Women in the 19th Century: Overviews

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SOURCE: Olafson Hellerstein, Erna, Leslie Parker Hume and Karen M. Offen. "General Introduction." In Victorian Women: A Documentary Account of Women's Lives in Nineteenth-Century England, France, and the United States, edited by Erna Olafson Hellerstein, Leslie Parker Hume, and Karen M. Offen, pp. 1-3. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1981.

In the following excerpt, Hellerstein, Hume, and Offen argue that the social roles and expectations of French, English, and American women living during the Victorian era underwent fundamental and often contradictory transformations due to changes in the market economy, life expectancy, democratic institutions, state regulations, and gender polarization.

In the ferment about sex roles and the family that characterizes our own time, men and women still define themselves in terms of the Victorians, either living out ideas and defending institutions that came to fruition in the nineteenth century or reacting against these ideas and institutions and against Victorian "repression." Modern "objective" social science, born during the Victorian period, both incorporated and legitimized Victorian prejudices about gender, the family, work, and the division between public and private spheres. These inherited categories still influence the way we organize our information, not only about ourselves, but about cultures different from our own. For women especially, the Victorian heritage continues to affect their lives and their self-conceptions. Because of this, the Victorian woman has attracted both scholarly and popular attention.

The term Victorian was used in the late nineteenth century to refer to English life during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). In this book, following Carl Degler, Michel Foucault, and others, we extend its coverage to France and the United States as well. For all their differences, the three countries formed an Atlantic community, a transatlantic culture that tells us more about Victorian attitudes and institutions than we could learn from a single nation. Our transatlantic focus underscores the fact that in the nineteenth century, England and France were a much greater part of the American consciousness than now. Whether defining themselves against the Old World or trying to imitate it, Americans were deeply influenced by European ideas and culture, as the many American reprints of European publications suggest. In turn, the English and the French, whether intrigued or repelled, were keenly aware of the new civilization across the Atlantic.

In addition to the commonalities England, France, and the United States shared as members of the Atlantic community, these countries underwent similar changes in the nineteenth century. In fact, the tempo of change in all areas of life, from politics to household management, accelerated throughout the century. Industrialization transformed agriculture and manufacturing in England, and to a lesser extent, in America and France, by mechanizing production and concentrating the labor force. As the market economy penetrated the countryside, more people came into the cash economy wherein more goods were available. These twin processes resulted in a vast increase in material wealth, although at the cost of the proletarianization of artisans and peasants and an increase in class conflict, social dislocation, and social fear. For women, industrialization, by separating the home from the workplace, began to force an unprecedented choice between home and children on the one hand, and the continued possibility of earning a cash wage, however meager, on the other. This development tended to create a dichotomy between woman as homemaker and woman as worker, a dichotomy that survives in the twentieth century as perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Victorian period.

Demographic changes also profoundly affected women's lives. Life expectancy, especially for women, rose significantly between 1800 and 1900. For example, French women born in 1801 could expect to live only about thirty-five years; those born a hundred years later could look forward to forty-nine years of life. As population increased, the pressure of people on the land became more intense, contributing to two other demographic changes: a gradual decline in the birthrate, first in France and later in the United States and England; and European outmigration, a vast movement of Old World peoples to the Americas and other parts of the globe. This transoceanic mobility was accompanied by internal mobility, as hundreds of thousands of men and women left the countryside to settle in the cities.

The growth of democratic institutions from which women were excluded paradoxically helped to politicize women. Egalitarian and democratic ideas spread to both men and women of all social classes, a diffusion that was aided by rising literacy rates, improved communications, and demographic and social mobility. But although women were touched by these ideas, they were left out of the political process and denied the vote. Similarly, among the working classes, men organized themselves into unions and political parties, from which women were as a rule barred. English, French, and American women responded by founding feminist organizations to protect their rights and promote their interests.

In all three countries political instability and the concomitant fear of social anarchy contributed to the growth of state power and the attempt to use the agency of the state to impose social order and homogeneity on its citizenry. These developments, too, profoundly affected the lives of women. The Victorians witnessed the explosive expansion of state bureaucracies and the enactment of legislation aimed at regularizing and standardizing both public and private activities: governments made education compulsory, criminalized abortion, established or strengthened municipal police forces to control city populations, and passed laws that subjected both industry and labor to a host of regulations. State power and a corresponding secular view of reality grew at the expense of family institutions and village traditions, as well as of church, charity, and workers' associations. With the help of the school and the railroad, the state intruded increasingly on the lives of its citizens.

An obsession with surveillance and regulation characterized not only the activities of the state, but also those of the private citizen. Household manuals and books on child-rearing proliferated as Victorian authors strove to create ideal mothers and perfect household managers. Men in the professions of law and medicine banded together and adopted codes that governed admission to their ranks and regulated the behavior of their members; these codes, like protective labor legislation, had the effect of barring women from public activities in which they had formerly engaged. The Victorian compulsion to regulate, and the professional invasion of both the public and the private sphere, subjected women to a host of new strictures, both legal and prescriptive; not surprisingly, women often resisted and resented these demands.

An extreme polarization of sex roles accompanied the imposition of the ordering vision: this was probably the change that had the most impact on the lives of Victorian women. In both practice and prescription the male and female spheres became increasingly separated, and the roles of men and women became ever more frozen. Social scientists by and large sanctified the separation of spheres and consigned women to the domestic, private sphere. In France the maverick socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon relegated women to domestic drudgery; because of their inferiority, he argued, women should be subject to male authority. His compatriot Auguste Comte subscribed to a more elevated vision of women and eulogized their civilizing mission; yet, like Proudhon, he believed that women, because of their weak brains and bodies, belonged in the home. Across the Channel social anthropologists, armed with the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin, gave patriarchy scientific underpinnings by declaring that both history and evolution sanctioned the subordination of women to men. Herbert Spencer, undoubtedly the most famous of the social Darwinists, argued that evolution had placed women in the home, and that the dictates of social survival necessitated rigidly defined sex roles and male domination. Patriarchy was now equated not only with nature, but with the forces of progress and civilization as well.

Novelists, moralists, and journalists—both male and female—agreed for the most part with the social scientists. Both Charles Dickens and Honoré de Balzac, in their extremely influential works, took women's special domestic mission for granted and applied to their female characters very different standards from those used for males. Authors of popular children's books like Hannah More and the Comtesse de Ségur taught young girls the virtues of passivity and obedience. Similarly, the arbiters of etiquette and writers of manuals, from Sarah Stickney Ellis to Catharine Beecher, decreed that woman's mission was very different from man's, and that her natural sphere was the home. Of course, the image conveyed by the literature diverged dramatically from the reality of women's lives: these exalted domestic angels bore scant resemblance to Georgia slaves, Lancashire mill workers, or even Parisian bourgeoises. Although the idea of separate spheres was not new to the nineteenth century, the obsessive manner in which all three cultures insisted on this separation seems peculiarly novel. As one nineteenth-century reviewer of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre indicated, and as many female writers and activists were to discover, any woman who, however tangentially, rejected the role that Victorian culture thrust on her, seemed as noxious and threatening to her contemporaries as the political revolutionary or the social anarchist.1

Jane Eyre, refusing to be Rochester's mistress, asks herself, as he tries to break her will, "Who in the world cares for you," and finds this answer, "I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself." Victorians might have applauded her rejection of adultery, but some could—and did—feel more than a little uneasy at its rationale.2 In an era that saw selfless submission as woman's essential posture—whether in acceptance of family or marital status, or in acquiescence to established religious belief, or in attendance on children—Jane's assertion of a personal significance unrelated to any social function or relation was alarming. It brought the threat of some radical inconvenience to the smooth running of a world ordered along completely different lines.

Yet if the doctrine Charlotte Brontë puts into the mouth of her heroine seems to question or even defy the right of privileged men to control societies in which women serve as functionaries, it also, however paradoxically, is an expression of the nineteenth century's very spirit and idea—for women as well as for men. For the concept of personal significance, mysterious and complex as a factor in Western history, appears to be linked to cultural change, and such change characterizes England, France, and America throughout the century. Thus women of that time, while being urged to think of themselves only relationally, were also, by the very nature of the metamorphosing societies in which they lived, being challenged to the creation of themselves as persons with separate and interesting destinies.3 These two virtually antithetical impulses shaped the early years of the Victorian girl.

Birth of a Girl

The first problem encountered, even if unconsciously, by the girl who wished to believe in her own significance was the reaction to her birth. To be sure, the comments gathered to illustrate this reaction (Doc. 1) contain some samples of what appears to be unfeigned pleasure at the news that the baby is a girl; but in their general negativity they reflect the dominant feeling in all three countries virtually throughout the century: the appropriate reaction to a boy's arrival was joyous congratulation, to a girl's something closer to condolence. Priscilla Robertson, writing of England and of Europe, states, "At every stage, in every country, however subtly, boys continued to be favored over girls."4 Lest we think of such attitudes as maddening but of no real significance coming so early in a baby's life, we should keep in mind the conclusions arrived at by both Lloyd de Mause and Sheila Johansson in their examination of statistics on infant mortality. De Mause, noting the suspicious preponderance of boys over girls throughout Europe until the seventeenth century, when the proportions became nearly equal, suggests that until that time a girl child, even a legitimate one, was in more danger of filicide than a boy. Since we now know that the human female has the biological advantage over the male in possessing a greater hardiness through all stages of life, even the fact that the infant mortality rates of the sexes were equal appears somewhat suspicious. Johansson points out as well that in England throughout the nineteenth century girls between the ages of five and nine had a higher death rate than boys, a strong hint that a girl received with less enthusiasm may also have been fed less adequately (Doc. 2) and nursed in illness less carefully.5 It is worth noting, however, that in America the reaction to the birth of a girl was not as uniformly negative as in France and England.


On arrival, the infant, if French, would in all likelihood have been bound up in swaddling bands (Doc. 5); she or he may have been swaddled in England or America as well (Doc. 51), for the age-old custom persisted in both countries, but diapers were more commonly used. The Biblical associations of the word swaddling may make the process sound rather charming to modern ears, but actually the bands, constricting as they did a baby's legs and sometimes its arms as well, were cruel. Yet in some situations swaddling may have been a safety device: women in predominantly agricultural France, for instance, who carried their infants with them while they labored at field work, needed a way of keeping the baby "put." Whatever the reason for their use, swaddling bands were without question a positioning device and as such may have had a psychological effect on the child's sense of its social place. The adoption of diapers in England and America toward the end of the eighteenth century may well coincide with the growing concern there for personal experience and meaning. At the same time, we should remember that.

Because of the contradictory demands placed on women by changes in the structure and style of personal interaction in all spheres of life, their role in family and society was, at best, fraught with ambivalence. Women confronted these changes most immediately within the family. Among many families in the middle and upper classes, the nineteenth century witnessed a transition from what has been called the positional family to the personal family.6 In the positional family the child was controlled by the "continual building up of a sense of social pattern," that is, behavior was governed by reference to relative position, such as placement by sex, age, or hierarchy. On the other hand, the more modern personal family that emerged during the Victorian period emphasized the unique and autonomous quality of each individual. In contrast to the positional family, the personal family did not stress status, position, and fixed or ritual patterns of action in its child training. Instead, parents controlled their children's behavior in a manipulative and flexible manner and justified their authority by verbal explanation adjusted to individual circumstance.

The changeover from the positional to the personal family style, complicated enough in the case of boys, was particularly complex for girls, for throughout the century in all three countries the dominant culture decreed that women had a static position in society; they were viewed as instruments. Thus familial treatment of women tended to take a positional tone. But, paradoxically, the fulfillment of that position—dutiful yet companionable wife, communicative and loving mother—demanded that they become more personally oriented. That is, in their interaction with family members, women necessarily became more aware of themselves as persons, and they transmitted their sense of autonomy to their children, both male and female. Thus, with each generation women's sense of their own intrinsic significance grew, even as they fulfilled an instrumental role within a dominantly male culture.


  1. See footnote 1, p. 8.
  2. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, chapter 27. Elizabeth Rigby, reviewing the book in 1848, sounded the alarm in these terms:

    "Altogether the autobiography of Jane Eyre is pre-eminently an anti-Christian composition. There is throughout it a murmuring against the comforts of the rich and the privations of the poor, which, as far as each individual is concerned, is a murmuring against God's appointment—there is a proud and perpetual assertion of the rights of man, for which we find no authority either in God's word or in God's providence.…We do not hesitate to say that the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has written Jane Eyre."

    Quarterly Review, 84.167 (Dec.): 173-74.

  3. On the differences between a relational or, to use Mary Douglas's term, a "positional" orientation and a personal one, see the editors' discussion in the General Introduction, p. 4.
  4. Robertson 1974: 409.
  5. De Mause 1976: 6; Johansson 1977: 171.
  6. Douglas 1973. We are grateful to Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi for calling our attention to this theory and suggesting its applicability to women in the nineteenth century.

Works Cited

de Mause, Lloyd. 1974. "The Evolution of Childhood," History of Childhood Quarterly, 1.4 (Spring): 503-75.

Douglas, Mary. 1973. Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology. London.

Johansson, Sheila Ryan. 1977. "Sex and Death in Victorian England." In Martha Vicinus, ed., A Widening Sphere: Changing Roles in Victorian Women. Bloomington, Ind.

Robertson, Priscilla. 1974. "Home As a Nest: Middle-Class Childhood in Nineteenth-Century Europe," in Lloyd de Mause, ed., The History of Childhood. New York.


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SOURCE: Rendall, Jane. Introduction to The Origins of Modern Feminism: Women in Britain, France and the United States 1780-1860, pp. 1-6. London, England: Macmillan, 1985.

In the following essay, Rendall argues that a comparison between the rise of feminist sentiment in England, France, and the United States helps in understanding the domestic life and social aspirations of women between 1780 and 1860.

In a sense the title of this book is anachronistic. The English word 'feminism' was not in use within this period. The French word féminisme was coined by the Utopian socialist, Charles Fourier, and used only by him. The first recorded use of the term in English, derived from the French, was in 1894, according to the 1933 Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary. The relevant volume of the Dictionary itself was written from 1894 to 1897 and does not contain the accepted modern meaning of the term.1 Twentieth-century historians have found the word an essential tool for analysis, and it is a term which may have many nuances of meaning. Gerda Lerner has distinguished between movements for 'woman's rights', in the sense of civil and political equality, and 'woman's emancipation', in the sense of a broader striving for 'freedom from oppressive restrictions imposed by sex; self-determination; autonomy'.2 I have here used the latter description, using the word 'feminist' to describe women who claimed for themselves the right to define their own place in society, and a few men who sympathised with that claim. Yet it should be stressed that the women described here did not necessarily believe that implied an equality of roles between men and women. They lived and wrote before the impact of Karl Marx was felt, and they interpreted the word 'equality' in terms of moral and rational worth, not in terms of an equality of labour. Such aspirations, of course, were not entirely new; they are to be found, for instance, among seventeenth-century feminists, as well as in the fifteenth-century writer, Christine de Pisan.

I have therefore used the term 'modern feminism' to describe the way in which women came, in the period from the late eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, to associate together, perhaps at first for different reasons, and then to recognise and to assert their common interests as women. There has, in the historical literature, been much concentration on the lives and writings of individual feminists, male and female. Though this is vital, so too are the conditions of feminist practice and the social context in which such practice becomes possible. By such practice, I mean the association of women together for a feminist purpose: the ability of women to address other women, and men, in public: and the organisation of a range of activities, campaigns and writing, around the claims of women to determine different areas of their lives. Here I have tried to concentrate less on the careers of individual women, so that there is relatively little, for instance, on Frances Wright, on Anna Wheeler, or even on Florence Nightingale, and more on the historical context which allowed some, often very few, women to come together and assert in their lives and in their actions the values of self-determination and autonomy.

In looking at this context I have chosen to begin this account in the age of the American and French Revolutions, since the 1790s mark a very clear increase in feminist thinking, which must be viewed against the background of the Enlightenment. In ending around 1860, I have taken a point when, in Britain, the English Woman's Journal and its associated societies were already launched, and when John Stuart Mill was drafting his Subjection of Women. In the United States, the end of the ante-bellum period is a useful moment at which to consider the character and achievements of the feminist movement before the outbreak of the Civil War. In France, the first decade of the Second Empire reveals the weakness of a movement defeated after 1848, and the continuing debate between feminists and their male opponents which takes place from 1858 to 1860 usefully indicates the degree of hostility which French feminists had to counter. Overall by the end of the period, there did exist both a public awareness of the question of women's rights and women's future role and, it will be argued, some sense of the emergence of an international movement among feminists themselves. Yet it still has to be stressed that the numbers of women involved were very small, and their ideas still regarded as extreme and isolated.

There are, however, problems to be encountered in understanding the nineteenth-century world of women, and its relationship to the origins of feminism. In what sense is it possible to describe that world, to enter into a 'woman's culture' which may of its nature seem conservative, moralistic, even itself authoritarian? How far can we relate the firmly held commitment of, say, 'conservative' women like Hannah More or Catherine Beecher, to improve women's condition, to the emergence of a feminist movement concerned to challenge male power? It is not, I think, possible to evaluate the work of nineteenth-century feminists without entering sympathetically into such language and such writing. It is very difficult to discard twentieth-century assumptions about equality, and to understand that the assertion of an 'equality in difference' could mean a radical step forward, a claim to the political rights from which women had been automatically excluded for so long. Stress on the latent moral superiority of women could bring with it the basis for a new confidence, a new energy, a new assertion of women's potential power. Belief in the equality and, at the same time, the complementarity of the different qualities of men and women, could provide the means for a radical assertion of feminist practice, as the French feminists of 1848 were to show. Increasingly, the worlds of men and women were separated in the nineteenth century, a separation based on the growing division between the home and the place of work. Within that primarily domestic world, women could and did create a culture which was not entirely an imposed one, which contained within it the possibilities of assertion. Here, I am concerned with the ways in which that assertion could become the assertion of autonomy. It will be suggested that from discussion of such themes as the need to improve women's education, the demand for the expansion of women's employment, the case for the reform of the marriage laws, came statements and actions which went beyond the limits of their separate world, into a different debate.

At the same time it is important to remember that the only model available to women to state their public demands was the political language of men. We can only understand the importance of the demand for citizenship if we remember that long tradition of European thought, based on the classical education from which women were firmly excluded, which entrenched the notion of the classical republic and the virtuous citizen at the heart of political debate. These themes offer the key to the claims made by women in the 1790s. They had to challenge the view that citizenship was possible only for male heads of households, excluding the dependent of all kinds. The means for that challenge, came, eventually, from two sources: from the republican notion of the increasing and moralising domestic power of motherhood, and from the feminised language of evangelicalism. As political conflicts shifted their ground, so too did the language of feminism, though not as rapidly as is often thought. The case made by socialist feminists in the 1830s was to draw upon and to secularise the theme of the moral and regenerating power of woman. The liberal case of the 1850s was to hark back to the republican ideal of virtue through citizenship. Feminist arguments had to combine both the demands that arose from the perceived needs of women, and the contemporary language of the male political world.



The object of this essay to is to explain as clearly as I am able, the grounds of an opinion which I have held from the very earliest period when I had formed any opinions at all on social or political matters, and which, instead of being weakened or modified, has been constantly growing stronger by the progress of reflection and the experience of life. That the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes "the legal subordination of one sex to the other" is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.

Mill, John Stuart. Excerpt from The Subjection of Women, London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1869.

The starting point for women lay in the assumption that their lives and their future had to be seen in the context of their family roles. For them, in reality, there was no future outside the confines either of the family into which they were born or the one which they might themselves create, or, in default of either, the household which they might serve, as servant or governess. Demographers today accept that throughout most of western Europe and the United States, the 'conjugal' family group, of husband, wife and four or five children, with servants, lodgers or apprentices where appropriate, represented the normal and conventional framework of life, at least from the sixteenth century onwards.3 There were some exceptions to this in a few areas of southern France where the co-residence of households of the same generation still existed at the beginning of this period. In material terms, there was virtually no employment for middle-class women outside marriage—with the exception of poorly paid teaching and, for a few, writing. For the working-class woman, there was little prospect of a 'living wage' for an adult single woman, outside domestic service in another househould. A demographic pattern of late marriage, at the age of 24 or 25 for women, meant a long period of waiting. That time might be spent, for working women, partly in aiding the parental family, partly in saving for a future household of their own. Middle-class women might need to wait until capital, or training, or experience, was acquired, on which a future household could be based. High rates of fertility, and a short life expectancy, could mean that much of a woman's twenties, thirties and forties might be dominated by bearing children and caring for them. In an age where mechanical means of contraception were lacking, though family limitation was by no means unknown, the possibilities of choice were indeed limited.

In legal terms, women's very existence depended on their family roles. In Britain, single women over the age of 21 were legal persons. Married women, however, under the provisions of the common law, had no civil existence: they owned no personal property, they could neither sue nor be sued, they could not divorce their husbands, or claim any rights over their children. Wealthy women might have their property protected by a legal trust: but in the interests of their parental family, rather than their own. In colonial America, legal patterns largely followed English practice, though there is evidence, especially in New England, of some moderation of the harshness of the common law. In pre-revolutionary France, there were wide variations in the law and custom of marriage, and the status of women. In the area governed by customary law, broadly the north and centre of France, there was a similar pattern of the community of goods held by husband and wife, with the husband exercising the rights of ownership. In the Midi, where the inheritance of Roman law was still fundamentally important, a wife might have some rights over her property, both the dowry brought to marriage, and her personal belongings. The rights of both husband and wife over the property brought to the marriage including, particularly, the wife's dowry—were normally established before marriage by means of the marriage contract.4 Marriage, for all classes, in all three societies, remained an economic institution, for the mutual support, even survival, of all members of the family.

There is, of course, a continuing debate about changing expectations of family life, and about the extent to which the eighteenth century, or indeed earlier periods, saw the growth of 'affective individualism', or a 'romantic revolution'.5 One aspect of this, it has been suggested, is the growth of the ideal of the 'companionate marriage', with consequences that are relevant to the position of women. My own view is that among sections of the middle and upper classes there may indeed have been some cultural shifts, which stressed the emotional bonds of family members, and more intense expectations of the rewards of family life. But this is in no way intended to suggest any absence of affection between husbands and wives, parents and children, in different classes or in earlier periods. It may indeed rather reflect the time that material security afforded to explore the pleasures of domestic life, and the wider diffusion of literature of all kinds in the eighteenth century. But what is important is that the character of family life was determined by a variety of material considerations, as well as by such elusive cultural shifts: the extent to which marriages were chosen, not arranged; the extent to which family property arrangements might dictate marriage; the nature and the sources of the family income to be relied upon; the kind of domestic labour, paid and unpaid, undertaken on behalf of the household by women. All these could profoundly affect the shape of the family and the situation of women within it: and the possibility of expanding their lives beyond domestic horizons. Twentieth-century assumptions about the separation of home from work may blind us to factors determining the relative strength or weakness of women within domestic life, and the interaction of domestic and public concerns.

My aim here has been to look at the origins of association among women in a comparative way, drawing on the experience of three western societies which shared many common roots, but which, at the same time, experienced urban and industrial changes in the course of the first half of the nineteenth century in very different ways. Religious and cultural contrasts helped to shape the character of women's movements in these three societies. I am aware that this is an ambitious project, even a premature one. Yet it is important that the demands which women made in the mid-nineteenth century should be understood against the background of the political, social and economic life of that world, if we are to understand more clearly the roots of women's continuing subordination in the late twentieth century. So I have tried to offer a comparative discussion, relying primarily on secondary literature rather than on original research. It will be obvious how much I have relied upon the work of a number of distinguished scholars in the field of women's history. It would be invidious to name authors. But I have been prompted to a comparative view partly by the excellence and sophistication of approach of a number of American historians of American women's lives in this period, and I have been helped by several works of considerable distinction published over the last few years on women in Britain. I have also benefited greatly from the questions raised about the character of French feminism by both French- and English-speaking historians of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century movements. I am sure that they will be able to recognise this dependence and I hope that they will accept this inadequate acknowledgement.


  1. The Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary gives as the first usage of the word: 'Daily News, 12 October 1894 "What our Paris correspondent describes as a 'Feminist' group is being formed in the French Chamber of Deputies"'; for the French use of the word, see Trésor de la langue française, vol. 8, Paris, 1980.
  2. See Gerda Lerner's contribution to Ellen DuBois, Mari Jo Buhle, Temma Kaplan, Gerda Lerner and Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, 'Politics and culture in women's history: a symposium', Feminist Studies, 6 (Spring 1980), 26-63; see also, among many items, G. Lerner, The Majority Finds its Past. Placing Women in History (New York, 1979); B. A. Carroll (ed.), Liberating Women's History (Urbana, Illinois, 1976), especially the essays in Part i; Juliet Mitchell, 'Women and equality' in A. Oakley and Juliet Mitchell, (eds), The Rights and Wrongs of Women (London, 1976).
  3. The best starting point on this issue remains M. Anderson, Approaches to the History of the Western Family 1500-1914 (London, 1980); see also M. W. Flinn, The European Demographic System, 1500-1820 (Brighton, 1981); J. L. Flandrin, Families in Former Times Kinship, Household and Sexuality (Cambridge, 1979); Louise Tilly and Joan Scott, Women, Work and Family (New York, 1978).
  4. On the legal situation of women see Lee Holcombe, Wives and Property. Reform of the Married Women's Property Law in Nineteenth Century England (Oxford, 1983), Chs 2-3; R. B. Morris, 'Women's rights in early American law', in Studies in the History of American Law (1958; reprinted New York, 1974); L. Abensour, La femme et le féminisme avant la révolution (Paris, 1923), Ch. 1.
  5. See Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 (London, 1977); E. Shorter, The Making of the Modern Family (New York, 1975).


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Caroline Sheridan Norton was born into the widely respected Sheridan family; she was a granddaughter of the English dramatist Richard Brinsley Sheridan. She married George Norton in 1827 and together the couple had three sons. The marriage proved to be troubled, and Norton turned to writing poetry as a creative outlet. She published The Sorrows of Rosalie: A Tale with Other Poems in 1829 and The Undying One and Other Poems one year later. Norton was viewed as an accomplished poet and novelist by her contemporaries. Critics favorably compared her to Elizabeth Barrett and compared her to Lord Byron due to the intense emotion characteristic of her work. Norton drew extensively on her personal life in poetry and novels; this has typically informed criticism of her literary works. For example, reviewers of The Dream and Other Poems (1840) discussed both its artistic merits and its suggestions of Norton's unhappy life.

In 1836 Norton and her husband separated, and according to English law of the time, she was denied custody of her children. For the next five years, she sought to influence Parliament to grant separated women rights to their children. In 1837 she wrote a pamphlet entitled Separation of Mother and Child by the Laws of Custody of Infants Considered. By 1839, a bill was passed that slightly reformed infant custody laws. Throughout this period, Norton continued to publish poetry, as well as several novels. In 1842 her youngest son died while in his father's care, and the two older boys were returned to their mother. Subsequently Norton wrote the pamphlet English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century (1854) and Letter to the Queen (1855), influencing an 1857 bill reforming marriage and divorce laws.

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SOURCE: Logan, Shirley Wilson. "Black Women on the Speaker's Platform, 1832-1900." "We are Coming": The Persuasive Discourse of Nineteenth-Century Black Women, pp. 1-22. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999.

In the following excerpt, Logan provides evidence for the important place that women lecturers held in both the abolitionist and feminist movements.

Our progress depends in the united strength of both men and women—the women alone nor the men alone cannot do the work. We have so fully realized that fact by witnessing the work of our men with the women in the rear. This is indeed the women's era, and we are coming.

—Rosetta Douglass-Sprague, July 20, 1896

Nineteenth-century African American women were full participants in the verbal warfare for human dignity. Describing the women and the times, Rosetta Douglass-Sprague, daughter of Anna Murray Douglass and Frederick Douglass, proclaimed at the First Annual Convention of the National Federation of Afro-American Women, July 20-22, 1896, "This is indeed the women's era, and we are coming" (History 37). During the three-day conference, the footsteps of advancing black women resonated in the speeches and remarks of such forward-thinking intellectuals as Ida B. Wells, Victoria Earle Matthews, Alice Ruth Moore, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. They echoed, as well, in the poem "We Are Coming," which "little Margaret Tate" recited at the closing session (History 57).1 The participants at this convention, held at the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., united with the other national black women's organization, the National League of Colored Women, to form the National Association of Colored Women (NACW).2 Representing a milestone rather than a beginning, the merger provided a larger forum for public expression. Black women addressed women's organizations, church groups, antislavery associations, and temperance unions. They spoke in all sections of the United States, in Canada, and in the British Isles. They spoke to black audiences, white audiences, and mixed audiences on the panoply of issues challenging peoples of African descent throughout America at the time. In addition to the oppressive defining issue of slavery, these concerns included employment, civil rights, women's rights, emigration, and self-improvement. After the Civil War, mob violence, racial uplift, and support for the Southern black woman were added to the list.

Not limiting themselves to being mere participants in public forums, black women also created, organized, and publicized a large number of them. Maria W. Stewart, the first American woman to speak publicly to a mixed group of women and men to leave extant texts, was such a woman. She delivered her first address in 1832, six years before Angelina Grimeké's appearance at Pennsylvania Hall, and her speeches were published in Garrison's Liberator. Mary Ann Shadd Cary, after considerable discussion, was reluctantly seated at the 1855 Colored National Convention in Philadelphia, becoming the first woman to address that body by a vote of 38 yeas and 23 nays (Minutes 10). An article in the October 26, 1855, edition of Frederick Douglass' Paper describes that performance:

She at first had ten minutes granted her as had the other members. At their expiration, ten more were granted, and by this time came the hour of adjournment; but so interested was the House, that it granted additional time to her to finish, at the commencement of the afternoon session; and the House was crowded and breathless in its attention to her masterly exposition of our present condition, and the advantages open to colored men of enterprise.

(Sterling, Sisters 171)

Frances Harper was employed as a lecturer for the Maine Anti-Slavery Society in 1854, becoming possibly the first black woman to earn a living as a traveling lecturer. She was certainly the most prolific. The black women's club movement was also a site extensive issue-oriented public discussion, as any edition of the Woman's Era demonstrated. The pages of the periodical, published by the Woman's Era Club of Boston, from 1894 to 1897, were filled with reports from the various black women's clubs around the country relating their public presence in current affairs. For example, the April 1895 issue carried an article by Mary Church Terrell, editor of the Washington, D.C., column, in which she condemned T. Thomas Fortune, editor of the New York Age, for criticizing "the race with which he is identified for whining" (3). Fortune had complained that blacks needed to become more self-sufficient and to stifle their demands for rights. In the same issue, the column from Georgia, edited by Alice Woodby McKane, reports on the club's interest in the emigration of two hundred blacks to Liberia. In the June 1, 1894 issue, Ednah Cheney, white Boston reformer, commends the Woman's Era for its involvement in opening the medical profession to women. Later issues teem with support for a national gathering of women, which did not occur in 1895, providing another opportunity for black women to address publicly urgent race concerns. Although this volume develops around the rhetorical accomplishments of individual nineteenth-century black women, in this overview chapter, I consider those rhetors within the larger sociohistorical context. This context was shaped by the following broad and necessarily overlapping issues: the abolition of slavery, women's rights, mob violence, and racial uplift.

Abolition of Slavery

It should be clear that abolition of slavery dominated discourse among black women during the first half of the century. Of the 750,000 blacks living in the United States at the time of the census of 1790, approximately 92 percent or 691,000 were enslaved, and most lived in the South Atlantic states. In 1808, legislation finally made the African slave trade illegal, although it continued underground for many years. In the 1790 census, Boston was the only city that listed no slaves, with approximately 27,000 free blacks living in the North and 32,000 blacks in South (Franklin and Moss 80-81).

One can best appreciate the range of black women's abolitionist rhetoric by considering the careers of three speakers who migrated to new locales, delivering their antislavery messages to audiences in England, Canada, and across the United States. Sarah Parker Remond, a member of a prominent abolitionist family in Massachusetts, lectured in England and Scotland. Mary Ann Shadd Cary, whose father was a leader in the Underground Railroad movement in Delaware, fled with her family to Canada to avoid the consequences of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and developed into an outspoken presence in the antislavery movement there. Frances Harper, whose uncle William Watkins was active in the abolitionist movement, left Baltimore about 1850, also in response to the Fugitive Slave Act, eventually traveling across the country with her antislavery message.

Although slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833, antislavery activities against its American version continued throughout the first half of the century, when a number of black abolitionists, including Sarah Remond (1815-1894), traveled to the British Isles to generate support for their cause. Sarah Remond's family was part of the abolitionist society of Salem, Massachusetts. In 1856 Remond was appointed agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society and, as an affiliate of William Lloyd Garrison, became one of the first black women to lecture regularly before antislavery audiences. Initially a reluctant speaker, Remond toured throughout New England, New York, and Ohio between 1856 and 1858 and developed into an accomplished orator. From 1859 to 1861, she delivered more than forty-five lectures in eighteen cities in England, three cities in Scotland, and four cities in Ireland (Wesley 974). She was received enthusiastically wherever she spoke. In 1866 she returned to the United States and applied her oratorical skills to the task of racial uplift, in the manner of her brother Charles Remond and of Frederick Douglass. In 1867 she traveled again to England and subsequently in Florence, Italy, to practice medicine. It was said that she spoke in a "well-toned"and "pleasing style" and "demonstrated an unerring sensitivity to the political and social concerns of her listeners—particularly women reform activists" (Ripley, vol. 1, 441).

Unlike most male lecturers, Remond did not hesitate to speak about the exploitation of enslaved black women. In an hour-and-fifteen-minute lecture delivered to an overflow crowd at the Music Hall in Warrington, England, January 24, 1859, Remond relentlessly detailed the treatment of the enslaved black woman, using as a case in point the story of Kentucky slave mother Margaret Garner. Garner, who "had suffered in her own person the degradation that a woman could not mention," escaped with her husband and four children across the Ohio River into Cincinnati in 1856. Under the fugitive Slave Law of 1850, escapees could be recaptured in free states and returned to captivity. To prevent this, when Garner realized that they would be overcome by a large posse, she killed her three-year-old daughter but was prevented from killing the others.3 Remond stated that "above all sufferers in America, American women who were slaves lived in the most pitiable condition. They could not protect themselves from the licentiousness which met them on every hand—they could not protect their honour from the tyrant" (Remond, "Music Hall" 437). She also criticized the Dred Scott Decision of 1857, denying blacks the right to citizenship, and the heinous Fugitive Slave Act, which sent may blacks fleeing to abolitionist communities within northern states, Canada, and the British Isles.

Remond drew support for her arguments from contemporary events. She chronicled current and widely publicized incidents with significant impact on American slavery, showing how such events, like the trial of Margaret Garner and the Dred Scott Decision, mirror the sad conditions of a slave society. Stressing the hypocrisy of the Christian church, in this same speech Remond cited the shooting of a black man for insubordination by a clergyman in Louisiana and the dismissal of a minister in Philadelphia after he preached an antislavery sermon. From her English audiences she wanted public outcry. In a September 14, 1859, speech delivered at the Athenaeum in Manchester, England, she asked them to exert their influence to abolish slavery in America:

Give us the power of your public opinion, it has great weight in America. Words spoken here are read there as no words written in America are read.… I ask you, raise the moral public opinion until its voice reaches the American shores. Aid us thus until the shackles of the American slave melt like dew before the morning sun.

(Remond, "Athenaeum" 459)

Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823-1893), the first black female newspaper editor, published the Provincial Freeman, a weekly Canadian newspaper for fugitive slaves and others who had fled to Canada in the wake of the Fugitive Salve Act during the 1850s. From 1852 to 1853, she was the only black missionary in the field for the American Missionary Association (AMA), the largest abolitionist organization in America (DeBoer xi). Cary taught fugitive slaves recently arrived, who, in her view, lacked motivation and self-discipline. Along with Samuel Ward and Alexander McArthur, Cary established the Provincial Freeman in March of 1853, after the AMA informed her that it would no longer support her school. The Freeman soon became Cary's vehicle for promoting industry among former slaves and exposing the misconduct of unscrupulous antislavery agents. In her historic 1855 address to the Colored National Convention, mentioned above, she advocated for the emigration of blacks to Canada and for their total integration into Canadian society. Cary's intense speaking style left its impression, as noted by the eye witness quoted above and here:

Miss Shadd's eyes are small and penetrating and fairly flush when she is speaking. Her ideas seem to flow so fast that she, at times hesitates for words; yet she overcomes any apparent imperfections in her speaking by the earnestness of her manner and the quality of her thoughts. She is a superior woman; and it is useless to deny it; however much we may differ with her on the subject of emigration.

(Sterling, Sisters 170-71).

All accounts of the works and days of the strong-willed Cary suggest that she rarely held her tongue or backed down from a position. Offering Cary as an example of the many mid-century "literary and professional colored men and women," Martin R. Delany, in his book titled The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, described her as "intelligent" and "peculiarly eccentric" (131).4 She opposed the growing popularity of evangelical, better-life-in-the-afterworld preachers who neglected contemporary issues, with "their gross ignorance and insolent bearing, together with their sanctimonious garb," who "hang tenaciously to exploded customs," giving some impression that "money, and not the good of the people" motivates them (Letter 32-33). One biographer describes her style as follows:

By nineteenth-century norms, Cary's caustic, jolting language seemed ill-suited to a woman. She used phrases such as "gall and wormwood," "moral pest," "petty despot," "superannuated minister," "nest of unclean birds," "moral monsters," and "priest-ridden people," in order to keep her ideas before the public.

(Calloway-Thomas 225)

Most of Cary's extant writings are letters and scathing editorials from the pages of Provincial Freeman railing against intemperance, those who have "addled the brains of our young people," and any number of other displeasing states of affairs (DeBoer 175). Texts of her speeches are scarce, but the following excerpt, reprinted with limited editorial intervention, comes from a sermon "apparently delivered before a Chatham [Canada West] audience on 6 April 1858" (Ripley 2: 388) and suggest the fervor of her biblically based on feminist antislavery rhetoric:

We cannot successfully Evade duty because the Suffering fellow … is only a woman! She too is a neighbor. The good Samaritan of this generation must not take for their Exemplars the priest and the Levite when a fellow woman is among thieves—neither will they find excuse in the custom as barbarous and anti-Christian as any promulgated by pious Brahmin that … they may be only females. The spirit of true philanthropy knows no sex.

(Cary, Sermon 389)

As William Still's history of the Underground Railroad documents, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911) joined the abolitionist movement largely because of an incident that occurred in the slave state of Maryland, her home state. In 1853 a law was passed prohibiting free blacks from entering Maryland. When a man unintentionally violated that law, he was arrested and sent to Georgia as a slave. He escaped but was recaptured and soon died. Hearing of this sequence of events, Harper remarked, "Upon that grave I pledge myself to the Anti-Slavery cause" (Still 758). In 1854, Harper, gave up teaching to become a lecturer for the Maine Anti-Slavery Society.

Harper delivered what was probably her first antislavery speech at a meeting in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1854, possibly titled the "Education and Elevation of the Colored Race" (Still 758). She continued to speak out against slavery and its consequences, traveling throughout New England, southern Canada, and west to Michigan and Ohio. During one six-week period in 1854, she gave at least thirty-three lectures in twenty-one New England towns (Foster, Brighter 13).

Because of her articulate and reserved manner, many who heard her found it difficult to believe that she was of African descent. Grace Greenwood, a journalist, labeled her "the bronze muse," bemoaning the fact that a woman of such stature could possibly have been a slave, as if to suggest that slavery was more acceptable for the unwashed. For such observers, she was considered a fascinating aberration, as this account by a Maine abolitionist suggest: "Miss W.[atkins] is slightly tinged with African blood, but the color only serves to add a charm to the occasion which nothing else could give, while at the same time it disarms the fastidious of that so common prejudice which denies to white ladies the right to give public lectures" (Sterling, Sisters 161). This commentary also highlights the perception that white women were different and that while they were yet denied the right to give public lectures, anomalous black women were not always frowned upon in this role.

Harper frequently focused on the economic aspects of slavery and the irony of owning "property that can walk." In a lecture, "Could We Trace the Record of Every Human Heart," delivered during the 1857 meeting of the New York City Anti-Slavery Society, she argued that slavery's financial benefits would make its abolishment more difficult:

A hundred thousand new-born babes are annually added to the victims of slavery; twenty-thousand lives are annually sacrificed on the plantations of the South. Such a sight should send a thrill of horror through the nerves of civilization and impel the heart of humanity to lofty deeds. So it might, if men had not found a fearful alchemy by which this blood can be transformed into gold. Instead of listening to the cry of agony, they listen to the ring of dollars and stoop down to pick up the coin.

(n. pag.)


  1. Margaret Tate had also recited at the Congress of Colored Women of the United States, held in Atlanta, Georgia, in conjunction with the December 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition. Many of the same women, among them Frances Harper, Fannie Barrier Williams, and Victoria Matthews, attended this gathering leading to the formation of the National Association of Colored Women. Elizabeth Davis records that Tate, "a mere child," had been "voted honorary member of the Congress because of her excellence in recitation" (26).
  2. I refer throughout this volume to various configurations of black women's associations that are identified in relationship to one another and relationship to the black women intellectuals who were instrumental in their development. The national club movement, most active in Washington, D.C., New York, and Boston, ultimately evolved into the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896 with Mary Church Terrell as the first president. For an overview of the black women's club movement, see "National Association of Colored Women" (842-51) and B. Jones.
  3. In her fictionalized revision of Margaret Garner's story, Beloved (1987), Toni Morrison focuses on the psychological impact of a bondage that drives one to infanticide.
  4. Martin Robison Delany (1812-1885) was, among other occupations, a physician, lecturer, novelist, and journalist, who published his own newspaper and edited the North Star with Frederick Douglass. The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States (1852) proposed a range of solutions to the problems of blacks in pre-Civil War America, including their emigration to predominantly black areas of the world, instead of to Canada (as Shadd Cary would propose in A Plea for Emigration, or Notes of Canada West [1852]). In this same sketch, Delany mentioned having read a pre-publication version of Shadd Cary's 1849 pamphlet titled Condition of Colored People.

Works Cited

Cary, Mary Ann Shadd. "Trades for Our Boys." Letter. New National Era (21 Mar. 1872). The Black Worker. During the Era of the National Labor Union. Ed. Philip S. Foner and Ronald L. Lewis. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1978. 177-78.

——. Sermon. 6 Apr. 1858. The Black Abolitionist Papers. Vol. 2. Canada, 1830-1865. Ed C. Peter Ripley. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1986. 388-91.

——. Letter to Frederick Douglass. 25 Jan. 1849. The Black Abolitionist Papers. Vol. 4. The United States, 1847-1858. Ed. C. Peter Ripley. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991. 31-34.

Davis, Elizabeth Lindsay. Lifting as They Climb. New York: G. K. Hall, 1996.

Delany, Martin Robison. The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States. 1852. New York: Arno, 1968.

Jones, Beverly Washington. Quest for Equality: The Life and Writings of Mary Eliza Church Terrell, 1863-1954. Brooklyn: Carlson, 1990.

"National Association of Colored Women." Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1993. 842-51.

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Women in the 19th Century: Overviews

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Women in the 19th Century: Overviews