What roles did women play in the 19th Century?
by Elizabeth Prince
Women in the 19th century were not granted many rights. This idea is made clear in Margaret Fuller's, The Great Lawsuit, which raised great awareness of how women were being unfairly treated throughout the 19th century. They were seen as inferior to the male race, (1,5) and could not publicly speak or were not really allowed to have an opinion on anything political. A young woman was treated usually no more or no less than an object, or property (1,5) to a man. Women were usually not allowed to be ministers, vote, own property, or own any personal possessions. Anything that "belonged" to the woman was actually in her husband's name (1). It was very seldom that women even received a higher education if they finished high school. During the 19th century, women were usually to fulfill one of two type roles: become a housewife, or work in the factory.
Middle class women during the early 19th century were really given one option, being housewifes. These women were not allowed to work, and spent much of their time knitting and sewing clothes for themselves, their husbands, and their children. A middle-class woman was often taught to read, write, and do arithmetic. Sometimes, if the woman was lucky she would also be taught a foreign language or history as well (1). Cooking was a constant hassel as well for a woman. She would have to prepare everything by hand and make three meals a day (2). The cooking was done on a coal stove and was very difficult. House chores were to be performed if no maid was present (6). Women would also have to take care of children and teach their daughters their housewife duties (5).
Many women during the 19th century worked in factories just so they could provide their families with daily, or even an every other day, meal. Commonly, these women would work in clothing factories, working sewing machines all day long without breaks. Women would work in very hazardous conditions and often prick these fingers or even lose them from the machines. By 1850, fifteen percent of American women held jobs. Factory owners would often hire the women just so they could give the women lower pay and save money to buy utensils (2). Sometimes they would even do this just so they, the owners, would have more money for themselves. One example of a large factory where women could work is the Lowell Textile Mill, which employed around 10,000 women (4).
If a woman was not a factory worker or housewife, she was most likely a seamstress, nurse, or laundress. These would have been the higher paying positions. If a woman was in the upper class rank, she would help raise a plantation (4).
One of the most important women during this time frame was Susan B. Anthony. With the help of the National Woman's Suffrage Association, women earned the 15th amendment. The war against men and women had finally began to end and women could now vote (5).