When did American feminism truly begin in earnest? Around 1820.

23 Jul

“That early?”, one might well ask.

Well, in Kenneth T. Jackson’s book “Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States“, he notes that, due to industrialization, and the resulting move away from the largely agrarian society that preceded it:

Between 1820 and 1850, work and men left the home. The growth of manufacturing meant that married couples became more isolated from each other during the working day, with the husband employed away from home, and the wife responsible for everything connected with the residence. The family became isolated and feminized, and this “woman’s sphere” came to be regarded as superior to the nondomestic institutions of the world. Young ladies especially were encouraged to nurse extravagant hopes for their personal environment and for the tendering of husband and children. For example, Horace Bushnell’s ‘Christian Nurture’, first published in 1847, describes how the home and family life could foster “virtuous habits” and thereby help assure the blessed eternal peace of “home comforts” in heaven. (empahsis added)

This shift meant that a man’s home was no longer his ‘castle’; it was now hers; women became de facto, though not de jure, leaders in the home, gaining in stature, influence and clout; while men who as farmers had previously been their own bosses, with their wives as helpmeets, now answered to other men elsewhere as their bosses. Men’s relative influence and authority within their spheres diminished, while women’s increased.

More from Crabgrass Frontier:

Although most celebrations of the private dwelling were written by men, if any one person presided over the new “cult of domesticity,” it was Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a Philadelphia-based periodical intended for middle-class readership. Her verse in praise of the home found its way into many publications and was typical of a broad effort to institutionalize the female as homemaker and queen of the house. Hale’s vision, and that of almost everyone else, assumes that man’s was the coarser sex; women were softer, more moral and pure.

(Interestingly, from Wikipedia, we learn that Hale became editor in 1837, which was the same year as that of Queen Victoria’s coronation; the Wikipedia entry notes that Hale upheld Queen Victoria as a role model for women, and so we can fairly say that Hale and her magazine helped spread Victorianism in America.)

Anyway, the result of industrialization and the move of men out of the home, is that women were removed from their husbands’ authority. The veneration of women as domestic goddesses was done out of necessity; women were now without their natural leaders, and needed some consolation for the loss of the presence of the men to whom they had served as helpmeets. As this arrangement grew to represent a larger and larger segment of society, men progressively lost dominance in the home, and women progressively lost guidance. If a man’s only role in the family was to serve as source of income, then he could be replaced by a government cheque. Meanwhile, wives, lonely, were afflicted with the problem that has no name, a longing for the guidance from the master that they no longer had.

(To be continued…)

(Note: Credit to ElectricAngel for the original idea, and for partially co-authoring this post.)


16 responses to “When did American feminism truly begin in earnest? Around 1820.

  1. lgrobins

    July 23, 2013 at 9:48 pm

    An outstanding analysis! The homemaking world is very deceptive. When you come across Christian homemaker blogs, you don’t stop to think at all about how they could have roots in feminism. I’ve been turned off to a lot of them because they do in fact make it seem like the home is a woman’s castle and not the man’s. All the decorating, etc., is that because that is what their husband really wants or is it to fulfill their whims, to keep them busy with something, to mimic an idea found in magazines or pinterest, to impress their girlfriends, to distract them from the lack of dominance? I think all of the above as I doubt most men care about lace and flowers.

    I think about how on an average work day, I only see my husband for a few hours each night. How different this is than when the husband was home all day overseeing the operation of his home. Keeping the home his castle rather than being relegated to the modern day “man cave”. Sure, he was busy out working the farm and may not have been in visual sight of his wife every moment, but his nearby, walking distance presence surely set a tone for the marriage dynamic.

  2. Will S.

    July 24, 2013 at 12:09 am

    @ Laura: Hey, yes, indeed, the reason most homes have become female-dominated rather than balanced in terms of décor, is indeed because men have more or less ceded the home to their wives’ domain, allowing them full reign over most if not all, save perhaps a ‘man cave’, rather than working together with them on it, making sure it reflects both their tastes… Sad, that. Indeed, I think it was better when most men were still working near the house, on the farm; prevented that kind of female ‘takeover’, surely. Though I do know farm families today where the wife sets the decorating norm in the house, but I presume they’re following the lead of the culture in general, when that’s the case…

  3. Carnivore

    July 24, 2013 at 7:37 am

    I’m only half convinced (or half agree). What you describe was more of an attribute of Britain and North America and specifically wrapped around the word “Victorian”, less so in continental Europe. Yet, continental Europe also went through industrialization.

    Also, the type of industrial work that rural men would have taken didn’t pay a whole lot. Their wives would have also taken on jobs to contribute family funds. Doing tasks for others – such as laundry, baking, child care, etc. These were not pampered princesses.

  4. Ton

    July 24, 2013 at 9:53 am

    yankees, the root of all evil

  5. Hipster Racist

    July 24, 2013 at 10:32 am

    Great article, the move from homesteading to factory work had a massive influence on America, social as well as economic. This is an angle I’d never considered before, but of course it makes sense.

  6. 2Wycked (@2Wycked16)

    July 24, 2013 at 4:47 pm

    Great post!

    I have a related post on RoK about the roots of American feminism:

  7. Will S.

    July 24, 2013 at 5:33 pm

    @ Carnivore: That’s a good point, re: rural men’s wives often working. Something to think about.

    @ Ton: You figure? 🙂

    @ HR, 2W: Thanks.

  8. electricangel

    July 24, 2013 at 10:05 pm

    Great article, the move from homesteading to factory work had a massive influence on America, social as well as economic. This is an angle I’d never considered before, but of course it makes sense.

    now that factory work has collapsed, and offices are also shedding middle managers, and we cannot afford welfare for everyone, what do you think will happen to men’s authority in the home?

  9. Hipster Racist

    July 26, 2013 at 12:19 pm


    According to my friends over at Mind Weapons in Rangarok we’re likely to enter a new era of high tech homesteading that may include more localized food production, more resource sharing and more economic transactions going informal and off the books.

    I suppose if a man builds and runs his own homestead he will be the authority. Right now, with an “equal” husband and wife sharing a mortgage with the courts able to step in at any time, men have no real authority.

    I found this article quite interesting:

  10. electricangel

    July 29, 2013 at 9:00 am


    Thanks for the link on courtship. The idea that 18-year-olds are mature enough to make decisions regarding sex and marriage without guidance is one of the follies of the age. We don’t even consider them worthy of the professional workplace until they have completed 7 years of post K-12 education!

    Once the central state collapses (as it must; the bills cannot be paid!), local institutions and economies will be much more important. The economic safety net underwrites a lot of bad behavior: wives against husbands, mothers against children, elderly against grandchildren. These are the relationships that must be strongest, and will be again.

  11. 7man

    August 5, 2013 at 9:19 pm

    Maybe we need a WWSYWD to take commemorate the past patriarchal time where a man’s home was his castle. Just one day a year.

    (World Wide Spank Your Woman Day)

  12. Will S.

    August 5, 2013 at 9:21 pm



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