How and Why Housework was Devalued in the First Place

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In extensive document and theory-based detail, Boydston traces how the economic significance of women’s housework evolved in both private and public ways over the course of the late eighteenth century into the early nineteenth in the northeastern United States. Integrating both Marxist and feminist approaches in her analysis of the subject, Boydston fundamentally argues that women’s housework became increasingly devalued as an economic, societal contribution into the nineteenth century. Thus, Boydston argues that “the image of the colonial goodwife, valued for her contribution to household prosperity, had been replaced by the image of wife and mother as a ‘dependent’ and ‘nonproducer’” (xi). This speaks not only to husband-wife relationships within the home, but also American economics at large and changing societal conceptions of women’s value in general.

Boydston debunks the idea that industrialization is what devalued women’s labor; rather, she argues that this decline began well before then and was practically solidified by the end of the eighteenth century and the American Revolution. She also makes the crucial point that the term economy used to pertain specifically to issues of the household, including the work that kept it running smoothly. Because of this definition, women were valued as workers and laborers in their own right. Women’s contributions to their own homes were increasingly devalued, and sons began challenging their widowed mothers’ rights to their own contributions to the family’s home and wealth. Boydston notes that what had taken place over the course of the eighteenth century was not a change in the type of work women were doing, but the attitudes concerning that work that reflected a very negative view of housewifery in general. Also essential to this transformation was the increased dependency on a cash market and wage labor; women were significant contributors to the barter system because they were producers of finished goods including both food and textiles.

The American Revolution, Boydston argued, helped bring women’s work back to a position of value in their communities as many women contributed to the home-based production of essential goods in the midst of boycotts against the British. She states that money was again devalued which helped this shift take place. However, these sentiments did not last into the nineteenth century. Women’s home manufacture enabled their families to depend less on cash markets, yet even women grew to view their work as insignificant and themselves as dependent on their husbands’ support. These ideas were maintained through the war of 1812. The labor of women, Boydston points out, became increasingly defined as unpaid labor, while men’s work was defined as waged. Industrialization transformed the lives of the producing classes, Boydston notes; mass manufacture helped create a poor urban class dependent on the cycles of these industries, took jobs away from artisans and skilled workers, and a middle class began to develop within the developing consumerist culture. Thus, Boydston argues, the meaning of freedom transformed in the antebellum period, shifting from connotations of economic dependency to delineating wealth.

Boydston argues that housework was a crucial function for the poorest as well as elite families, though the work done by these wives was certainly different. While wealthier families could afford to pay domestic servants for their help (for duties such as cooking or laundry), these women simply shifted their attentions to other essential household duties, such as training servants. Even middle class women continued to participate in the efforts of home manufacture and yet still did the cooking, cleaning, and childrearing and essential behind the scenes work on farms. Many women themselves, Boydston claims, considered their household duties “drudgery,” and increased dependency on the cash market required new sets of skills in budgeting and market intuition. Many of these changes were influenced by the industrial threat to men’s masculinity and heads of households as breadwinners. Fundamentally, Boydston maintains that despite it being devalued in the eyes of many, both men and women, women’s household work was an essential contribution to emerging capitalist economy in the United States.

Jezebels, Mammies, and None of the Above

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For this particular round of books, Amber, Sarah, and I have each read a different book pertaining to enslaved women in the antebellum period. I read Deborah Gray White’s Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South (1985), a groundbreaking study of antebellum southern plantations. Crucially adding to the traditional historiography on American slavery,  which had long focused almost exclusively on the experiences of enslaved men, White presents a detailed narrative that carefully examines the lives of southern enslaved women. In this monograph, White uses new evidence that better enlightens the everyday experiences of these women, including both their physical work and struggles to forge their own individual identities, as people more generally and as women more specifically, despite adversity and suppression. This book examines these issues from practically the beginning of the antebellum period through the Civil War and post-emancipation period.

Because the purpose of this book is to as thoroughly as possible unveil who these women were, White’s first chapter is dedicated to explaining what most of these women were not: the stereotypical Jezebel and Mammy. Thus, White debunks contemporary (and even perhaps modern) misconceptions about southern slave women as either sexually promiscuous or as asexual matronly figures. These two stereotypes open discussion for family dynamics, as well as racial dynamics on southern plantations. White claims that “half-white children told a story of  white man’s infidelity, a slave woman’s helplessness (though this concerned few whites), an a white woman’s inability to defy the social and legal constraints that kept her bound to her husband regardless of his transgressions” (40). Because the actions of southern white men pertaining to improper treatment (to use a euphemism) of their female slaves were increasingly condoned by northern abolitionists, southerners conjured up the paternalistic image of the domestic slave, the middle to elder-aged Mammy, whose role as nurse and housekeeper became integrated into the loving fabric of white families. White points out that this justification for slavery overemphasized the unfailing devotion slaves had to their masters, as well as the numbers of slave women who actually were in charge of white households.

After debunking these myths, White then thematically tackles different aspects of slave women’s lives. She addresses the economic significance of female slaves’ procreative abilities (later tackled in Jennifer Morgan’s Laboring Women, as we have discussed earlier); she discusses the 1629 Virginia field labor tax that helped solidify the conceptualization of the racial other in American society (as later discussed by Kathleen M. Brown in Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs and covered in this blog); she discusses everyday slave resistance such as feigning illness; she discusses the evolving nature of women’s work over the course of their lives; she addresses the nature of sexual and romantic relationships; she discusses the significance of motherhood in keeping slave families functioning both within themselves and the larger slave community on plantations; she discusses the lack of justice for these women in cases of sexual violence done to them by white and black men; she discusses the prejudice women faced even after fleeing to Union lines during the Civil War; and she discusses formerly enslaved women forming identities as women, and largely working women, in a world that repeatedly tried to take away that part of their identity. White emphasizes that even after living as legally free people in the U.S., black women needed to be self-reliant: “In short, life still challenged them to a different kind of womanhood, nothing like that of white women” (176).

As is the case with many women and gender studies, White explores the lives of antebellum enslaved women while also glossing over the experiences as men for comparison and contrast. However, White makes the crucial point that “Female slave bondage was not better or worse, or more or less severe than male bondage, but it was different” (89). Thus, White’s purpose remains to help fill in the gaps in the historiography on slavery as a whole. Before White, these women were largely left out of the story of slavery in the American South. White’s study enlarges that image to encompass not only the many types of labor done by slave women (including the duties of childrearing), but also different images of enslaved women sewing dresses, attending church, and performing midwife duties on neighboring plantations. Essentially, while showing antebellum slave women as victims of an oppressive system, she also shows the agency exerted by these women to form their own identities and shape their own lots in life despite their circumstances.

 

A Public Fight for Private and Political Rights

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Nancy Isenberg’s Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America (1998) ultimately provides a unique, but crucial, examination of the early women’s rights movement. Isenberg shifts her focus from Seneca Falls and the movements for suffrage and antislavery to a wider examination of other crucial rights that women in the antebellum period related to issues of citizenship. In this book, Isenberg seeks to answer these two questions: “How did feminists frame their understanding of rights within antebellum theories of representation?” and “How did this struggle over rights incorporate several distinct but overlapping legal and political debates that characterized the antebellum period?” (xiv). Thus, she examines (and challenges) public and private spheres in their connection to politics and laws that directly influenced the lives of antebellum women.

In particular, Isenberg focuses on the spaces of church and family in their influences on early women’s rights reformers, re-examining the beginning of the women’s rights movement as written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton in her History of Woman Suffrage (1881) and confirmed by historians in the many years after. She argues that “the early feminist movement is significant not for its mythic tales of origins but for the way it exposed the gendered construction of American democracy” (13). This construction, she emphasizes, meant that women, particularly white women, exercised very few privileges and civil liberties allotted to their male counterparts. Of particular importance to this discussion, Isenberg mentions, are the concepts of consent and self-protection, two principles essential to antebellum republicanism and citizenship yet ultimately denied to women. Discussing the importance of consent of the governed in connection to property rights, Isenberg illuminates these political spaces as ones that excluded women under coverture. Thus, women’s political concerns were technically represented in the form of their fathers and husbands, who were supposedly heading to the polls with the interests of their wives and daughters in mind: “As male guardians of private property, fathers, husbands, sons, and brothers carried women’s wishes to the polls and counsels of government” (27). Isenberg explains that in the public view, women, through marriage, consented to this arrangement and therefore legally resigned themselves to a life of submission.

Throughout her book, Isenberg relates these issues to women in the public sphere (specifically discussing political and social conventions, dress reform, women’s health, and modesty), the church and state relationship, prostitution, capital punishment, the Mexican American War, and marriage. In each of these discussions, Isenberg illuminates laws and social norms that prevented women from actualizing their identities as American citizens; furthermore, she explains how women participated publicly in these discussions of national (and international) concern. These women in antebellum America fought not only for their own rights, but for the rights of those with lesser standing in society, such as prostitutes, Native American women, and Mexican women (the latter two groups becoming spoils in the case of the Mexican War). Expanding the discussion of the beginning of women’s rights outside the origins of abolition, Isenberg shows that women reformers’ concerns were both widely varied and very much in tune with larger issues pertaining to the rights of American citizens in general.

One of my favorite things about this class is that we can draw connections between the works we have been reading over the course of the semester. Often times, our books mention other authors we have read, using those authors’ previous scholarship to build their own arguments and evidence upon. For instance, in her work on the lives of early American women, Kathleen Brown discussed slave women’s reproductive value to their slaveowners, nodding to Jennifer Morgan’s Laboring Women. As I was reading Isenberg’s chapter on women and the church, I noticed that her view of the church and state relationship post-Revolution was very different from Brekus’s. As I mentioned in my post on Pilgrims and Strangers, Brekus claimed that the revolution weakened the connection between church and state, thus making women’s preaching a strictly religious concern that did not endanger the larger social or political world. Isenberg, on the other hand, refers to a “dangerous and unholy alliance between the church and state” in which “the courts and the government forged a national and legal consensus on Christian morality” (78, 83). In Isenberg’s argument, the church continued to function bureaucratically, which caused sectarianism and opposition to women’s involvement in the public. While Brekus did give a compelling argument, Isenberg provided much more evidence that though legally separated, the church and state remained, for quite some time, co-dependent.

Sex and Citizenship in Early America is most definitely a valuable addition to historiography not only on the private, social, and political lives of antebellum women, but also on the early women’s rights movement specifically. While mentioning famous actors in the movement (such as Lucretia Mott), much more of the book introduces names not so-well known but still actively seeking equality in a variety of ways. Fundamentally, this book is enlightening because it shows these women’s lives were affected by many factors outside of their denied access to suffrage.

 

Let Your Women Keep Silent: Backlash Against Female Ministry in Early America

“Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church” (1 Corinthians 14: 34-35, Holy Bible, King James Version). The title of the third section of Catherine A. Brekus’s Strangers & Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America 1740-1845, is “Let Your Women Keep Silence.” This section of the book details the battle men waged against women who believed they had been called by God to preach His word. Mostly this section focuses on the time period from 1820 to 1845. Brekus begins with a short story about Sally Thompson, and follows her struggle throughout the next 20 years, comprising the last three chapters of the book.

Sally Thompson was preaching as to a Methodist camp congregation in Rhode Island in 1822. There were women present who had her speak previously and were excited to hear her once again. From their prior experience they judged her to have a “mild and pleasing manner [with] plain good sense” (267). On this occasion, however, she did not behave in her normal manner. One of the witnesses described her as “disturbingly masculine” (268). Thompson was under pressure as a female preacher and was attempting to compensate and prove her place among the other preachers. In the early days of her preaching she was lauded by other Methodist ministers who told her, “God has called you to exercise your talent publicly…and if you intend to reach heaven, you must continue to exercise it” (269). By 1830, they had changed their mind, through no fault of Thompson. The other ministers began seeing her as a challenge to their authority. In April of 1830, she was excommunicated on the grounds of insubordination, not having been allowed to speak for herself at her trial. This scene was one that was common among the female preachers of the time, especially those serving the Methodist, African Methodists, Freewill Baptists, and a few other Christian churches. They were labeled “bold and shameless jezebels” and were constantly under fire for being immodest and imprudent – virtues expected in all reputable women at the time. All these women wanted was to answer the call they felt God had given them to redeem sinners and bring the world to Christ (271).

Brekus, explains the reasons for the condemnation of these female preachers as a basic power struggle between the genders. Men made the claim that women preaching went against God, as his apostle clearly stated that women should be silent in all things related to the churches. Women were convinced that the men were jealous of the amount of people that would gather to listen to the female sermons – quite a few more than were willing to listen to the men – on any given day. The men claimed that women already had a role – motherhood. “God made mothers before he made ministers,” claimed one Presbyterian minister, further stating that the role of a mother was more important than any other role in the world (270). This is a direct correlation to the idea of Republican Motherhood that Kerber discusses in Women of the Republic. However, whereas, Kerber discuss the role as a way for women to exert their place in society, these ministers seem to have been using it as a way to remove them from society instead.

The remainder of the book focuses on the various examples and fights that women preachers had over the next ten years to find their place in the ministerial world. Many of these examples are fairly repetitive in their scope and outcome. Unfortunately, where Brekus produces logical and reasonable excuses for the behavior of the men, most of her evidence is speculation from the women themselves. This makes it seem somewhat biased. By the mid 1840’s women were beginning to, once again, express themselves as ministers and evangelical leaders. However, despite, Brekus’s argument and evidence, we may never fully understand why men suddenly seemed to turn against women’s spiritual leadership role for fifteen years. For a more complete discussion on this very idea, I highly suggest listening to our podcast, which can be found in the menu.

Republican Motherhood: Women and the Early American Republic

Linda Kerber’s Women of the Republic was not only revolutionary in its time, it is a fantastic and easy read. The heart of her argument revolves around women taking control of their own lives, and setting standards for themselves. It is about them finding their place in the newly formed United States of America.

In the beginning of the book, Kerber focuses very heavily on the ideas of coverture and femes covert. She stresses very heavily that prior to the Revolutionary War, women were pushed to the very fringes of society, and not granted a place at its center. During the Enlightenment, philosophes, such as Locke and Montesquieu, made the claim that women needed to be given more credence and position in society. Montesquieu even when so far to say that man’s “authority over women is absolutely tyrannical; they have allowed us to impose it only because they are more gentle than we are, and consequently more humane and reasonable” (20). They attempted to persuade the male population that women did not need to be controlled or forced to comply. Given the option, they were sure that women would choose to stand behind their men. Locke claimed, “the availability of divorce [was] the ultimate test of marital freedom” (20). He was positive that women would always do right by their husbands and follow their lead. They would never leave them to follow their own ideas and passions. That was theory at least. The Revolutionary War proved them wrong.

The problem came in the form of patriotism. Women wanted to express their patriotism, but were constantly being locked out the political realm that men buried themselves within. They were expected to bow down to the same political ideals that the men in their lives held, and to not worry their “pretty little heads” about anything. Their world was tossed into chaos, and they were expected to simply continue with their lives and obey the dictates of their husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, and guardians. Margarget Livingston wrote, “You know that our Sex are doomed to be obedient in every stage of life so that we shant be great gainers by this contest” (35). They understood that unless something changed and they took a stand, they made a change for themselves, the war would nothing for them but trouble, hardship, and heartache. In an effort to be a more prominent force in the war, many women tried to join in the effort. They went door to door, collecting food, money, clothing, and jewelry for the war effort. They volunteered their services as nurses, cooks, and laundresses for the troops, though they were seen as little more than a “nuisance” (56). They boycotted. They signed petitions. They did everything they could to get their voices heard. In some instances, such as the tea boycott in 1774, they succeeded; however, in many others their voice was simply not loud enough to be heard above the divided shouts of the men.

While many of the men were divided by their loyalties, it was doubly worse for the women. Men needed to choose, whether they were with the patriots and willing to fight for everything they and their ancestors had built in the “new world” or if they were loyal to Great Britain and ready to sacrifice everything they had, stand up to their friends, family, and countrymen, to side with the King and Parliament. Women were simply expected to follow their men, regardless of their own views of the situation. The laws even stated that if a women followed her husband or father into exile as a loyalist, if and when she eventually returned, she was not to be punished for siding with the enemy as it was not her place to make that decision. However, she was, in many cases also not entitled to any of the things that she had been forced to leave behind; her home, land, or possessions. For instance, the law in South Carolina stated that “husbands are oftentimes influenced and governed by the sentiment and conduct of their wives. If, therefore they do not exert this influence, by example and dissuasion, they are considered in the law, as having incurred such a degree of guilt, as to forfeit every right or claim under their husbands” (129). They may not have been guilty of treason in the eyes of the law, but they were guilty of not using their “feminine wiles” to control their men. As if they could.

However, this was the role that women chose to assert themselves at the end of the war. When the fighting ended, they invented the role of the Republican Mother. This personage was an educated woman, who exerted her ideals and ideas in the home, by influencing her husband and children in all things political and religious. As we saw in Susan Klepp’s Revolutionary Conceptions, this was a time that women were actively attempting to control the number of children they were having. This was a part of Republican Motherhood, as less children allowed her to form stronger relationships with her children and spend more time seeing to their education and moral behavior.

While Kerber coined the term of Republican Mother, she fails to do it justice in this book. The entire book builds on the idea that women were seeking a way to leave the domestic sphere and make a place for themselves in society, yet she ends the discussion with a very brief chapter on the role they chose to wield – within the home! As we see in the posts by Sarah and Michelle on Branson’s Fiery Frenchified Dames, and Zagarri’s Revolutionary Backlash, women were not simply resigned to resuming their place in the home. They wanted more. They wanted a place in society. They wanted their voices heard. Though she spends most of the book showing how women wanted to make a place for themselves in the new revolutionized country, Kerber does not follow through. This book provides a great background to understanding why women felt abandoned by their country during the revolution, but it must be paired with Branson and/or Zagarri, to finalize the narrative.

Love, Lust, Betrayal, & Murder: The Helen Jewett Tragedy

The Murder of Helen Jewett, by Patricia Cline Cohen in a tale of murder, seduction, love, betrayal, sensationalism, male sporting culture, and dominance. However, unlike many of the other books we have read this semester, in many cases the gender, societal, and cultural roles in each of these categories have been completely reversed. While the book reads like a sensational novel, in and of itself, it is a great micro-historical narrative that is both compelling and educational. My role in this book is to cover chapters 7 thru 12. Rather than summarizing each of the chapters, I have opted to discuss some of the pieces I found most enlightening, and those which had me making comparisons with previous books on our list.

The first topic I want to discuss is that of genealogical information. When I first read these chapters, I was a little put off by the background stories of all the different families – Weston, Doyen, Dillingham, Spaulding, Martson, Attree, Robinson – it seemed to never end. While interesting, I felt that they slowed down the narrative, and failed to grasp the concept of their importance. I should have known better. I should have realized that, in a book with over 400 pages, it must have been important to make the final edit. I should have looked deeper. I am grateful for our group discussions, particularly to Sarah, for pointing out to me why these histories are so important. During this period (1830-1840) in New York, people were not judged on their own merits, as much as they were judged on their family and background. That was the whole premise behind Robinson’s acquittal. He came from a good family; therefore, he could not possibly have murdered anyone, especially a lowly prostitute. These family backgrounds provided a glimpse into where Helen Jewett came from. She lived with and claimed association with these families. They were her key to respect, power, influence, and prestige – yes, even as an upper-class prostitute.

The second topic I want to draw attention to are the letters. Cohen uses snippets of letters written by and to Jewett to show how she relates to these various men that she loves. Cohen points out that these letters meant something. Jewett was more than just another prostitute that men would pay to have sex with. They were looking for something more. Cohen claims, “Jewett’s terms of conducting business required her clients to court and flatter her, write love letters, and bring gifts…Their purchase brought them an alternative intimate relationship, unburdened by the strictures and restraints of bourgeois courtship and free of the renunciations and monotony of lifelong marriage” (131). These were men of the male sporting culture who were looking for what we would call the “girlfriend experience” today. They wanted the relationship, without the ring. They did not want to be tied to one women, who would try to make claims on their time and attention. But, they also wanted more than a quick roll in the hay. They wanted that in-between, and that is what Helen Jewett provided them. However, when you compare the letters between Jewett and her men, with those between the married couples that we saw in Captain Ahab had a Wife, it is obvious that her relationships were superficial at best. The letters in Captain Ahab, show a depth of loving, understanding, and connectedness between partners that Jewett never fully attains. For instance, in a letter Ruth Sowle wrote her husband, James, she says, “I should like to know where you are today whether you are sick or well, dead or alive. I wish it was so that you could be here then I should not be so lonesome…every day I love you more devotedly, time and distance does not make me forget” (Norling, 171). Instead, from Jewett and her men we see passages based on looks, and personal desire, and flattery. We see manipulation and a power struggle between Jewett and the men she accepts into her circle of customers.

The third point I want to discuss is the idea of reinventing oneself, whether for the good or bad. In many of the books that we’ve read, women have had a choice to make. In Damned Women, they had to decide how to view their own godliness. In Revolutionary Conceptions, women began making a conscience choice regarding their sexuality, bodies, and reproduction. In Cherokee Women, they had to choose where they fit into society and how much of their individuality and power they were willing to give up and/or change. In Women of the Republic, they made a deliberate decision to embrace their roles as “Republican Mothers” and educate themselves. In each of these instance, women in their time periods have had to reinvent themselves to escape the box/definition that men and the world tried to put them in. They desired something more than they had, whether it be a sense of self, education, individual power, or social belonging. Helen Jewett was no different. She placed herself in a position that allowed her to become educated and gain the social graces necessary to rise above the lower class her family had always belonged to. She had an ideal image of what she wanted her life to be like, based on many fiction and seduction novels she had read. She saw nothing wrong with sex outside of marriage. When she lost her reputation in her small hometown, she chose to move to the city where it didn’t matter and make a name for herself. She reinvented herself, using her connections to the wealthiest families from home, as a high-class prostitute. She had servants, fine clothes, lived in a magnificent house, chose her “suitors,” and dabbled in “love.” As many others who were in her same situation, she had no desire to be “rescued” by well-meaning reform societies. She made good money and she was independent. She was living out the stories she had only read about. I’m sure, had she lived, she would have eventually chosen one to marry and live happily ever after, as many of the female protagonists in her fiction novels did.

Overall, this book is a great example of life for those living the male sporting culture. It offers a unique look at not only the prostitutes, but also the men. I think it also fits well in our historiography because it is so opposite of all the other books we have read. It adds a different dynamic and offers an opposing perspective on many of the key issues relating to women in Early America. I would highly recommend this book to anyone and everyone.

Sex Sells: Then as Now

The Murder of Helen Jewett Patricia Cline Cohen (1998)

In her book, The Murder of HIMG_1077elen Jewett, Patricia Cline Cohen reexamined the sensational murder of a young woman, Helen Jewett, in a New York brothel in 1836. Cohen skillfully incorporated the evidence of the murder, evidence not included in the trial, and her experience as a historian of Antebellum America. The Murder of Helen Jewett is a crossroads for the new American experience in the post-revolutionary world; the growth of urbanization, the new “sporting male” culture, and the ideal of the respectable middle class white woman all intersect in the case of Helen Jewett in a manner that makes this book a fascinating microhistory of New York City in the 1830s. Once again, we divided up our reading by section. I will be responding to the last third of the book (chapters 13-Epilogue), which deals primarily with the trial of Richard Robinson, and correspondence from Robinson that was left out of the trial.

Unlike our last reading, Strangers and Pilgrims, Cohen’s narrative is not easy to separate from itself due largely to the fact that the historical characters are well developed and Cohen’s examination of them reveals motivations for their behavior to the reader. In chapter thirteen, “Blowing Up”, Cohen examines letters between Jewett and her suspected murderer, Richard Robinson. With her close analysis of the writing, Cohen attempts to prove that Robinson was in fact the culprit in Jewett’s murder by emphasizing the volatile personal relationship between the two. This is evidenced when speculating about Robinson’s premediated crime “… these last two [letters] sound like the prologue to the weekend of April 9, when Helen Jewett was murdered. The sweet and all-consuming love of 1835 had degenerated into mutual threats and recriminations in 1836” (286). Cohen’s examination of their correspondence forces her audience to question if the letters had been admitted as evidence in the trial, would Robinson have been convicted of the murder? This is a question that I am not sure of, because of the way the defense used the importance of respectability in Antebellum society both to tear down Jewett’s status in society, and to reinforce the probability of Robinson’s innocence.

In modern trials, particularly ones in which the victim may not have the purest life possible, often the victim is blamed in part for the actions taken against them. By putting the victim on trial the defense can move the blame from the accused to the deceased, which is what is seen in the trial of Richard Robinson. “And how many beds do you have in your room? A defense attorney asked [Rosina Townsend] at the trial; ‘But one,’ she replied. In such small ways,” Cohen argues “the lawyers managed to hint at a brothel’s true business without raising indelicate questions about sexual services” (293). This tactic reinforced the ideal of white female purity, and emphasized Jewett’s lack of, while also including the jury in the “respectable” tier of society which Robinson belonged to. This respectable tier of society would not have discussed sexual services; Cohen describes this social group as conservative, and perhaps prudish is one looks at her discussion of the Female Moral Reform Society. No matter their actual acceptance into respectable society, having the defense connect them to those ideal meant that the jury would empathize more with Robinson. This is proved further when Judge Edwards instructed the jury to “weigh the character of the witnesses—and then he told them how much those characters weighed” as Cohen writes, emphasizing the weight to be given to the testimony of a member of a respectable family such as Robinson’s outweighed the testimony of prostitutes who associated with Jewett (360).

The Murder of Helen Jewett is not just about Helen Jewett or the trial of Richard Robinson. Cohen rests a good deal of the narrative on newspaper editor Bennett, and the media circus that followed the story from the discovery of Jewett’s body to the acquittal of Robinson. The media coverage allows Cohen to delve into the world of sporting male culture, rogues and dandies, and the Magdalen Society and Female Moral Reform Society which appeared to be at odds with each other in New York City during the period. “Curiously, the Female Moral Reformers made no original contribution to the debate over the murder of Helen Jewett. They publicized the crime, naturally, since the murder of a prostitute so perfectly fulfilled their warnings about the wages of sin” (312). I found the exploration of the media particularly intriguing given my readings last semester of The Flash Press: Sporting Male Weeklies in 1840 New York (2008) written by Patricia Cline Cohen, Timothy J. Gilfoyle, and Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz. The Flash Press contains weekly newspaper issues geared towards young men who were flocking to cities in the 1830s and 1840s because of urban growth, and the decline of family farms/property; which nearly perfectly de2302980-_uy400_ss400_scribes Robinson and his fellow clerks. This added

dimension to the narrative makes, in my mind, The Murder of Helen Jewett more than a social history or a microhistory, but makes it an important piece of gender history.

I think all three of us were in agreement that this was a quick read because it was written so well, and the topic was so very interesting. I read a New York Times review that compared this case to the OJ Simpson case, and it drove home the point that sex sells, then as now.

In case you missed it, we added a new page to our site! It is home to our podcasts (we have one on Helen Jewett) https://astudyofamericanwomen.wordpress.com/podcasts/ Please give us a listen when you can.