Building the Glass Ceiling: Women, Work, and Wages in the Early American Republic

Jeanne Boydston’s book Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic is a must read for anyone studying the glass ceiling, gender based wage disputes, or the economic gender gap. This book implicitly covers the idea of gender and labor roles. Boydston shows how women, despite their class, economics, or geography, always helped to supply the needs of the household. She states that though many people look at the Women’s Rights Movement and mid-twentieth century as the time when women were finally “going to work” to provide for their families as a complete myth. She shows that women were working, even before they were being paid for it. Similar to what Brown states about the colonial era, Boydston shows how women provided financially for their families, just as men. Sometimes they it was by producing a surplus of materials, food, or product that could be traded or sold. Sometimes it was by producing the items the home needed without having to rely on the marketplace at all. It definitely saves money, if you can spin your own yarn, weave your own cloth, and sew your own clothes, rather than paying for the materials and someone else to do it for you (40). This places a very distinct value on housework. However, Boydston, does not stop there. As she moves into the first industrialization period in US history, she shows that women began to work more and more outside the home as factories began to grow. Women, while seen as “unskilled” workers, were payed less than men in these jobs, and so often had an easier time finding work. Even in factories that revolved around women’s work, such as sewing, women were seen as less skilled than men. Boydston firmly illustrates the struggles between women and men in trying to delineate the gender and labor boundaries of the time, within households as well as in the workplace. Despite their skill and craftsmanship, society always seemed to see women as mothers and homemakers first and everything else second. Boydston states, “Even when women did enter paid work, their preeminent social identity as “mothers” (in distinct contrast to “workers”) made their status as producers in the economy suspect” (158). Regardless of their accomplishments or resourcefulness, women were viewed as being fit only or caring for the home and children.

Women’s Rights in Antebellum America

Nancy Isenberg’s Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America is an interesting, but fairly heavy read. While this book could be combined with many of the others that we have read over the last fourteen weeks in a discussion of politics, most of the other books showcase the political role of women as quiet gestures, charitable gatherings, secondhand movements as a part of something bigger, like motherhood and morality. Isenberg’s book is vastly different. It is a perfect bridge to the second half of this course (which we will begin in January of 2018), wherein women begin to speak out more. The great thing about Isenberg’s book is that it allows the reader to see that women’s activism and appeal for rights did not begin in 1848 in Seneca Falls. Like Kerber, she shows how women began challenging the role after the Revolution, especially during the antebellum years. Though many of their campaigns and rallies revolved around abolition, they were already beginning to question their role in society, politics, family, and the church. In essence, this book has something to offer each of the aforementioned themes. However, Isenberg’s book is different in that it is not attempting to place politics as a byproduct of something else. Here, the identity of women within the American political, legal, and social strata are the spotlight of the discussion. While this book is a little hard to read because of the theory and feminist language, if one is not familiar with it, it tells the story of early ideologies of citizenship and the women’s rights in a way that prepares the way for readers to understand the concepts and books of twentieth century feminists. I highly recommend listening to our podcast on this book if you are interested in hearing other points of view. This is a book we actually disagreed quite a lot on.

Three Bodies of Slavery: How Slaves stayed Free while in Bondage

Stephanie Camp’s book, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Restistance in the Plantation South, makes an interesting study of southern slave women using ideas of space and time. Before she goes into these ideas she discusses a little about the gender roles and treatment of slave men and women. Men had more freedoms to move about than women did, based on the jobs they were given. Men were mostly field workers and sometimes sent on errands to neighboring plantations or to town. They were given papers on these trips to give to patrols that might stop them to prove they were about their master’s business. Women were rarely given these privileges, so they had less opportunities to attempt to runaway. Furthermore, slave women, just like their white counterparts, were seen as the homemakers and mothers. After putting in long hours of work, just like the men, they were expected to return to their homes to cook for their family, mend and clean clothes, and keep their quarters neat. If they were lucky, they had a husband or other women who would help them, but it was not the others’ responsibility to ensure it got done. It was theirs. In addition, slave women also had to suffer the sexual humiliations forced upon them by the men around them. Not only did they deal with rape, from both white men and black, but most punishments were exacted to be sexually degrading with the women stripped bare, tied down, and whipped over all their body. Men were usually just stripped to the waist and their backs were whipped.

After making these comparisons, Camp moves into a discussion of space. She looks at all the different ways in which women manipulated and rebelled against their slave status. Sometimes it was a slipping off the master’s property, just over the border to meet with other slaves. Many women would not runaway if they had children, because it was seen as disgraceful to leave her children behind in order to free herself. Fathers were not seen as such. Sometimes these women would rebel by hanging abolition papers in their quarters, or stealing things from the master to make their living space nicer. Sometimes they used their space to hide other runaways. Whatever they did, it was a way to show that even though they were seen as someone’s property and were expected to abide by many rules and restrictions, they were masters of themselves, and ultimately in control of their own lives.

One of the most interesting points that Camp makes in regards to this is that the slaves had three bodies. “The first served as a site of domination, it was the body acted upon by slaveholders” (66). This is the body that took the punishments. “The second body was the subjective experience of this process. It was the body as vehicle of feelings of terror, humiliation, and pain” (67). These first two bodies, the master had control over and could influence. They could inflict physical harm and cause a slave to feel pain and any number of emotions. “The slave’s third body was a thing to be claimed and enjoyed, a site of pleasure and resistance…Women’s third body was a source of pleasure, pride, and self-expression” (68). This third body was why women rebelled. They gained great satisfaction from their small rebellions, even if they were punished for them after the fact. This third body could not be touched unless these slave women gave another permission to access them. These third bodies were not owned.

Camp’s argument is both enlightening and fresh. She takes a subject that has been studied for years, and looks at it through an interesting and exciting lens. In comparison to the other books for this segment, it lacks more information and greater explanation of the lives of slave women. However, as a stand alone read it is quick, easy, and very informative.

Anxious Patriarchs and the Household Battles they Waged

As Sarah and Michelle have already offered up a great analysis of the gender, race, and class arguments, the power struggle and the difference between the white and African women in Kathleen M. Brown’s Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, & Anxious Patriarchs, I will attempt to focus my commentary more on the men of Colonial Virginia during this time – the anxious patriarchs.

Brown is quick to point out the seeming instability that men felt within their own homes. While men were seen as the powerhouse of the familial, economic, and political spheres, their position was actually quite precarious. Most English societies believed that “unruly women and disorderly houses lay at the root of social ills” (31). Men were expected to control their women and their houses to ensure that chaos did not overpower a community. As Europeans began to leave their homes for new frontiers in the American colonies, they met many other men and women who introduced them to new relationship dynamics. Take for instance, the Cherokees we read about in Theda Perdue’s Cherokee Women. This tribe follows matrilineal lines, and women held an important role in the spiritual, economic, familial, and political operations of the tribe. Until the Europeans decided that the tribe needed to be more like them, women were, in many ways seen as equals, with great power. This was outrageous to the colonials who settled in America. As these new ideas were introduced, it became ever more pressing to ensure that gender lines were clearly defined and drawn and that neither party ever crossed them. To do so, countenanced community intervention and sanction, because it threatened the infrastructure of the working government.

Though Brown does not spend the same amount of time discussing the roles of men, as she does the women, she does a good job detailing the various areas where men insisted on maintaining an authoritative hand. Politics and the running of the plantation were two of the biggest. Women were expected to keep themselves away from the working of the colonial government and any ideas of a political nature. Because so much of the plantation infrastructure was politically based and wrapped up in community politics, women were expected to manage the household and nothing more. Especially the slaves. They fell under the purview of the master.

Because these “anxious patriarchs” had to pick their battles within the household, they needed a way to showcase their power. Slaves became their outlet. Those men who believed they were more powerful than women simply because of their sex, took pleasure in dominating the female slaves. It allowed them an outlet to freely express their male authority. “Far from proving incompatible with the ethos of domestic tranquility, the coercion of slaves may have made such ideals possible, providing planters, with a suitable foil for the serene authority they hoped to wield over wives and children” (366). In other words, they were happy to be harsh with the slaves, in the hopes that they family would learn to fear them just a little and not test their authoritative limits too much.

White Men, Power, and Property in the Antebellum South

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McCurry fundamentally explores power relationships between antebellum South Carolina yeoman farmers and their large planter neighbors as they went about their private and public lives within relative proximity of each other. While the planter class represented the political elite in the antebellum south, they could not function without the support of the lower class of small farmers, however much they viewed the lower class as inferior nuisances. This relationship plays out, McCurry argues, in the ways that yeoman farmers, as white landowners in the black belt of the south, asserted their social equality with plantation owners. Not only does McCurry explore the power relationships between these two classes, but she also discusses the power dynamics within these households, particular in terms of gender and race relations. One of the most significant additions McCurry makes to the historiography of the antebellum south and Civil War era is that she explains why poor whites went to fight for the Confederacy; simply, the racialized system they lived in helped yeoman farmers maintain their status as masters. While they were not masters over much, they still were a class above the black majority in South Carolina.

One of the underlying themes throughout McCurry’s book is the issue of individual property rights and community land claims in shaping these power relationships. Fences became integral to formally shaping individual properties, and McCurry states that men became masters of these fenced in worlds, and in particular, the people within them, women and slaves included. Understandably, the wealthier elites bought the most fertile, and therefore, most valuable lands; some yeoman farmers owned more property, but their property was typically made up of sand and swamplands that required much expensive maintenance to make into usable land. In these small farming households, both children and women worked the land, even alongside what few slaves they might have had. This distinguished, among other things, yeoman wives and their planter superiors; elite women did not physically work, but rather ran their households of many servants and slaves. Furthermore, both masters and mistresses of plantations attempted to establish patron-client relationships with the yeoman classes in various ways, but that ultimately failed because the small farmers believed themselves to be equals through their identities as masters over their own properties.

McCurry explains that the South Carolina Low Country remained very patriarchal; her discussion of southern churches explains in depth the interplay of both class and gender. The classes were integrated in this small community churches, kept in place by systems of pew-renting that meant planters got the best seats inside the church buildings. Many of the freedoms that were experienced even by the wealthiest of planter mistresses were kept in check by the yeoman class of men in their communities. While Brekus had briefly discussed the difficulty faced by women who wanted to be preachers in the south during this period, McCurry fleshes this argument out in full. She states that even elite planter women wishing to demonstrate charity needed to go through church elders who then designated where that charity would be allotted. The southern patriarchal system was also demonstrated through church discipline, McCurry argues; punishments almost always fell harder on women than men in many cases for similar offenses, and even southern Christianity argued for the validity of the slave system. Thus, she demonstrates the strong tie between church and politics in the south.

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.