The student focusing on 19th century history in the United States in most cases studies the Civil War and the causes that led to the war. But there are a number of very important aspects to 19th century American history that relate to women's roles, including nursing and volunteering to help the war wounded and others in need of care. This paper delves into the role nurses played in the Civil War (both Caucasian and Black nurses), the way in which the Civil War changed the woman's work roles, the role women (both Black and Caucasian) played before, during, and after the war, and the terrible injustices thrust on women of color in a number of instances throughout the 19th century.
The Woman's role in America prior to the Civil War
"A woman's work is never done," is an old maxim but it has never become out of date; indeed, because it has more than a ring of truth to it, it has been used often in the 217 years since Martha Moore Ballard penned it in her journal one November night around midnight in 1795 (Cott, 1997, p. 19). Author Nancy Cott uses Ballard's life and times -- a resident of Augusta, Maine -- as an example of the productivity and altruism that was typical of many women whose vocation was as a "domestic manufacturer" on a working farm (Cott, 19).
To wit, Ballard "…baked, pickled and preserved, spun and sewed, made soap and dipped candles" and in addition to all that, Ballard was a "trusted healer and midwife"; she delivered "…more than a thousand babies" as well (Cott, 19). This was not an "atypical" women in the waning days of the late 18th century, Cott explains.
If one is looking for any changes in a woman's role between 1780 and 1835, Cott writes, there were some, but basically women were considered "…adjunct and secondary to men in economic life" (20). Women were noted for their "industry" but men were "providing"; what sense would it have made for a woman to have economic ambitions, given that there were "legal obstacles in the way of women's entrepreneurship"? (Cott, 21).
In Mary Tucker's diary (1802) she said marriage could prove to be "…a galling chain" for those unfortunate women who "married from proper motives" but did not anticipate the "bondage…" (Cott, 77). Catherine Sedgwick (1802) had pity for her sister Frances, who had married and now must "accede to her husband's disastrous financial decisions," Cott reports on page 77. Sedgwick wrote that her sister wasn't given the right to object or consent to her husband's investments and spending, but she was stuck in a place where "…obedience to his wish" was all she could muster (Cott, 77). Sedgwick writes: "Poor Frances! My heart bleeds for her, when I think to what legal subordination persisted, in combination with romantic love ideals that stressed personal attraction and emotional motivation for both partners…" (Cott, 77-78).
Sedgwick presents in her diary post that -- in the context of her sister's dilemma -- there is an "overwhelming irony" faced by women: they have the right to "choose their bondage" (Cott, 78). Iconic philosopher, author and journalist Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States and studied the social dynamics carefully in the early portion of the 19th century. His take on women's position in relationships is poignant if -- as author Cott contends -- it is not exactly accurate.
Tocqueville wrote that a woman "…voluntarily and freely enters upon this engagement" in full knowledge of her destiny. "She has learned by the use of her independence to surrender it without a struggle and without a murmur when the time comes for making the sacrifice" (Cott quoting Tocqueville, 78). The part of that quote that Cott didn't fully embrace was the supposed independence that a woman had prior to marriage; it just wasn't true, in many cases, that unmarried young women had independence.
Still, Cott goes on to recount the changes in women's roles and the perceptions that the outside world (including males) had about women. By the year 1830, women were not seen so much as "inferior" as they were "different," Cott emphasizes (197). In fact there is a "woman's sphere" in the literature relating to the 19th century; the author breaks the "woman's sphere" down into three parts. The first, roughly between 1820 and 1850, viewed women as "…victims, or prisoners, of an ideology of domesticity that was imposed on them" (197). The second sphere viewed women in a more refined way, observing that "…women made use of the ideology of domesticity for their own purposes" including the chance to be educated, to gain some influence in the society and the community, and even to "…express hostility to men" (Cott, 197).
The third perceives sphere for women was by way of seeing that women were creating a "subculture…that formed a source of strength and identity and afforded supportive sisterly relations" (Cott, 197). The impetus for this third sphere was two-fold: a) women's motives were more progressive and specific in terms of what they wished to become; and b) women were responding forcefully to the "imposition of men's or 'society's wishes" (Cott, 197).
Meanwhile, on a more practical side of the early 19th century, the advice offered to women in The Family Nurse by abolitionist, Indian rights advocate and woman's rights activist Lydia Child is as entertaining today as it was pragmatic in 1837, when the book was published. "Be not afraid of fatigue," Child suggested on page 6. And those "troubled with cold feet" should "dip their feet in cold water, as soon as they are out of bed, all the year round" (Child, 6). The dipping should be done very quickly, then the feet should be "…rubbed with a coarse cloth, or brush, till they glow" (Child, 6).
On page 9 Child recommends that patients suffering from fever be sponged with a solution consisting of a teaspoon of pearl ask, dissolved in a pint of "lukewarm water" and wiped off with a sponge that has been dipped in "warm vinegar and water." That seems very straight forward and proper. But after the vinegar treatment, Child suggests very weak patients with fever will benefit "…by being washed in warm white rum" (9).
While that last advice may seem a bit bizarre by today's standards, some of Child's recommendations border on the blatantly obvious: "If stockings and shoes get wet, change them. It is a mistaken idea that it is healthy to dry them on" (7). Another nurse-related suggestion, which rings true today: "The first and most important duty of the nurse is to follow scrupulously and exactly the directions of the physician… he must be trusted entirely" (Child, 9). Interestingly Child leaves no stone unturned in her scrupulous attention to detail. When someone is ill, it is important to "step lightly and gently" and avoid "creaking shoes" or "rustling garments" and most certainly prevent doors from banging. Certainly the nurses and women tending to the sick in 1837 did not have "3-in-1" oil or WD-40, but they understood how annoying a squeaky door can be; hence on page 10 Child suggests having "hinges and locks oiled."
Why 19th Century Women -- in Many Instances -- were Revered
Barbara Welter presents narrative in the book Locating American Studies: The Evolution of a Discipline that a 19th century woman was judged by four "cardinal virtues" -- "piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity" (Welter, 1999, p. 44). The source of the woman's strength was religion and piety, and in fact when a woman has those "undefined longings" that sweep through the mind and body of "even the most pious young girl" religion acts as a kind of "tranquilizer" for those desires (Welter, 45). The rule of thumb for young women coming of age was: "…it was better to pray than to think" (Welter, 45).
Given the above-mentioned description of what a woman's role was -- her "proper sphere" was her home where she could practice her religion and eschew "intellectual pursuits" -- it is clear why women were discouraged from pursuing educational advancement. "Women were warned not to let their literary or intellectual pursuits take them away from God" (Welter, 46). In essence, the point made in women's publications like The Ladies' Repository, Young Ladies' Literary and Missionary Report, The Young Lady's Friend, Girlhood and Womanhood and The Excellency of the Female Character, was that religion and the obsession with reading the Bible would keep women from straying into carnal thoughts or hopes of becoming educated about the secular world.
On page 46, Welter explains that when a woman in the early 19th century was less than pure (one assumes the author alludes to virginity and to eschewing sensual involvement of any kind) she was "no woman at all, but a member of some lower order." A women even thinking about her loss of purity "…brought tears" and to be found "guilty of…
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