Women in the 19th Century: Primary Sources

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SOURCE: Fourier, Charles. "Degradation of Women in Civilization." Theorie des Quatre Mouvements et des Destinees Generales, pp. 131-33. Paris, France: n.p., 1841-48.

In the following excerpt, originally published in 1808, Fourier argues that French and English women are treated little better than slaves and that social progress in both countries depends on granting women greater freedoms and rights.

Is there a shadow of justice to be seen in the fate that has befallen women? Is not a young woman a mere piece of merchandise displayed for sale to the highest bidder as exclusive property? Is not the consent she gives to the conjugal bond derisory and forced on her by the tyranny of the prejudices that obsess her from childhood on? People try to persuade her that her chains are woven only of flowers; but can she really have any doubt about her degradation, even in those regions that are bloated by philosophy such as England, where a man has the right to take his wife to market with a rope around her neck, and sell her like a beast of burden to anyone who will pay his asking price? Is our public opinion on this point much more advanced than in that crude era when the Council of Mâcon, a true council of vandals, debated whether or not women had a soul and decided in the affirmative by a margin of only three votes? English legislation, which the moralists praise so highly, grants men various rights that are no less degrading for the sex [women], such as the right of a husband to sue his wife's recognized lover for monetary indemnification. The French forms are less gross, but at bottom the slavery is always the same. Here as everywhere you can see young women languishing, falling ill and dying for want of a union that is imperiously dictated by nature but forbidden by prejudice, under penalty of being branded, before they have been legally sold. Such incidents, though rare, are still frequent enough to attest to the slavery of the weaker sex, scorn for the urgings of nature, and the absence of all justice with respect to women.

Among the signs that promise the happy results to come from the extension of women's privileges, we must cite the experience of other countries. We have seen that the best nations are always those that accord women the greatest amount of liberty; this can be seen as much among the Barbarians and Savages as among the Civilized. The Japanese, who are the most industrious, the bravest, and the most honorable of the Barbarians, are also the least jealous and the most indulgent toward women; this is so true that the Magots of China travel to Japan to deliver themselves up to the love that is forbidden them by their own hypocritical customs.

Likewise the Tahitans were the best among the Savages; given their relative lack of natural resources, no other people have developed their industry to such an extent. Among the Civilized, the French, who are the least inclined to persecute women, are the best in that they are the most flexible nation, the one from which a skillful ruler can get the best results in any sort of task. Despite a few defects such as frivolity, individual presumptuousness, and uncleanliness, however, the French are the foremost civilized nation owing to this single fact of adaptability, the trait most alien to the barbarian character.

Likewise it can be seen that the most corrupt nations have always been those in which women were most completely subjugated …

As a general thesis: Social progress and historic changes occur by virtue of the progress of women toward liberty, and decadence of the social order occurs as the result of a decrease in the liberty of women.

Other events influence these political changes, but there is no cause that produces social progress or decline as rapidly as change in the condition of women. I have already said that the mere adoption of closed harems would speedily turn us into Barbarians, and the mere opening of the harems would suffice to transport the Barbarians into Civilization. In summary, the extension of women's privileges is the general principle for all social progress.


SOURCE: Weeton, Nellie. "The Trials of an English Governess." 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, p. 343. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1981.

In the following journal entry and letter, written in 1810 and originally published in Journal of a Governess in 1936, Weeton recounts several incidents during her tenure as a governess.

[Nellie Weeton's journal entry for Jan. 26, 1810]

The comforts of which I have deprived myself in coming here, and the vexations that occur sometimes during the hours of instruction with a child of such strange temper to instruct, would almost induce me to give up my present situation, did not the consideration which brought me here, still retain me. O Brother! sometime thou wilt know perhaps the deprivations I have undergone for thy sake, and that thy attentions have not been such as to compensate them. For thy sake I have wanted food and fire, and have gone about in rags; have spent the flower of my youth in obscurity, deserted, and neglected; and now, when God has blessed me with a competence, have given up its comforts to promote thy interest in the world. Should I fail in this desire, should I not succeed!—what will recompense me?—God perhaps will bless me for the thought that was in my heart; and if I am rewarded in heaven—I am rewarded indeed! I will be patient—I will be resigned, and—with the help of the Power around me, I will persevere.

[Nellie Weeton to her brother, Sept. 15, 1810. Mr. Pedder's child was killed in a fire, but Weeton was asked to stay on as companion to Mrs. Pedder. The situation soon became intolerable, owing to Mr. Pedder's ungovernable temper.]

I am scarcely permitted either to speak or stir in his presence; nor ever to maintain any opinion different to his own. When in a violent passion (which is but too frequent), on the most trifling occasions he will sometimes beat and turn his wife out of doors. Twice she has run away to her father's—oh! brother, and then, such a house! Mr. P. roaring drunk and swearing horridly, and making all the men about the house drunk. I have thought at such times, I really could not bear to stay any longer, particularly when he has been in his violent passions with me, which has occurred six or seven times. As he at one time found fault with almost everything I did, I have ceased to do anything I am not asked to do. The consequence is, I have almost all my time to myself, as I do little else than sew for Mr. and Mrs. P. Mr. P. will have Mrs. P. take such an active part in the house, that she has little time for my instruction; and as my assistance in domestic concerns has not been required for 3 or 4 months back, I sit a great deal alone, chiefly employed at my needle. Whether Mr. P. means to keep me thus idle, or to dismiss me, I know not. Mrs. P's gentle and kind treatment of me makes me very comfortable, for in general, I see little of Mr. P. except at dinner.


SOURCE: Willard, Emma. "An Address to the Public, Proposing a Plan for Improving Female Education." An Address to the Public; Particularly to the Members of the Legislature of New York, Proposing a Plan for Improving Female Education. Middlebury, Conn.: J. W. Copeland, 1819.

In the following address, Willard notes the benefits of improved education for women.

The object of this Address, is to convince the public, that a reform, with respect to female education, is necessary; that it cannot be effected by individual exertion, but that it requires the aid of the legislature; and further, by shewing the justice, the policy, and the magnamity of such an undertaking, to persuade the body to endow a seminary for females, as the commencement of such reformation.

The idea of a college for males will naturally be associated with that of a seminary, instituted and endowed by the public; and the absurdity of sending ladies to college, may, at first thought, strike every one to whom this subject shall be proposed. I therefore hasten to observe, that the seminary here recommended, will be as different from those appropriated to the other sex, as the female character and duties are from the male. The business of the husbandman is not to waste his endeavours, in seeking to make his orchard attain the strength and majesty of his forest, but to rear each, to the perfection of its nature.

That the improvement of female education will be considered by our enlightened citizens as a subject of importance, the liberality with which they part with their property to educate their daughters, is a sufficient evidence; and why should they not, when assembled in the legislature, act in concert to effect a noble object, which, though dear to them individually, can not be accomplished by their unconnected exertions.

If the improvements of the American female character, and that alone, could be effected by public liberality, employed in giving better means of instruction; such improvement of one half of society, and that half, which barbarous and despotic nations have ever degraded, would of itself be an object, worthy of the most liberal government on earth; but if the female character be raised, it must inevitably raise that of the other sex: and thus does the plan proposed, offer, as the object of legislative bounty, to elevate the whole character of the community.

As evidence that this statement does not exaggerate the female influence in society, our sex need but be considered, in the single relation of mothers. In this character, we have the charge of the whole mass of individuals, who are to compose the succeeding generation; during that period of youth, when the pliant mind takes any direction, to which it is steadily guided by a forming hand. How important power is given by this charge! yet, little do too many of my sex know how, either to appreciate or improve it. Unprovided with the means of acquiring that knowledge, which flows liberally to the other sex—having our time of education devoted to frivolous acquirements, how should we understand the nature of the mind, so as to be aware of the importance of those early impressions, which we make upon the minds of our children?—or how should we be able to form enlarged and correct views, either of the character, to which we ought to mould them, or of the means most proper to form them aright?

Considered in this point of view, were the interests of male education alone to be consulted, that of females becomes of sufficient importance to engage the public attention. Would we rear the human plant to its perfection, we must first fertilize the soil which produces it. If it acquire its first bent and texture upon a barren plain, it will avail comparatively little, should it be afterwards transplanted to a garden.…

Civilized nations have long since been convinced that education, as it respects males, will not, like trade, regulate itself; and hence, they have made it a prime object to provide that sex with everything requisite to facilitate their progress in learning: but female education has been left to the mercy of private adventurers; and the consequence has been to our sex, the same, as it would have been to the other, had legislatures left their accommodations, and means of instruction, to chance also.

Education cannot prosper in any community, unless, from the ordinary motives which actuate the human mind, the best and most cultivated talents of that community, can be brought into exercise in that way. Male education flourishes, because, from the guardian care of legislatures, the presidencies and professorships of our colleges are some of the highest objects to which the eye of ambition is directed. Not so with female institutions. Preceptresses of these, are dependent on their pupils for support, and are consequently liable to become the victims of their caprice. In such situation, it is not more desirable to be a preceptress, than it would be, to be a parent, invested with the care of children, and responsible for their behaviour, but yet, depending on them for subsistence, and destitute of power to enforce their obedience.…

It is impossible that in these schools such systems should be adopted and enforced, as are requisite for properly classing the pupils. Institutions for young gentlemen are founded by public authority, and are permanent; they are endowed with funds, and their instructors and overseers, are invested with authority to make such laws, as they shall deem most salutary. From their permanency, their laws and rules are well known. With their funds they procure libraries, philosophical apparatus, and other advantages, superior to what can elsewhere be found; and to enjoy these, individuals are placed under their discipline, who would not else be subjected to it. Hence the directors of these institutions can enforce, among other regulations, those which enable them to make a perfect classification of their students. They regulate their qualifications for entrance, the kind and order of their studies, and the period of their remaining at the seminary. Female schools present the reverse of this. Wanting permanency, and dependent on individual patronage, had they the wisdom to make salutary regulations, they could neither enforce nor purchase compliance. The pupils are irregular in their times of entering and leaving school; and they are of various and dissimilar acquirements.

Each scholar, of mature age, thinks she has a right to judge for herself respecting what she is to be taught; and the parents of those, who are not, consider that they have the same right to judge for them. Under such disadvantages, a school cannot be classed, except in a very imperfect manner.…

Another errour [in female education] is, that it has been made the first object in educating our sex, to prepare them to please the other. But reason and religion teach that we too are primary existences; that it is for us to move, in the orbit of our duty, around the Holy Centre of perfection, the companions not the satellites of men; else, instead of shedding around us an influence, that may help to keep them in their proper course, we must accompany them in their wildest deviations.

I would not be understood to insinuate, that we are not, in particular situation, to yield obedience to the other sex. Submission and obedience belong to every being in the universe, except the great Master of the whole. Nor is it a degrading particularity to our sex, to be under human authority. Whenever one class of human beings, derive from another the benefits of support and protection, they must pay its equivalent, obedience.…

The inquiry, to which these remarks have conducted us is this—What is offered by the plan of female education, here proposed, which may teach, or preserve, among females of wealthy families, that purity of manners, which is allowed, to be so essential to national prosperity, and so necessary, to the existence of a republican government.…

By being enlightened in moral philosophy, and in that, which teaches the operations of the mind, females would be enabled to perceive the nature and extent, of that influence, which they possess over their children, and the obligation, which this lays them under, to watch the formation of their characters with unceasing vigilance, to become their instructors, to devise plans for their improvement, to weed out the vices from their minds, and to implant and foster the virtues.…

Thus, laudable objects and employments, would be furnished for the great body of females, who are not kept by poverty from excesses. But among these, among the other sex, will be found master spirits, who must have pre-eminence, at whatever price they acquire it. Domestic life cannot hold these, because they prefer to be infamous, rather than obscure. To leave such, without any virtuous road to eminence, is unsafe to community; for not unfrequently, are the secret springs of revolution, set in motion by their intrigues. Such aspiring minds, we will regulate, by education, we will remove obstructions to the course of literature, which has heretofore been their only honorable way to distinction; and we offer them a new object, worthy of their ambition; to govern, and improve the seminaries for their sex.


LUCY STONE (1818-1893)

Lucy Stone gave her first lecture on women's rights in 1847, and soon also became an orator for the Antislavery Society. In 1855 Stone married noted abolitionist Henry B. Blackwell, and their joint protest against the legal disabilities of women was given wide publicity. Stone became the first of many feminists to retain her birth name after marriage. She was a leader in the American Equal Rights Association, and in 1867 became president of the New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association, which she had helped organize. In 1868 Stone and Blackwell helped organize the New England Woman Suffrage Association. In 1869 a major schism occurred in the woman's movement. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, formerly allies of Stone, wanted the cause to embrace many social and political issues, from the marriage question to labor unions. Stone, along with Julia Ward Howe and other New England feminists, favored concentrating on a single issue, the franchise for women, and felt that other reforms would follow from the vote. Stanton and Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association in May, 1869; Stone and Howe formed the American Woman Suffrage Association in November, 1869. Stone then launched the Woman's Journal in 1870, a publication supported by the written contributions of woman's rights advocates from all over the United States, as well as France and England, and in which Stone and Blackwell published editorials that discussed the relationship between contemporary political issues and women's rights as well as analyses of legal proceedings and political events.

JULIA WARD HOWE (1819-1910)

Julia Ward Howe, a prominent abolitionist and women's rights activist, is best known for her patriotic antislavery poem, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," published in 1862. The poem was later put to music and, among other things, became an anthem for civil rights activists in the 1960s. Howe used the wide popular attention, acclaim, and notoriety she received for her poem to greatly advance the cause of enfranchisement of women and African Americans. Howe was a vice president of the Association of American Authors, and in 1908 became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.


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SOURCE: Cady Stanton, Elizabeth. "Elizabeth Cady Stanton's 1848 Seneca Falls Woman's Rights Convention Speech (abridged)." In Returning to Seneca Falls: The First Woman's Rights Convention & Its Meaning for Men & Women Today, edited by Bradford Miller, pp. 172-77. Hudson, N.Y.: Lindisfarne Press, 1995.

In the following speech, delivered at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, Cady Stanton argues that there is no biblical or natural justification for the subjugation of women, and that women must organize to overturn unjust laws and customs that leave them without legal rights or political representation.

I should feel exceedingly diffident to appear before you at this time, having never before spoken in public, were I not nerved by a sense of right and duty, did I not feel the time had fully come for the question of woman's wrongs to be laid before the public, did I not believe that woman herself must do this work; for woman alone can understand the height, the depth, the length, and the breadth of her own degradation. Man can not speak for her.…

Among the many important questions which have been brought before the public, there is none that more vitally affects the whole human family than that which is technically called Woman's Rights. Every allusion to the degraded and inferior position occupied by women all over the world has been met by scorn and abuse. From the man of highest mental cultivation to the most degraded wretch who staggers in the streets do we meet ridicule, and coarse jests, freely bestowed upon those who dare assert that woman stands by the side of man, his equal, placed here by her God, to enjoy with him the beautiful earth, which is her home as it is his, having the same sense of right and wrong, and looking to the same Being for guidance and support. So long has man exercised tyranny over her, injurious to himself and numbing to his faculties, that few can nerve themselves to meet the storm; and so long has the chain been about her that she knows not there is a remedy.…

… In every country and clime does man assume the responsibility of marking out the path for her to tread. In every country does he regard her as a being inferior to himself, and one whom he is to guide and control. From the Arabian Kerek, whose wife is obliged to steal from her husband to supply the necessities of life; from the Mahometan who forbids pigs, dogs, women and other impure animals, to enter a Mosque, and does not allow a fool, madman or woman to proclaim the hour of prayer; from the German who complacently smokes his meerschaum, while his wife, yoked with the ox, draws the plough through its furrow; from the delectable carpet-knight, who thinks an inferior style of conversation adapted to woman; to the legislator, who considers her incapable of saying what laws shall govern her, is the same feeling manifested.…

Let us consider … man's superiority, intellectually, morally, physically.

Man's intellectual superiority cannot be a question until woman has had a fair trial. When we shall have had our freedom to find out our sphere, when we shall have had our colleges, our professions, our trades, for a century, a comparison then may be justly instituted. When woman, instead of being taxed to endow colleges where she is forbidden to enter—instead of forming sewing societies to educate 'poor, but pious,' young men, shall first educate herself, when she shall be just to herself before she is generous to others; improving the talents God has given her, and leaving her neighbor to do the same for himself, we shall not hear so much about this boasted superiority.…

In consideration of man's moral superiority, glance now at our theological seminaries, our divinity students, the long line of descendents from our Apostolic fathers, the immaculate priesthood, and what do we find there? Perfect moral rectitude in every relation of life, a devoted spirit of self-sacrifice, a perfect union of thought, opinion, and feeling among those who profess to worship God, and whose laws they feel themselves called upon to declare to a fallen race? Far from it.…Isthemoral and religious life of this class what we might expect from minds said to be fixed on mighty themes? By no means.…The lamentable want of principle among our lawyers, generally, is too well known to need comment. The everlasting backbiting and bickering of our physicians is proverbial. The disgraceful riots at our polls, where man, in performing the highest duty of citizenship, ought surely to be sober-minded, the perfect rowdyism that now characterizes the debates in our national Congress,—all these are great facts which rise up against man's claim for moral superiority. In my opinion, he is infinitely woman's inferior in every moral quality, not by nature, but made so by a false education.…

… God's commands rest upon man as well as woman. It is as much his duty to be kind, self-denying and full of good works, as it is hers. As much his duty to absent himself from scenes of violence as it is hers. A place or position that would require the sacrifice of the delicacy and refinement of woman's nature is unfit for man, for these virtues should be as carefully guarded in him as in her.… I would not have woman less pure, but I would have men more so. I would have the same code of morals for both.…

Let us now consider man's claim to physical superiority. Methinks I hear some say, surely, you will not contend for equality here. Yes, we must not give an inch, lest you take an ell. We cannot accord to man even this much, and he has no right to claim it until the fact has been fully demonstrated.…We cannot say what the woman might be physically, if the girl were allowed all the freedom of the boy in romping, climbing, swimming, playing whoop and ball.

Among some of the Tartar tribes of the present day, women manage a horse, hurl a javelin, hunt wild animals and fight an enemy as well as a man. The Indian women endure fatigues and carry burdens that some of our fair-faced, soft-handed, moustached young gentlemen would consider quite impossible for them to sustain.…

But there is a class of objectors who say they do not claim superiority, they merely assert a difference. But you will find by following them up closely, that they soon run this difference into the old groove of superiority.…

We have met here today to discuss our rights and wrongs, civil and political, and not, as some have supposed, go into the detail of social life alone. We do not propose to petition the legislature to make our husbands just, generous and courteous, to seat every man at the head of a cradle, and to clothe every woman in male attire.…

We are assembled to protest against a form of government, existing without the consent of the governed—to declare our right to be free as man is free, to be represented in the government which we are taxed to support, to have such disgraceful laws as give man the power to chastise and imprison his wife, to take the wages which she earns, the property which she inherits, and, in the case of separation, the children of her love; laws which make her the mere dependent on his bounty. It is to protest against such unjust laws as these that we are assembled today, and to have them, if possible, forever erased from our statute-books, deeming them a shame and a disgrace to a Christian republic in the nineteenth century.…

And, strange as it may seem to many, we now demand our right to vote according to the declaration of the government under which we live.… We have no objection to discuss the question of equality, for we feel that the weight of argument lies wholly with us, but we wish the question of equality kept distinct from the question of rights, for the proof of the one does not determine the truth of the other. All white men in this country have the same rights, however they may differ in mind, body or estate. The right is ours. The question now is, how shall we get possession of what rightfully belongs to us.…To have drunkards, idiots, horse-racing, rumselling rowdies, ignorant foreigners, and silly boys fully recognized, while we ourselves are thrust out from all the rights that belong to citizens, it is too grossly insulting to the dignity of woman to be longer quietly submitted to. The right is ours. Have it we must. Use it we will. The pens, the tongues, the fortunes, the indomitable wills of many women are already pledged to secure this right. The great truth, that no just government can be formed without the consent of the governed, we shall echo and re-echo in the ears of the unjust judge until by continual coming we shall weary him.…

When women know the laws and constitutions on which they live, they will not publish their degradation by declaring themselves satisfied, nor their ignorance, by declaring they have all the rights they want.…

Let woman live as she should. Let her feel her accountability to her Maker. Let her know her spirit is fitted for as high a sphere as man's, and that her soul requires food as pure and exalted as his. Let her live first for God, and she will not make imperfect man an object of reverence and awe. Teach her responsibility as a being of conscience and reason, that all earthly support is weak and unstable, and that her only safe dependence is the arm of omnipotence, and that true happiness springs from duty accomplished. Thus will she learn the lesson of individual responsibility for time and eternity. That neither father, husband, brother, or son, however willing they may be, can discharge her high duties of life, or stand in her stead when called into the presence of the great searcher of Hearts at the last day.…

One common objection to this movement is, that if the principles of freedom and equality which we advocate were put into practice, it would destroy all harmony in the domestic circle. Here let me ask, how many truly harmonious households have we now?…The only happy households we now see are those in which husband and wife share equally in counsel and government. There can be no true dignity or independence where there is subordination to the absolute will of another, no happiness without freedom. Let us then have no fears that the movement will disturb what is seldom found, a truly united and happy family.…

There seems now to be a kind of moral stagnation in our midst. Philanthropists have done their utmost to rouse the nation to a sense of its aims.…Our churches are multiplying on all sides, our missionary societies, Sunday schools, and prayer meetings and innumerable charitable and reform organizations are all in operation, but still the tide of vice is swelling, and threatens the destruction of everything.…Verily, the world waits the coming of some new element, some purifying power, some spirit of mercy and love. The voice of woman has been silenced in the state, the church, and the home, but man cannot fulfill his destiny alone, he cannot redeem his race unaided.…The world has never seen a truly great and virtuous nation, because in the degradation of woman the very fountains of life are poisoned at their source. It is vain to look for silver and gold from mines of copper and lead. It is the wise mother that has the wise son. So long as your women are slaves you may throw your colleges and churches to the winds.…Truly are the sins of the fathers visited upon the children to the third and fourth generation. God, in his wisdom, has so linked the whole human family together that any violence done at one end of the chain is felt throughout its length, and here, too, is the law of restoration, as in woman all have fallen, so in her elevation shall the race be recreated.

… We do not expect our path to be strewn with flowers of popular applause, but over the thorns of bigotry and prejudice will be our way, and on our banners will beat the dark storm-clouds of opposition from those who have entrenched themselves behind the stormy bulwarks of custom and authority, and who have fortified their position by every means, holy and un-holy.…


SOURCE: The Sibyl. "Short Hair and Short Dresses." In Public Women, Public Words: A Documentary History of American Feminism, edited by Dawn Keetley and John Pettegrew, p. 145. Madison, Wis.: Madison House, 1997.

In the following letter, published in The Sibyl in February 1857, the unknown writer, E. E. S, champions The Sibyl for supporting the wearing of short hair and dresses. The editor offers a response that admonishes outdated fashions and traditions.

Waynesville, Ill., Jan. 26, 1857.

Dear Madam.—Enclosed I sent you $2, for which please send numbers of THE SIBYL to those I mention below. By accident I came across two numbers of your invaluable paper, for which I was very thankful, for it gave me the privilege of subscribing and getting subscribers.

I have worn the short dress for several years, and think it far superior to the long and heavy skirts that fashion demands. I have borne the insults of the people, and the salutes of the passers by, but have never felt my determination shaken. I feel that I am right, and mean to go ahead. I am the only one who wears the Reform Dress in this vicinity; so you can judge of the pleasure it was to me to meet with your paper. It seems like an old and tried friend; and with it to help me, I think that, with never-tiring zeal, I can accomplish something. I often meet with ladies who say that they 'glory in my spunk,' but they dare not come out and face public opinion.

I was glad to learn that I am not alone in wearing short hair, as I had supposed; I am very much opposed to long hair, but never could get any one to agree with me on that point. I have been told that I committed an unpardonable sin by wearing my hair short, because the Bible says that 'long hair is an ornament to woman;' but I believe in consulting nature as well as the Bible. Every one knows that when bathing the head, we have to suffer the inconvenience of letting the hair hang around the shoulders till dry, or twist it up wet, and let it sour and mould before it can dry thoroughly; and then, with the help of a half dozen hair pins to rust the hair, it is in a fine fix. I think there is a great need of reform in hair dressing. Wishing you success, I am yours,

E. E. S.


Daily are we in receipt of such letters. All agree in the opinion that THE SIBYL fills a niche in journalism vacant before its advent.…

… With respect to short hair, we cut ours off in the first place because it was rather thin, and troublesome to comb, brush and braid, as well as a painful annoyance—causing our head to ache with twisting and braiding, supported by combs and pins, none of which we intend ever to trouble ourselves with again, for the ease, lightness and relief we experience suits us much better than long hair. As to the Bible argument, it is an utter absurdity, being, like all other silly things said to be denounced in that book, merely distorted to suit the imagination of fanatics, who have no better occupation than to search for denunciations from its pages. The whole spirit of the Bible tends to uphold simplicity and neatness, while the braiding and plaiting of the hair, and the wearing of silly ornaments, now so common, are most strongly disapproved. Besides this, such arguments generally originate from minds having no real deference for truths anywhere found, save as they can present them as bugbears to frighten the weak and timid, among whom we are not one. And if those who pander to the silly and blighting fashions and falseness of the times, would only scan their own walk, and shape it more to the letter and spirit of the Bible, they would find need of a different walk and conversation from that they now indulge in, causing them to pause and reflect whether their course was one which tended toward the celestial city.—Ed.


SOURCE: Bastian, Louisa, Mary Hamelton, and Anna Long. "The Adult Woman: Work." 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, p. 330. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1981.

In the following petition, sent to lawmakers during the American Civil War, seamstresses ask the government to intervene against unfair labor practices.

We the undersigned formerly doing sewing for the United States Arsenal at Philadelphia most respectfully remonstrate against the action of Col. Crossman in taking the work from us and giving it to contractors who will not pay wages in which we can live—many of us have husbands, fathers, sons & brothers now in the army and from whom we derived our support. Deprived of that as we are our only mode of living was by sewing and we were able by unceasing exertions to barely live at the prices paid by the Arsenal. The Contractors who are speculators offer about fifty per cent of the prices paid heretofore by the arsenal—we respectfully ask your attention to our case. We have all given satisfaction in the work we have done. Then why should the government money be taken from the families of the poor to enrich the wealthy speculator without any gain to the government.

Very Resp Yours &C
Anna Long Widow 5 children 121 Mois St.
Louisa Bastian 124 Mirris St.
Mary Hamelton 1673 Front St. Husband at war


SOURCE: Robinson, Harriet H. "Early Factory Labor in New England." In Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor, Fourteenth Annual Report, pp. 380-92. Boston: Wright & Potter, 1883.

In the following report, Robinson describes the experiences of women factory workers in Lowell, Massachusetts.

In what follows, I shall confine myself to a description of factory life in Lowell, Massachusetts, from 1832 to 1848, since, with that phase of Early Factory Labor in New England, I am the most familiar—because I was a part of it. In 1832, Lowell was little more than a factory village. Five "corporations" were started, and the cotton mills belonging to them were building. Help was in great demand and stories were told all over the country of the new factory place, and the high wages that were offered to all classes of work-people; stories that reached the ears of mechanics' and farmers' sons and gave new life to lonely and dependent women in distant towns and farm-houses.…Troops of young girls came from different parts of New England, and from Canada, and men were employed to collect them at so much a head and deliver them at the factories.…

At the time the Lowell cotton mills were started the caste of the factory girl was the lowest among the employments of women. In England and in France, particularly, a great injustice had been done to her real character. She was represented as subjected to influences that must destroy her purity and self-respect. In the eyes of her overseer she was but a brute, a slave, to be beaten, pinched and pushed about. It was to overcome this prejudice that such high wages and been offered to women that they might be induced to become mill-girls, in spite of the opprobrium that still clung to this degrading occupation.…

The early mill-girls were of different ages. Some were not over ten years old; a few were in middle life, but the majority were between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five. The very young girls were called "doffers." They "doffed," or took off, the full bobbins from the spinning-frames, and replaced them with empty ones. These mites worked about fifteen minutes every hour and the rest of the time was their own. When the overseer was kind they were allowed to read, knit or go outside the mill-yard to play. They were paid two dollars a week. The working hours of all the girls extended from five o'clock in the morning until seven in the evening, with one half-hour each, for breakfast and dinner. Even the doffers were forced to be on duty nearly fourteen hours a day. This was the greatest hardship in the lives of these children. Several years later a ten-hour law was passed, but not until long after some of these little doffers were old enough to appear before the legislative committee on the subject, and plead, by their presence, for a reductions of the hours of labor. Those of the mill-girls who had homes generally worked from eight to ten months in the year; the rest of the time was spent with parents or friends. A few taught school during the summer months. Their life in the factory was made pleasant to them. In those days there was no need of advocating the doctrine of the proper relation between employer and employed. Help was too valuable to be ill-treated.…

The most prevailing incentive to labor was to secure the means of education for some male member in the family. To make a gentleman of a brother or a son, to give him a college education, was the dominant thought in the minds of a great many of the better class of mill-girls. I have known more than one to give every cent of her wages, month after month, to her brother, that he might get the education necessary to enter some profession. I have known a mother to work years in this way for her boy. I have known women to educate young men by their earnings, who were not sons or relatives. There were many men now living who were helped to an education by the wages of the early mill-girls. It is well to digress here a little, and speak of the influence the possession of money had on the characters of some of these women. We can hardly realize what a change the cotton factory made in the status of the working women. Hitherto woman had always been a money saving rather than a money earning, member of the community. Her labor could command but small return. If she worked out as servant, or "help," her wages were from 50 cents to $1.00 a week; or, if she went from house to house by the day to spin and weave, or do tailoress work, she could get but 75 cents a week and her meals. As teacher, her services were not in demand, and the arts, the professions, and even the trades and industries, were nearly all closed to her.

As late as 1840 there were only seven vocations outside the home into which the women of New England had entered. At this time woman had no property rights. A widow could be left without her share of her husband's (or the family) property, an "incumbrance" to his estate. A father could make his will without reference to his daughter's share of the inheritance. He usually left her a home on the farm as long as she remained single. A woman was not supposed to be capable of spending her own, or of using other people's money. In Massachusetts, before 1840, a woman could not, legally, be treasurer of her own sewing society, unless some man were responsible for her. The law took no cognizance of woman as a money-spender. She was a ward, an appendage, a relict. Thus it happened that if a woman did not choose to marry, or, when left a widow, to re-marry, she had no choice but to enter one of the few employments open to her, or to become a burden on the charity of some relative.…

One of the first strikes that ever took place in this country was in Lowell in 1836. When it was announced that the wages were to be cut down, great indignation was felt, and it was decided to strike or "turn out" en masse. This was done. The mills were shut down, and the girls went from their several corporations in procession to the grove on Chapel Hill, and listened to incendiary speeches from some early labor reformers. One of the girls stood on a pump and gave vent to the feelings of her companions in a neat speech, declaring that it was their duty to resist all attempts at cutting down the wages. This was the first time a woman had spoken in public in Lowell, and the event caused surprise and consternation among her audience. It is hardly necessary to say that, so far as practical results are concerned, this strike did no good. The corporation would not come to terms. The girls were soon tired of holding out, and they went back to their work at the reduced rate of wages. The ill-success of this early attempt at resistance on the part of the wage element seems to have made a precedent for the issue of many succeeding strikes.


SOURCE: Watkins Harper, Frances Ellen. "Woman's Political Future." In With Pen and Voice: A Critical Anthology of Nineteenth-Century African-American Women, edited by Shirley Wilson Logan, pp. 43-46. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995.

In the following excerpt, originally published in 1893, Harper argues that the influence of women in American political life is necessary to bring an end to the many injustices that plague the nation.

If before sin had cast its deepest shadows or sorrow had distilled its bitterest tears, it was true that it was not good for man to be alone, it is no less true, since the shadows have deepened and life's sorrows have increased, that the world has need of all the spiritual aid that woman can give for the social advancement and moral development of the human race. The tendency of the present age, with its restlessness, religious upheavals, failures, blunders, and crimes, is toward broader freedom, an increase of knowledge, the emancipation of thought, and a recognition of the brotherhood of man; in this movement woman, as the companion of man, must be a sharer. So close is the bond between man and woman that you can not raise one without lifting the other. The world can not move without woman's sharing in the movement, and to help give a right impetus to that movement is woman's highest privilege.

If the fifteenth century discovered America to the Old World, the nineteenth is discovering woman to herself. Little did Columbus imagine, when the New World broke upon his vision like a lovely gem in the coronet of the universe, the glorious possibilities of a land where the sun should be our engraver, the winged lightning our messenger, and steam our beast of burden. But as mind is more than matter, and the highest ideal always the true real, so to woman comes the opportunity to strive for richer and grander discoveries than ever gladdened the eye of the Genoese mariner.

Not the opportunity of discovering new worlds, but that of filling this old world with fairer and higher aims than the greed of gold and the lust of power, is hers. Through weary, wasting years men have destroyed, dashed in pieces, and overthrown, but today we stand on the threshold of woman's era, and woman's work is grandly constructive. In her hand are possibilities whose use or abuse must tell upon the political life of the nation, and send their influence for good or evil across the track of unborn ages.



Born to free parents in Baltimore, Maryland Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was orphaned when she was three years old, and was subsequently raised by an aunt and an uncle who was an ardent abolitionist and who ran the school for free children that Harper attended as a child. During her teen years Harper composed poems with religious and moral themes, some of which were reprinted in newspapers and in a now-lost volume called Autumn Leaves or Forest Leaves. Harper moved to Ohio—a free state—in the early 1850s, where she taught domestic science at Columbus Union Seminary. Harper later taught at an elementary school in Little York, Pennsylvania, and it was there that she first witnessed the passage of runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad. Harper sought ways to actively participate in the antislavery movement. Boston abolitionists encouraged her to become an elocutionist, and she soon became a sought-after lecturer on the East coast.

Following the conclusion of the Civil War and the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation, Harper began emphasizing in her speeches he divisive effects of racism as well as the need for temperance, domestic morality, and education for African Americans. Harper's written works, popular in her time with both black and white audiences, mediate between the subject matter and viewpoints of pre- and post-Civil War African American writers: while she wrote against slavery, she also broke away from the purely propagandistic mode of the antislavery poet and became one of the first African American writers to focus on national and universal problems. In her novel Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted (1892), Harper countered the negative stereotypes of African Americans that pervaded contemporary fiction with educated, highly principled black protagonists who foreshadowed the characters created by twentieth-century writers.

As the saffron tints and crimson flushes of morn herald the coming day, so the social and political advancement which woman has already gained bears the promise of the rising of the full-orbed sun of emancipation. The result will be not to make home less happy, but society more holy; yet I do not think the mere extension of the ballot a panacea for all the ills of our national life. What we need today is not simply more voters, but better voters. Today there are red-handed men in our republic, who walk unwhipped of justice, who richly deserve to exchange the ballot of the freeman for the wristlets of the felon; brutal and cowardly men, who torture, burn, and lynch their fellow-men, men whose defenselessness should be their best defense and their weakness an ensign of protection. More than the changing of institutions we need the development of a national conscience, and the upbuilding of national character. Men may boast of the aristocracy of blood, may glory in the aristocracy of talent, and be proud of the aristocracy of wealth, but there is one aristocracy which must ever outrank them all, and that is the aristocracy of character; and it is the women of a country who help to mold its character, and to influence if not determine its destiny; and in the political future of our nation woman will not have done what she could if she does not endeavor to have our republic stand foremost among the nations of the earth, wearing sobriety as a crown and righteousness as a garment and a girdle. In coming into her political estate woman will find a mass of illiteracy to be dispelled. If knowledge is power, ignorance is also power. The power that educates wickedness may manipulate and dash against the pillars of any state when they are undermined and honeycombed by injustice.

I envy neither the heart nor the head of any legislator who has been born to an inheritance of privileges, who has behind him ages of education, dominion, civilization, and Christianity, if he stands opposed to the passage of a national education bill, whose purpose is to secure education to the children of those who were born under the shadow of institutions which made it a crime to read.

Today women hold in their hands influence and opportunity, and with these they have already opened doors which have been closed to others. By opening doors of labor woman has become a rival claimant for at least some of the wealth monopolized by her stronger brother. In the home she is the priestess, in society the queen, in literature she is a power, in legislative halls law-makers have responded to her appeals, and for her sake have humanized and liberalized their laws. The press has felt the impress of her hand. In the pews of the church she constitutes the majority; the pulpit has welcomed her, and in the school she has the blessed privilege of teaching children and youth. To her is apparently coming the added responsibility of political power; and what she now possesses should only be the means of preparing her to use the coming power for the glory of God and the good of mankind; for power without righteousness is one of the most dangerous forces in the world.

Political life in our country has plowed in muddy channels, and needs the infusion of clearer and cleaner waters. I am not sure that women are naturally so much better than men that they will clear the stream by the virtue of their womanhood; it is not through sex but through character that the best influence of women upon the life of the nation must be exerted.

I do not believe in unrestricted and universal suffrage for either men or women. I believe in moral and educational tests. I do not believe that the most ignorant and brutal man is better prepared to add value to the strength and durability of the government than the most cultured, upright, and intelligent woman. I do not think that willful ignorance should swamp earnest intelligence at the ballot-box, nor that educated wickedness, violence, and fraud should cancel the votes of honest men. The unsteady hands of a drunkard can not cast the ballot of a freeman. The hands of lynchers are too red with blood to determine the political character of the government for even four short years. The ballot in the hands of woman means power added to influence. How well she will use that power I can not foretell. Great evils stare us in the face that need to be throttled by the combined power of an upright manhood and an enlightened womanhood; and I know that no nation can gain its full measure of enlightenment and happiness if one-half of it is free and the other half is fettered. China compressed the feet of her women and thereby retarded the steps of her men. The elements of a nation's weakness must ever be found at the hearthstone.

More than the increase of wealth, the power of armies, and the strength of fleets is the need of good homes, of good fathers, and good mothers.

The life of a Roman citizen was in danger in ancient Palestine, and men had bound themselves with a vow that they would eat nothing until they had killed the Apostle Paul. Pagan Rome threw around that imperiled life a bulwark of living clay consisting of four hundred and seventy human hearts, and Paul was saved. Surely the life of the humblest American citizen should be as well protected in America as that of a Roman citizen was in heathen Rome. A wrong done to the weak should be an insult to the strong. Woman coming into her kingdom will find enthroned three great evils, for whose overthrow she should be as strong in a love of justice and humanity as the warrior is in his might. She will find intemperance sending its flood of shame, and death, and sorrow to the homes of men, a fretting leprosy in our politics, and a blighting curse in our social life; the social evil sending to our streets women whose laughter is sadder than their tears, who slide from the paths of sin and shame to the friendly shelter of the grave; and lawlessness enacting in our republic deeds over which angels might weep, if heaven knows sympathy.

How can any woman send petitions to Russia against the horrors of Siberian prisons if, ages after the Inquisition has ceased to devise its tortures, she has not done all she could by influence, tongue, and pen to keep men from making bonfires of the bodies of real or supposed criminals? O women of America! into your hands God has pressed one of the sublimest opportunities that ever came into the hands of the women of any race or people. It is yours to create a healthy public sentiment; to demand justice, simple justice, as the right of every race; to brand with everlasting infamy the lawless and brutal cowardice that lynches, burns, and tortures your own countrymen.

To grapple with the evils which threaten to undermine the strength of the nation and to lay magazines of powder under the cribs of future generations is no child's play.

Let the hearts of the women of the world respond to the song of the herald angels of peace on earth and good will to men. Let them throb as one heart unified by the grand and holy purpose of uplifting the human race, and humanity will breathe freer, and the world grow brighter. With such a purpose Eden would spring up in our path, and Paradise be around our way.

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Women in the 19th Century: Primary Sources

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Women in the 19th Century: Primary Sources