Beyond Domesticity: U.S. Women Writers, 1770-1915


Introduction l True Womanhood l New Women l Growing Up Female l Political Women l Suffrage l Abolition l Women and War l Work Outside the Home l Cookery and Fancy-Work l Work Inside the Home l Mothering l Marriage l Marriage and Divorce l Regionalism l Travel l Bestsellers l Highlights l English 437: Students Research Rare Books


True Womanhood

Piety, Purity, Submissiveness, and Domesticity


Piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity – these qualities were thought to define the ideal or “true” woman in the antebellum era, according to historian Barbara Welter. Examples of this paragon appear in countless sermons, conduct manuals, newspaper editorials, poems, and novels. We also find many examples of her antithesis – the fallen woman, or the ambitious or opinionated woman – whose story never ends well.

The ideal of true womanhood transcended many differences. For example, this display case includes works by northerner Harriet Beecher Stowe and southerner Maria McIntosh – bitter opponents on sectional politics – that teach nearly identical lessons on women’s proper place. However, as Harriet Jacobs points out in her famous slave narrative, being a true woman required a host of material and social privileges that were denied to poor or enslaved women: “O, ye happy women, whose purity has been sheltered from childhood, who have been free to choose the objects of your affection, whose homes are protected by law, do not judge the poor desolate slave girl  too severely!”

Maria Jane McIntosh, 1803-1878.

Meta Gray; or,What Makes Home Happy.
NewYork: D. Appleton and Company, 1860.

McIntosh was a popular southern writer who saved her family from financial ruin by producing novels like this one. Her career illustrates the paradox of antebellum female writers who garnered fame and fortune by portraying the rewards of women’s home-bound lives and the perils of female ambition.





Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1811-1896.

Pink and White Tyranny, a Society Novel.
Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1871.

Although known for her radical anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe was often decidedly conventional in her views on gender roles. This novel from late in her career dramatizes the tragedy of wives who use their beauty for personal power rather than true good.






Fanny Fern, 1811-1872

Fern Leaves, From Fanny’s Port-folio.
Auburn: Derby and Miller; Buffalo: Derby, Orton
and Mulligan; Cincinnati: Henry W. Derby, 1853.
Little Ferns For Fanny’s Little Friends.
Auburn: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1854.
Fern Leaves From Fanny’s Portfolio.
Auburn: Derby and Miller, 1853.

Note that the writer begins this collection of her articles from the New York Ledger by apologizing for the unladylike act of writing it. This sort of prefatory disclaimer was very conventional from women writers of the time. It seems particularly ironic in this case, since Sara Parton Willis was an extremely ambitious, self-sufficient, and savvy businesswoman. Willis became the highest paid newspaper writer in the U.S., and used her fiction and weekly columns to issue acerbic opinions on everything and everyone – all from behind the shield of her True Woman pseudonym, Fanny Fern.


Louisa May Alcott, 1832-1888.

Little Women; or, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy.
Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1869.
Illustrated by May Alcott.
Joel Myerson Collection of Nineteenth Century American Literature.
louisa may alcott
Alcott once referred to her own children’s books as “moral pap for the young.” Yet they brought her international celebrity and are still widely read and beloved among today’s readers. In this novel, Alcott’s most famous, the four May sisters learn the tenets of true womanhood through lessons in obedience; self-denial; repression of envy; and in the scene shown here, anger management.



Corset, ca. 1907.

Manufactured by the Roth & Goldschmidt Corset Company, New York City.
Collection of McorsetcKissick Museum, gift of Julia Huffman.

Although corsets remained fashionable into the early twentieth century, many viewed the rigid undergarment as uncomfortable and unhealthy. Changing styles reflected popular opinion; fashionable silhouettes grew more rounded and feminine. This corset was more flexible than earlier models, permitting greater comfort and mobility.   


The Sweet Singer of Hartford

Lydia Sigourney, 1791-1865 Illustrated Poems.

Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1860.
lydia sigourney
Writing was a leisure activity for Sigourney until her husband lost his fortune and died, at which point she became a prolific and successful professional poet. Known for her use of religious themes, Sigourney often dwelt on the rewards of the afterlife. This poem, in which a father reminds his children of their dead mother, reflects a common but curious aspect of the nineteenth-century gender ideology: true women are often dead women, which makes them even more selfless, sexless, and spiritual.



The Fallen Woman?

Hannah Foster, 1758-1840.

The Coquette; or, The History of Eliza Wharton.
A Novel Founded on Fact
by A Lady of Massachusetts.
Boston: William P. Fetridge and Company, 1855.

Foster based her narrative upon the true story of Elizabeth Whitman who,having died in childbirth asanunmarried woman, had become the focus of much public moralizing. Like Elizabeth, Eliza “falls” to a seducer and dies.Yet, it is difficult to know where Foster stood on this issue. Does the novel caution female readers against immorality like Eliza’s? Or does it criticize a society whose “contracted ideas confine virtue to a cell” instead of teaching women self-sufficiency?


Literary Annuals

New York: J.E.D. Comstock, 1846.
Lavishly decorated volumes like these were published yearly, usually around the holidays. They were popular as gift items intended chiefly for women, as the portrait displayed here suggests. Annuals typically included short fiction, illustrations and essays with titles such as “The True Mission and Sphere of Woman.” Many women writers and artists from Britain and the U.S. were involved as contributors or editors.


Hair Bracelet, ca. 1844-1874.

Collection of McKissick Museum.
Serious illness and premature death were common in nineteenth century America. During the mid-1800s, many Americans imitated European fashion by using the deceased’s hair to make jewelry. Friends and relatives treasured mementos like this bracelet made from woven hair and gold. This bracelet belonged to members of the Richardson family of Clarendon County, SC. 


Photograph, ca. 1880-1900.

Collection of McKissick Museum, Gift of Mrs. Frances Dwight.
The generation of middle and upper class women coming of age in the late nineteenth century enjoyed opportunities previously unavailable to women. More women attended secondary school and college than ever before. Educated women were introspective and concerned with society’s problems.  Whether as career women or housewives, these “new women” crusaded for social change. 



Next Page: New Women


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