American Women in the Early 19th Century Essay

2493 Words Oct 10th, 2006 10 Pages
The American Woman of the Early Nineteenth Century

Perceptions of Women in the 19th Century
During the early 1800s, Americans generally believed that there was a definite difference in character between the sexes -- man was active, dominant, assertive, and materialistic, while woman was religious, modest, passive, submissive, and domestic. As a result, there developed an ideal of American womanhood, or a "cult of true womanhood" as denoted by historian Barbara Welter. This cult, evident in women's magazines and religious literature of the day, espoused four basic attributes of female character: piety, purity, submissiveness,domesticity.
1) Religion/Piety was the "core of woman's virtue, the source of her strength" (Welter, 21).
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While social reform movements, industrialization, migration, and other social forces instilled changes which eventually affected the status of women in American society, the "true" woman was that female at home, "the Valiant Woman of the Bible, in whom the heart of her husband rejoiced and whose price was above rubies" (Welter, 41).
Legal Status of Women
Despite the moral and religious significance of women, American society was predominantly designed for men. Legally, women were strictly dependent and unequal. Harriet Martineau confirmed this by noting the "political nonexistence of women." Since American law followed the principles established in 1765 by the English barrister Sir William Blackstone, it was asserted and accepted in America that "by marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law; that is, the very being and legal existence of the woman is suspended during marriage." Essentially, the wife "belonged" to her husband. He had a right to the person and property of his wife; he could use "gentle restraint upon her liberty to prevent improper conduct;" he could beat her without fear of prosecution. Thus, it was very clear that "the wife is dead in law" (Pessen, 49).
National and state constitutions included little mention of the rights of women. In most cases, her right to hold property was either denied or restricted, and she had no right to make a will, enter a contract, or sue in court without her husband's consent. Children

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