it were not always what their teachers – or society – intended.

As the land grant colleges began to sprout in western and northern regions, rural women found opportunities open to them that were more technical than intellectual. Just as future farmers were learning new techniques for coaxing more from the land, future farm women were learning the new "scientific" skills of household management. First promoted by Catherine Beecher and her sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe in the 1830s and 1840s, this notion was carried through in the Western and Midwestern land grant colleges founded after the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862. Lou Allen Gregory, the first professor of domestic science at Illinois Industrial University, agreed with Beecher that women’s education, "must recognize their distinctive duties as women – the mothers, housekeepers and health keepers of the world – and furnish instruction which shall fit them to meet these duties. " Her school claimed to offer women a "liberal and practical education, which should fit them for their great duties and trusts, making them the equals of their educated husbands and associates, and enabling them to bring the aids of science and culture to the all-important labors and vocations of womanhood. " Although most girls continued to learn the skills of housekeeping at home, these home economics programs legitimized the science of homemaking that had been promoted earlier in the century and offered another path to higher education.

Women's Social Movements

"Of the women, by the women, but for humanity."
Francis Willard, President, Women's Christian Temperance Movement

The Grange
Following the Civil War and into the 1870s, the Grange movement grew in the central states and emerged as the Southern Farmers Alliance in the South. First formed as a secret fraternal organization in 1867 and called the Patrons of Husbandry, the Grange movement spread quickly, fueled by farmers’ concerns over high railroad shipping rates and what they saw as monopolies by middlemen, like the companies that owned grain elevators. By 1875, the national Grange membership had passed 850,000. Indiana ranked second behind Missouri in Grange membership in Mid-Central region of the US that year, with 60,298 members and 1,485 Granges, 498 for every 100,000 in agricultural population.

women cutting sugar cane

Early in the movement, Grangers welcomed women into their ranks with equal voice and voting rights, recognizing their importance to rural family economies and communities. Women took the opportunity and participated fully. They wrote for the Grange Visitor and other rural papers, lobbied in state and local forums for fair treatment of small farmers and gave speeches at Grange sponsored speaking tours. The extension of equal voting rights in this organization led Grange women to support both woman suffrage and temperance. The Grange also provided a very important social outlet for farm women, one that allowed them to participate as equals in an organization that attempted to directly improve their lives and the lives of their families.

The Grange formed cooperatives and farmer-owned businesses in addition to political activism. Most of the business ventures failed and, as agricultural conditions improved in the 1880s, the Grange movement slowly lost members. In later years, the Grange became, for the most part, a social organization, fostering cooperation among farm families.


The Women’s Christian Temperance Movement (WCTU) was the largest women’s organization of the nineteenth century. Founded in 1874, the WCTU addressed what was most women’s primary concern- the terrible damage that men’s alcoholism did to their families. It had roots among women in the country and the city, and was very strong in the Midwest. The movement to ban consumption of alcohol began in the town of Hillsboro, Ohio in 1873, when a group of about one hundred women appeared before the town’s saloons, praying and urging the saloon keepers to close their doors for good. These visits continued for many weeks. Similar vigils spontaneously erupted in another Ohio town and one in New York. Even before there was a formal organization, the vigils spread to several other states and was dubbed " the Woman’s Uprising" by one historian. Over the next six months, until the actions died away, about 3000 saloons were closed. One national magazine reported that excise revenue in Ohio and Indiana dropped by $350,000 for January and February 1874. Temperance legislation finally received consideration in Congress, but the most lasting consequence of the actions was the formation of the WCTU.

Women Of WCTU
WCTU at the tavern

It was widely recognized then that the impetus for the women’s protests was the concern for the moral wellbeing of the home. Not only was the saloon the place in which husbands spent their wages on liquor, but it was also the recognized site of gambling and prostitution. The saloon a man’s world - stood in juxtaposition to the home, sanctuary of the family- mother, children and father. Even those women whose husbands were temperate or abstainers supported the movement as a way to spread the proper ideas about family life and responsibility.

And, although the movement was primarily middle-class, a study in 1885 revealed that almost 30 percent of the members were wives of skilled and unskilled workers, attesting to the popularity of the cause among women of all classes.

The substantial and rapid growth of the WCTU after 1874 far outpaced any organization working on behalf of woman suffrage. In fact, the WCTU in its early years wanted nothing to do with the "extreme" cause of votes for woman. Frances Willard, first elected to the presidency of the organization in 1879 (an office she held for eighteen years), consistently pointed out that if women were to be effective in the cause of temperance, they would need the power of the ballot box. Although her pronouncements met with resistance at first, by 1885 the organization’s journal, Union Signal, clearly stated that once prohibition had been achieved, women’s public work would still not be accomplished until they had the vote. Willard envisioned an organization with a broader mission, although temperance remained its main cause. In the 1880s, she inaugurated what she called the "Do-Everything Policy," in which she provided causes other than temperance for members to work for. By 1889, she had instituted 39 departments organized under headings like labor, health, social purity, peace and arbitration. She envisioned an organization for all women.

The women’s temperance crusade had unintentional consequences for its members, too. Women who became involved in it saw and learned things that moved them in new and often quite unexpected, unsettling directions. And although the WCTU never did become a major force in the quest for the vote, it was an excellent example of how women’s involvement in a cause close to the home and to the traditional sphere of women could lead women to support causes that were neither traditional nor home-related. Indeed, many woman activists for suffrage and other social causes began their public work in temperance organizations.

Frances Willard

The nineteenth-century quest for woman suffrage never had the widespread support that temperance did. The idea for equal suffrage and expanded rights for women arose from the abolition movement before the Civil War. In fact, the very idea of women’s rights split the abolition movement, with most members coming out against woman suffrage. This split became very visible in July 1848, when 300 men and women gathered at the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York to demand political, social and economic equality for women. The results, the "Declaration of Sentiments," modeled after the Declaration of Independence, outlined the injustices against women and began the fight for women’s rights. Even so, feminist leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony temporarily suspended their actions on behalf of women’s rights to push for abolition during the Civil War.

Womens Suffrage campaign

Women remained very active in the anti-slavery movement in the North and following the war, in the organizations that pushed for equal rights for blacks. For these activists, the logical expansion of rights for newly-freed blacks extended to women as well. Women activists moved from pious and moral opposition against slavery to political action on their own behalf. When the Fifteenth Amendment proposed to prohibit denial of the vote on the basis of "race, color or previous condition of servitude," women who pushed for equal rights wanted to add the word "sex" to the list. They lost this battle, but continued to call for woman suffrage. Of the one hundred participants who signed the "Declaration of Sentiments in 1848," only two would live to see woman receive the vote in 1920.

For many women, support of their right to vote came through activism in other causes. Where their participation in causes like temperance could, and was, seen as an extension of their roles as wives, mothers and keepers of family values, political activism was seen as men’s activity. With the expansion of education, participation in the workforce and social protest movement like temperance, women began to question their proscribed role as quiet supporters of family morality and began to demand direct political participation.

newspaper headline - Sufferage
Sears Shipping

Women as Consumers

"Goods suitable for the millionaire, at prices in reach of the millions."
R.H. Macy advertisement, 1887

The nineteenth century was marked by a move from a society of producers to a society of consumers. The expansion of communications, transportation and mass production became an equalizing force between rural and urban living as an expansive number of consumer goods became available by mail order and in large department stores. The latest in styles and conveniences – at least as defined by mass culture – were as equally available to folks in Chicago as they were to those living at the far reaches of western settlement. Rural families relied on the Montgomery Ward (founded in 1872) and Sears (1893) catalogs to keep them abreast on the latest conveniences, machinery, and fashion styles.

woman with oven

By the late 1800s, certain new "conveniences" were available to alleviate some of women’s manual tasks. The sewing machine is one example. First patented in the 1850s, the sewing machine was initially so expensive that they were only purchased by factories which mass produced clothing. Manufactured clothing became widely available as a result of the Civil War because of the need to produce uniforms for the army. Consequently, men’s clothing continued to be mass produced after the war, while women’s clothing remained a product of the home and independent seamstresses until the early twentieth century. As a result, manufacturers of sewing machines realized the potential of the home customer and devised time payment plans and trade-in allowances to finance purchases. And, by the 1870s, paper patterns, advertised in or sold along with women’s magazines like Godey Lady’s Book and Leslies Illustrated, brought international fashion to even to faraway frontier homes and standardized women’s clothing even before it was mass produced.

The improved cooking stove was another "convenience" designed to ease women’s lives. Larger and more efficient that their counterparts before the Civil War, these large cast iron stoves had reservoirs to heat water along with ovens and cooktops. They produced the heat for the kitchen as well. Still, it was hard, hot, heavy work. In six days, an up-to-date coal stove consumed 292 pounds of new coal, 14 pounds of kindling and produced 27 pounds of ash to be sifted out.

Pages and pages of mail order catalogs were dedicated to tools like cherry pitters and apple peelers, enameled steel pots and kettles, meat choppers and butter churns. Add to that household linens, clothing, shoes and hats, sewing notions, furniture, and toys , and the farm family had the convenience of the department store at their fingertips. Unlike trading with the local storekeeper, mail order transactions were impersonal and led to a new phenomenon -national advertising. Early on, advertisers identified women as their audience and quickly learned that they had to create a demand for many new items. This they did with aplomb.

Aaron Montgomery Ward, the first national mail order entrepreneur, used yet another kind of selling device. He aligned himself with the Grange, which in the 1870s represented thousands of potential customers. The Grange’s endorsement boosted the company’s credibility and helped to alleviate the impersonal nature of the transaction. His was the "official catalog" of the Grange and offered a discount to Grange members. Women were welcomed members of Granges all over the Midwest and Ward’s association with the organization offered yet another impetus for them to purchase his goods.

Household advice manuals and formal instruction soon addressed the skills necessary to be a successful consumer. For the first time, manuals in the 1870s included chapters on how to identify quality foods when shopping in a market. Home economist began teaching women how to shop and plan for shopping. Instruction even went so far as to include how to prepare and keeping to a household budget, once believed to be the purview of the husband.

Sears catelog page sample
Texas Richardson Drug Store

As much as this new consumer culture changed the buying patterns of urban residents, it had an even greater impact on rural dwellers. Although barter was still a medium of exchange at the local general store, purchases from mail order catalogs required the exchange of cash for goods. More important than that, perhaps, was the leveling factor it produced between rural and urban dwellers and between the northeastern, midwestern, southern and newly opened western areas of the country. The consumer culture of the late nineteenth century was one important part of an emerging mass culture in which women were major players.


"The main object in life for the Coming Woman will be not so much the mating as the making of herself."
Prentice Mulford, Atlantic, 1872

The end of the nineteenth century was a time of tumult and change, and tensions showed in the lives of women. Attaining the proscribed female role of wife, mother and moral safeguard of home and family was more than many women could bear, and their physical and mental health suffered. New opportunities in education, employment and social protest caused many women to question the role society cast for them. Involvement in any of these activities often led to unanticipated results and actions that defined new roles for women in the decades that followed.

Votes for Women

Additional Readings:

Boorstin, Daniel. The Americans: The Democratic Experience. New York:Random House, 1973.
Clinton, Catherine. The Other Civil War: American Women in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Hill and Wang, 1984.
Cott, Nancy. A Heritage of Her Own: Toward a New Social History of Women. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979.
Cott Nancy. History of Women in the United States, Part 6, Working the Land. New York: K. G. Saur, 1992.
Degler, Carl. At Odds: Women and the Family from Revolution to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Green, Harvey. The Light of the Home: An Intimate View of the Lives of Women in Victorian America. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983.
Juster, Norton. So Sweet to Labor: Rural Women in America 1865-1895. New York: The Viking Press, 1979.
Kessler-Harris, Alice. Out to Work: A History of Wage Earning Women in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982
Mintz, Stephen and Susan Kellogg. Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life. New York: Free Press; London: Collier Macmillan, 1988.
Ryan, Mary P. Womanhood in America front he Colonial Times to the Present. New York: F. Watts, 1983.
Smith-Rosenberg, Caroll. Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Strasser, Susan. Never Done: A History of American Housework. New York Pantheon Books, 1982.
Barbara Welter. Dimity Convictions : the American Woman in the Nineteenth Century. Athens : Ohio University Press, 1976.