Women, Church and God: About a thousandish years of Christian tradition!

During the first two eras of the Christian church, spanning from the death of Christ through the end of the medieval period, women became active participants in the church and then struggled to keep that involvement possible. The first six hundred years of the church is marked by an initial force of women in leadership that is quickly replaced by stringent patriarchal gender roles. These strict gender roles, which continue today in some branches of the church, shaped the dualistic mentality of women and spirituality during the medieval period.

In the decades immediately proceeding the death of Christ, women became heavily involved in church practices, preaching, teaching and leadership. Paul’s letters frequently refer to women workers in the church with the same titles used for men. Phoebe was a deacon (Rom. 16:1) and Junia was an apostle (Rom. 16:7). Priscilla is always mentioned before her husband Aquilla (Rom.16:3). Paul commends Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa and Persis for laboring hard in the Lord (Rom. 16:6, 12). Acts 16:14 reveals Lydia, a businesswoman and home church leader. During the ministry of Jesus while on earth, he consistently supports and uplifts women, and women are the followers to continue with Jesus through his death, whereas most of the men depart.

Some of the writings by Paul about women are radical and liberating. In Galatians, he pronounces that there is neither “Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female” (Gal. 3:28, ESV), which is complete upheaval of the ethnocentricity of Judaism. However, some passages in his letters present a strong antagonism toward women. For example, in Titus 2:3-5, Paul commands older women to be reverent, to work in the home and to teach younger women to love their husbands and children. In Her Story: Women in Christian Tradition, Barbara J. MacHaffie argues that these antagonistic passages are not original to Paul’s letters, and that Paul himself shows an ambivalence toward women and is willing to accept them as peers in leadership (MacHaffie, 14).

This is the book that I'm working with.

This is the book that I’m working with.

Despite the initial prominence of women in the church, within the next few centuries, a new generation of patriarchal church leaders known as the church fathers began to vehemently exclude women from leadership and public roles. Because of the limitations placed on women, after the immediate beginning of the church, there is a near stopgap of information about women’s involvement. The Greco-Roman culture surrounding the early church separated men into public positions of honor and women into private spheres of shame. As the Christian movement further codified into a religion, women were once again relegated into the seclusion of private life (MacHaffie, 16).

The early church fathers believed that women were more prone to sin and that their menstrual cycles associated them with the flesh and fleshly desires. They all plea for virgin lives, and though they do not completely condemn marriage, they tend to view all sexual intercourse as tainted by sin. Thus, sex for procreation was the only permissible sex in their eyes (MacHaffie, 24). Widows occupied a special position within the church during the third century. They were appointed to pray for the church and they laid hands on the sick to pray for healing. Widows were legally independent and had life experience, and sometimes wealth, making them dangerous to the established patriarchal church system, so the official designation of widow eventually dissipated (18).

Virginity was highly regarded by the church fathers, and women could choose to lead a virgin life. This spiritual discipline in women was highly persecuted, and some women who would not consent to marry or to have sex with their new husbands would be martyred for their dissent from social norm. Despite this risk, dedicated virgins gained enough levels of autonomy and admiration within the church that eventually they were cloistered into heavily secluded monasteries (MacHaffie, 25).

This veneration of virginity continued through the medieval period, where it became an obsession. Unmarried women sequestered themselves in their parents’ homes or in cloisters, anchoresses locked themselves into isolation chambers and wives negotiated sexless marriages (MacHaffie, 52-56). Along with virginity, many women also chose asceticism. Through self-starvation, women could control or completely stop their periods, lose the feminine contours of their bodies and appear more and more like men. These ascetics were frequently venerated for their ability to separate themselves from the evil, sexual nature of womanhood (57).

The middle ages saw a rise in a dualistic impression of femininity. Women were either considered to be pure and pious or to be evil and heretical, both by nature of being women. Women who chose the virgin life associated themselves with the Virgin Mary, whose mythology had been growing and exploded during the medieval period. Mary, humble and pious and forever a virgin, interceded for sinful people and pled for grace (MacHaffie, 62). A woman that was not pursuing virginity ran the risk of being labeled a witch. Witch hunts across Europe became common during the later medieval period through the mid eighteenth century, the most famous of which being the Salem Witch Trials in the young British colony of Massachusetts in the 1690s. Witches were believed to be in sexual relationships with the devil, to eat the flesh and drink the blood of children and to pronounce curses on their neighbors that would result in failed crops or miscarriages (65). Though historians believe that this conception of witchcraft was probably never practiced, the image of the witch took root in the ideology of womanhood. Though some men were accused of witchcraft, four times as many women suffered the label through to the point of execution (66).

The medieval period hosted the time of the Christian mystics, a group that was largely dominated by women. Christian mystics received visions directly from God, met with and spoke to Christ and to the saints, including Mary. They received the Eucharist from the hands of Christ himself, lambasting the authority of the church. The famous Christian mystic Julian of Norwich reconceptualizes God and the Trinity in such a way that Jesus, instead of being associated with sonship, is associated with motherhood. Christ is the mother figure who gives spiritual birth to believers and who watches over the believers on earth (MacHaffie, 71). The mystics sought to experience God authentically and powerfully. Despite the womanhood of many mystics, and perhaps because of it, the church accepted their revelations from God as authoritative. The mystics would often describe themselves in denigrating terms, in order to elevate the importance of their messages from God (73).

julian-of-norwich

Everybody’s favorite mystic!

During these first two major eras of the Christian church, women found ways to subvert patriarchal power and pursue relationships with God. Pursuing virginity and asceticism gave women the opportunity to engage in monasteries and cloisters that would provide education and training in the scriptures. At different moments, women slipped either into leadership positions or the public eye, each time eventually causing further restriction on future generations of women. In order to pursue God and religion, women suffered in denying themselves their sexual natures and by starving themselves to reduce their womanhood. The virgins and the ascetics sacrificed greatly in order to succeed in a patriarchal society.

MacHaffie, Barbara J.  Her Story: Women in Christian Tradition. Augsburg Fortress, 2006. Minneapolis, MN

Depressing and Riveting Emergencies

During the 1930s and 1940s, two different emergencies drastically altered women’s roles in the United States.  The first emergency, The Great Depression, urged women out of the workforce and into the home (despite the number of employed women rising).  The second emergency, World War II, spent four years pushing women into the workforce to fill the void left by male soldiers.

The Great Depression was an economic emergency that effectively ended the flapper culture of the 1920s (I missed a decade due to Sandy, sorry!).  Whereas in the ’20s, both men and women experienced a loosening of sexual mores and personal liberation, the stock market crash of 1929 sent the nation into a tight fiscal crisis.  People of both genders lost jobs.  And the message to women, in general, directed them to stay at home so that men could have a better chance at getting a job.  Men, as the breadwinners, needed their jobs to support their families, but women who worked for “pin money” ought to leave the salaries for men (of course, the “pin money” worker was a largely inaccurate stereotype).  The working woman was not respected by society at large because she was taking the labor that belonged to men.

Let my Daddy work!

 

Of course, women who worked during the Great Depression were not likely to be after economic independence and purchasing power.  They, like men who worked, were supporting their families, and women entered the work force at twice the rate of men.  Women did a wide variety of work throughout the Depression, including hosting boarders who could no longer afford to live on their own.  Women’s wages increased to 63% of men’s wages, even though the number of women in the workforce grew (usually the two were inversely related).  Due to the segregation of labor that had already existed, many women were able to stay in the workforce because men did not want to do “women’s work.”  So even though public opinion was against women workers, the Great Depression actually spurred more women into the workforce.

Famous migrant mother photo by Dorothea Lange

The only way to really break the Great Depression was to get involved in a World War.  And women, Uncle Sam needed you to fill the positions left vacant by young soldiers.  Check out this propaganda video scripted by Eleanor Roosevelt and narrated by Katharine Hepburn:

The natural skills of the homemaker, like sewing, can translate easily to industrial work, and since the lives of men depend on it, women are necessary for the war effort.  I particularly enjoyed the part about parachute production about five minutes into the video above; of course women are better at making a silk parachute!  They have those nimble lady-fingers, after all!

Sarcasm aside, the campaign to get women working during WWII used fierce amounts of propaganda.  If you weren’t working, as a woman, then you were not doing your patriotic duty. The labor of women became essential in making sure that the men overseas were well-equipped and protected.  This new breed of working women was championed by Rosie the Riveter.

Traditional Rosie poster

Another Rosie design

For a few short years, being a working woman was at the top of public opinion.  However, as soon as the war ended, women were expected to pack up and go home.  Those jobs that women had adopted naturally belonged to men.  Propaganda ads began telling women to quit their jobs and return home, when just a few years before, they had been urging women into the workforce.  Women were fired by droves in order to make way for male workers.  Rosie the Riveter and her sisters at work were pushed into memory.

Both of these two emergencies show one consistent theme.  When men leave the workplace, either through economic downturn or wartime soldiering, women quickly fill the gap.  But when men return to the work force, women are once again pushed out.

Sarah Hale, I Love You

I know, I know.  I have now announced that I am leaving the 19th century.  Why should I go back there?  Why bring up Sarah Hale again, considering the fact that I posted about her five weeks ago?  Well, I can’t help it; I have to let you all know what I’ve been up to with regards to Mrs. Hale.

At Vassar College, in Special Collections, there are sixty-three letters, each in separate folders, split into two boxes.  They’re the letters that led to Vassar College being called “Vassar College,” as opposed to “Vassar Female College.”  Most of the letters are typescript copies that (I think) were made in the 1930s (based on some notes on the bottom of a handful of the letters in the second box), but a few at the beginning of the collection are original letters.  They are the letters that Sarah Josepha Hale, “Editress” of Godey’s Lady’s Book, sent to Matthew Vassar, John Raymond, Benson Lossing and others.  She was campaigning for the institution’s 1866 name change, and she led the charge for six years.

See how there’s no center plaque on the top and the brick has faded? That’s where “Female” used to be.

I was fortunate enough to visit Vassar’s Special Collections and read through the Hale letters on two different occasions, and it was quite an experience.  I learned in late middle school that there are people who do primary source research and write books, and then there are people who take those books and make textbooks, and then there are students who consume history from tertiary sources.  Which never really seemed like the best situation.  Why do I have to read about something that has been summarized in a textbook when I could read the thing itself?  This is why I’m an English major — you don’t learn about Christian mysticism in the fourteenth century; you read The Book of Margery Kempe.

Getting into Sarah’s letters (because she quickly became Sarah to me) was perfect and beautiful and it made me cry.  I love her.  I don’t know how to explain it, because she’s dead.  But it’s like a mixture of the attachment you get to a beautiful fictional character, but then you realize that the person is real and was alive and passionate about things, and it gets you.  It hammers this timeless poignancy into your heart because look!  This woman was alive and was breathing and writing and living a life.  Nobody made her up; she just was.  She was alive.  When Matthew Vassar wrote in 1867 that he was worried about her health and his own, and afraid they might not see each other in person again in this life, it is real.  It’s not fiction.  The sorrow is real.  It’s real, and it’s so beautiful.

Apart from being entirely emotionally affected by the experience of reading Sarah’s letters, I learned a lot about the process of studying history.  For example, did you know that when you go into Special Collections at Vassar, you’re not allowed to use your own notebook paper?  They provide paper for you to use.  The sheets are pink and approx. 4″ by 5″ in dimension (I measured with my thumbs, so whatever standard paper measurement is close to that, that’s what these sheets are).  You have to use a pencil, and you can have a laptop and a digital camera.  You can take photos of the documents, providing there is no flash and you fill out the right forms.  So I have photos of almost every letter in the Hale collection now!  But I’m not going to post one, because I’m pretty sure I can’t do that.

I can post a photo of my notes, though

For both of my research dates, I had to make an appointment ahead of time.  I did so by first calling, then emailing Dean Rogers at Special Collections.  Dean, who was more than incredibly helpful with all of my initial questions, also gave me advice on how I could get to Vassar from Nyack by public transportation if I needed to, and when I emailed him this past Wednesday about coming in again on Friday, he replied to me so quickly that I couldn’t believe it (yes we have power, and yes we have space; I don’t think the train lines are working.  Let me know what time you’ll get here).  The first time I went, I spent about an hour and a half in the morning reading through letters and taking photos of them.  When my camera died, I transitioned to more handwritten notes.  When I went up yesterday, I spent the larger part of the day with the Hale letters and a full-batteried camera.

Special Collections is in the basement of Vassar’s library building (which looks like a castle).  When you walk into the room, there are a handful of tables with lamps on them, and all of the chairs face the back wall.  This wall is made of glass, and Dean’s desk is on the inside of the next room.  The door to the reading room and the door to the second room are controlled by buzzers at Dean’s desk.  Each letter, whether it was five paragraphs or five pages, was in a separate folder, and I could only take one folder at a time.  Dean kept the rest of the folders in their boxes behind the glass wall.  As soon as I finished working with a folder, we traded out for the next one (side note: Dean Rogers is one of the most helpful individuals I have met this year.  I hope your research takes you to Vassar College, because he’s great to work with).

Dean Rogers in Special Collections at Vassar College.

I snapped pictures of each page of the letters, but that didn’t stop me from taking the time to read them all and write down a handful of fun quotes.  I realized quickly that Sarah Hale has a sense of humor all her own, and sometimes I’m not sure if she’s being sarcastic, or if she really believes what she just said.  She likes to be dramatic, too.  Here are some quotes:

“It has never seemed to me that a lady should claim the same amount of salary as a gentleman professor.” — to Milo P. Jewett on Feb. 20, 1864.

“Men have never yet considered woman’s learning of much benifit.  Loveliness was worth more than Latin.”  — to John H. Raymond on Nov. 3, 1864.

“I have suffered too much by this misnomer, using female for woman, to see, with indifference, the blot on the escutcheon of an Institution that I love and honor so truly.” — same letter as previous quote.

“If this ‘consummation,’ so deeply desired —  even devoutly supplicated, should be reached before the College is opened, it will add a bright ray on the fast deepening twilight of my life” — to John H. Raymond on Feb. 24, 1865.

“In his views he may of course be mistaken.  They do not agree with my own.” — to John H. Raymond (no date) about her son Horatio Hale’s critique of Vassar.

Other fun things I learned about Sarah Hale:  She has perfect handwriting.  I mean perfect.  She started to lose control of her eyesight in the mid/late 1860s.  She did concordance word studies to prove her points.  She wrote letters to four or five different people consistently over the course of six years about the name change of Vassar College.  She  wanted the word “Professoress” to exist.  She thought that the position of Deaconess needed to be reinstated in the Christian church.  She got on Matthew Vassar’s case about his health (and he got on hers).  She sent essays with her letters to further prove her points.  She sent poetry to friends when she wasn’t feeling well.  She had pneumonia for a month in either 1866 or 1867.  She promised to visit Poughkeepsie if and only if the name of the College was changed and the “Female” plaque was taken down.  She personally took care of Matthew Vassar’s subscription to Godey’s Lady’s Book.  She was against uniform dress codes and Bloomers.

If you’re interested in the Hale collection, here’s a link to the Special Collections guide, and here’s a link to the Vassar Female College entry in the Vassar Encyclopedia.

Iron Jawed Angels’ Missing Details

WARNING:  Here be spoilers and a reference list at the end!

HBO’s 2004 TV movie Iron Jawed Angels follows the life of Alice Paul in the last eight years of the American campaign for women’s suffrage.  Although the sequence of events in Iron Jawed Angels is largely accurate thanks to the aid of Vanderbilt University’s Marjorie Spruill, it still contains some glaring gaps and inaccuracies (Owens 2004).  In the film, for example, Woodrow Wilson is portrayed as antipathetic but indifferent.  However, Wilson was far from indifferent on the topic of suffrage; he was staunchly against it and only caved to political pressure from the American Women’s Party.  Alice Paul, portrayed by Hilary Swank, is charged with a level of sex appeal that seems to come from Hollywood rather than history.  And the film’s treatment of race is almost nonexistent.

Woodrow Wilson in the film is much more sympathetic than the real Wilson was.  In the early stages of the picket, Wilson did tip his hat to the picketers as portrayed in the film.  He even once invited the picketers into the White House on a cold day.  However, either he or his administration played a much larger role in containing the women’s movement.  Wilson and his administration have been linked to several different abuses of power, including the false arrests depicted in the film, political censorship of the press and using the Secret Service to maintain surveillance on suffragist sympathizers (Graham 1983).

The real suffragists

Woodrow Wilson said that.

The Wilson administration worked to keep news of the mob riots against picketers out of print.  The riots, which were consistently on the front page of national newspapers, created huge amounts of negative press for the presidency and the Democratic party.  The president’s administration and possibly the president himself contacted newspapers and news organizations including the Associated Press, encouraging the press to leave the riots uncovered.  Realizing that the sudden disappearance of picket news would cause more harm than good, papers were instructed to keep coverage as sparse as possible and no further front than the fourth page.  Iron Jawed Angels shows the difficulty that Paul had securing space in newspapers for editorials, but the attempts at censorship by the Wilson administration are never mentioned (Graham 1983).

The surveillance of Dudley Field Malone, Collector of the Port of New York and Wilson supporter, was one of the Wilson administration’s largest abuses of executive power.  Malone began to show support for the suffrage movement, and he was placed under surveillance for over a month.  This same Malone resigned from his position and charged to the president that the first wave of arrests were the result of careful planning on the part of the DC District Commissioner.  Within twenty-four hours of Malone’s meeting with the president, Wilson pardoned the prisoners (Graham 1983).  This first wave of arrests and the work of Dudley Malone is skipped in Iron Jawed Angels.

Alice Paul. In a hat.

Along with Wilson’s surreptitious actions, racial tensions are nearly ignored throughout Iron Jawed Angels.  At the start of the film, Alice Paul organizes a parade in DC for women’s suffrage.  During the organizational stage of the parade, we see an African American woman come to Paul’s headquarters and challenge Paul’s decision to segregate the parade based on race.  Paul explains that the decision was a concession to the Southern states, who would only march if the parade was segregated.  The woman informs Paul that she will march with her peers or not at all.  At the parade, the woman joins from the audience toward the front of the parade, causing Paul to smile.  In this exchange, the issue of race is glossed over and the African American woman is never named.  However, the character is Ida B. Wells—a famous suffragist and human rights activist (Roberson 2004).  The altercation between Wells and Paul happened, but the treatment of it in the film lacks the weight and merit it deserves because Wells is not named, nor is her work referenced.  In this moment, Iron Jawed Angels fails to illuminate the race dynamic present in the suffrage movement.

Hilary Swank as Alice Paul. In a hat.

Iron Jawed Angels does a brilliant job of connecting the suffragists with modern women.  However, the penalty for this is a character development flaw in Alice Paul.  Alice Paul was a Hicksite Quaker (Alice Paul Biography 2012).  Paul, as portrayed by Swank, constantly goes against Quaker traditions, though the film twice brings up Paul’s Quaker religion.  Paul’s outfits in the film contradict acceptable Quaker attire.  In one scene of intercut footage, Paul learns to dance and masturbates in a bath tub.  Though Hicksite Quakers were more liberal than Orthodox Quakers, it is unlikely that Alice Paul would have done either of these things out of religious convictions.  The Hicksite Quaker lifestyle is well-portrayed in Paul’s stay at home after the death of Inez Milholland, but for the majority of the film, Paul’s character does not stay consistent with her Quaker convictions.

Despite these larger inaccuracies and some minor flaws, Iron Jawed Angels is a strong film that sticks close to history.  Iron Jawed Angels has the opportunity to expose more people to the often ignored fight for universal suffrage in the United States, and thus can be a great tool for the advancement of women’s history.  The film must be taken with a grain of salt, but overall this portrayal of Alice Paul’s work is worthwhile and powerful.

 

References

Alice Paul Institute. “Alice Paul Biography.” Accessed October 3, 2012. http://alicepaul.org/alicepaul.htm.

Graham, Sally H. “Woodrow Wilson, Alice Paul, and the Woman Suffrage Movement.” Political Science Quarterly 98, no. 4 (1983): 665-679.

Owens, Ann Marie D. “Vanderbilt women’s history professor consultant for HBO’s Iron Jawed Angels.” Vanderbilt News (2004).

Roberson, Amaya N. “Iron Jawed Angels.” Off Our Backs 34, no. 3/4 (2004): 62-63.

Goodbye, Nineteenth Century!

Much like what happens in real life, time moves forward in the realm of studying history.  This post, I lamentably must begin, is my last post that will happen partially in the 19th century.  I would like to say farewell to the century that was least represented in my high school education and highly emphasized now in my college one.  And I’d like to do this farewell by chatting about Jane Addams and depressingly racist Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Jane Addams is special because we actually talked about her in my high school US History class (the class that began with the civil war and ended in the beginning of Vietnam, where we talked about approximately three women and did not cover the 19th amendment).  Born in 1860, Addams graduated from Rockford Female Seminary in 1881 and spent the next eight years avoiding marriage and missing academia.  She began studying medicine, but her own health declined to the point where she couldn’t keep up the course work.  When she was 27, she went on a tour of Europe with her friend (and possible lover?) Ellen Starr.  As a part of this tour, they visited Tonybee Hall in London —  a groundbreaking new settlement house.  In 1889, the pair leased a building in Chicago, and Hull House was born.  Hull House provided low-income people with access to community programs like child care, a public kitchen and boarding rooms for young women.  Addams, ideologically a feminist, publicly opposed entrance into the first World War and was expelled from the Daughters of the American Revolution.  Jane Addams won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 for her life and career as a social worker.  She died in 1935.  For more info about Jane Addams, click here.

Jane Addams

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, on so many levels, was one of the most brilliant feminist thinkers of her day.  Most often remembered in literature classes as the author of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman wrote a prolific amount of fiction and feminist theory.  Gilman, like Addams, was born in 1860 and died in 1935.  However, Gilman’s upbringing, due to an absentee father, was much more spuradic than Addams’, leading Gilman to question the ideology of separate spheres.  She would go on to critique it harshly.  Gilman (who was related to Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe through her deadbeat dad) bounced from home to home of different relatives and realized that if her mother had been able to secure financial and political autonomy, then her life would not be so chaotic.  She thus saw separate spheres and the duty of women as childbearers as an issue to be corrected.  Gilman temporarily lost her mind in relation to the rest cure and Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, and for the rest of her life, she considered herself to be feeble-minded and a pinch hysterical.  After she became well again, she left her husband and began a career speaking against the dangers of social differences based on sex.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Gilman’s work as a feminist thinker and women’s rights activist was built off of the idea that civilizations are evolving (the civilization discourse) and that some civilizations are more advanced than others.  “Some” meaning Anglo-Saxon society, and “others” meaning racial minorities.  By relegating half of the race (the women) to work that was not good for advancing civilization, the white race was stunting itself.  As the most advanced race, the white community needed to be utilizing its female half towards racial advancement.  Charlotte Perkins Gilman built her feminism on the foundation of sanctioned racism (racism, by the way, is not cool).  Gilman even believed that African American people ought to be required to serve in military labor camps until they reached a higher level of social evolution.  We tend to sweep Gilman’s racism under the rug so that her work as a feminist can be glorified, but we really ought to take a look at her racist theories too.  For more information about Charlotte Perkins Gilman, click here.

If Only Thieving Ladies Knew About Cheap Amusements

Last week, I posted about pre-1950s consumerism and the advent of shopping.  This was, I’m sure, a fun post for all involved, so I’m writing a follow-up, and we’re going to talk about class.

I learned about turn of the century consumer culture from these two books: When Ladies Go A-Thieving and Cheap Amusements.  Both books explore the leisure activities of urban women in the late 19th and early 20th century, however, they attack the topic from two different viewpoints, that of the middle class housewife and that of the working class woman.

When pre-made material goods became more and more prominent in the household, middle class women spent less and less time working to create things within the home.  Thus, shopping for these items became their job.  Shopping centers and department stores tailored themselves toward these female consumers — in an overwhelming way.  Brightly-colored advertisements and products crowded the cramped aisles and display tables.  Salespeople constantly accosted shoppers, encouraging them to try this or to buy that.  The atmosphere became one of hyperactivity designed to help shoppers lose control of their ability to discern a want from a need.  Maybe they even had an elephant in the store.

A Female Shoplifter!

Of course, this environment created a new wealth of social problems, namely shoplifting, and When Ladies Go A-Thieving tells this story.  Stealing and shoplifting were not new things, but for the upper and middle class housewife, they were.  Women would, in between a series of regular purchases, lift random items.  Perhaps a perfume bottle, perhaps clothing, perhaps an umbrella — anything small enough to be hidden was fair game.  Instead of convicting these women of theft, all too often they got away without any charges or charges that were dropped so quickly they must have been on fire.  Store managers valued the repeat business of the women enough to let little items go, and the threat of a woman losing her respectability left managers much more lenient with these shoplifters.  Especially since enough of them had the money to pay for their light-fingered grabs, this type of criminal deviance was medicalized, and kleptomania was born.

Kleptomania became the chief defense for thieving ladies, and its causes were much like those of hysteria (another “female mental health problem”).  Women in stores were constitutionally unable to withstand the pressure of advertising, thus they would temporarily lose their sanity and steal.  But kleptomania was a distinctly middle and upper class disease.  Working class women were too busy being awesome to bother with shoplifting.

In Cheap Amusements, the world of the working girl in New York City expands from the 27-hours-a-day sweatshop work that we generally tend to envision into a fast-paced and vibrant world of fun activities stuffed into the evening hours of the day.  The styles and consumer pushing that middle class women stole, working class women put on layaway.  They spent most of their time working, but in the time that was free, many working women began exploring different ways of having fun.

A popular choice was going out to Coney Island or Central park, which could be done with the whole family.  Or women might go out on dates with young men.  They might go dancing or to the movies with their friends.  Fashion in these settings was important.  Some working class women would stave off hunger by going out with men frequently, thus they could save their money for clothing.  Food was less important than fashion.  This was more difficult for women who were still living with their parents, because they were expected to give their pay envelopes to the family.

People in a dance hall! Having fun!

Of course, within the world of the working class woman, there were both natively born women and immigrants.  The working class held many different ethnic groups, and some of these groups deviated from the working class norm.  Irish immigrants (whose women were much more likely to be employed than their men) gravitated to the domestic work so often rejected by other working women.  Italian families kept their daughters under close watch; they were often not allowed to be out at night or to go out of the home by themselves.  Arranged marriages happened regularly among Italians and other groups still rooted firmly in the “old country.”

Community events like weddings or dances gave young women and men the chance to interact socially.  Dancing in particular became a hugely popular form of socializing for the working class.  As the decades surrounding the turn of the century progressed, dances became closer in contact and more risque.

Middle and upper class women labeled these working class dancers as loose and sexually promiscuous.  But perhaps if they had been able to join them and release some of their shopping tensions, they wouldn’t have lifted so many trivial things from the stores.

Cultish True Women (and everybody else)

The early nineteenth century came with the True Woman, and she had a cult.  True Womanhood was the epitome of female success: complete devotion to keeping house, child rearing and deference to a husband’s will.  A True Woman was apolitical, soft and demure.  By no means was she a public figure, she never worked a paying job, she would not be seen at the theatre.  She was religious, moral, not intellectual.  A True Woman stayed in the home (even during parades).

Given these distinguishers, most nineteenth century women were not True Women.  Black women were not True Women.  Native American women were not True Women.  Working women, whether they were mill girls or teachers or thespians, were not True Women.  Single women were not True Women.  Widows were not True Women.  Only the upper middle class housewife could fully succeed in True Womanhood, so why did so many other women who could never fit the bill buy into this definition of womanhood?

Class distinctions and race distinctions sharply divided Jacksonian America, and the upper middle class became the ideal towards which all lower classes strove.  However, instead of the class gap shrinking, it widened with the early stages of industrialism.  And as the class gap widened, the sex gap widened as well.  This was the era of the “separate sphere” — when men and women lived almost completely separate lives.  The male sphere was in the public: church, professions, politics.  The female sphere was in the home.  A good woman, a true woman stuck to her sphere.

True Womanhood was a craze that spread like wildfire, eaten up by the masses and propagated by publications like Godey’s Lady’s Book.  The widely popular magazine edited by Sarah Hale lectured women on the importance of the home and fashion.  Sarah Hale, a widow and working woman who reached national fame with Godey’s Lady’s Book, throughout her career expressed a desire to be a proper housewife but was unable to do so because of her five children and deceased husband.  Sarah Hale, she made herself clear, was the exception to the rule.

Sarah Hale wore black every day of her life after her husband died, wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and campaigned for Thanksgiving to be a national holiday.

To say Godey’s Lady’s Book was popular would be an understatement.  Sarah Hale was the Helen Gurley Brown of her day, and Godey’s Lady’s Book was the Cosmopolitan.  In 1860, the publication reached 160,000 subscribers.  The magazine, complete with full color fashion plates and directions on how to make wax fruit, instructed women on how to be women.

The employed woman bought Godey’s Lady’s Book, as did the upper middle class housewife.  The book became a cultural normalizer for separate spheres.  For the upper middle class woman, the book was practical advice on how to run her home.  For the lower class mill girl, the book showed glimpses of a glamorous life of ease that was unattainable and yet desired.

If True Womanhood was the desired life of the masses, then their actual lives were much different.  Lower class women worked, and they worked for wages that were considerably lower than their male counterparts.  Jobs available to women included exhausting factory work, exhausting teaching careers, exhausting domestic work, and the ever frowned-upon actress.  Acting allowed for greater independence and a higher likelihood to a fair wage, but carried with it the social stigma of loose sexuality.  Factory work, a relatively new profession, quickly became dominated by women (in 1828, nine out of ten textile workers in New England were female).

GLB employed bunches of women (who worked from home) to color in the fashion plates.

Lower class women pursued factory jobs because they needed the money; they were hired so that men would not be wasted on such trivial work.  Most working women were single, and their jobs were considered temporary situations until marriage, so naturally some mill girls found the independence of working delightful.  However, the cheap labor of women became even cheaper as factories decreased pay and increased hours.  Working women like Mary Paul, who started working at the Lowell mills in Massachusetts when she was sixteen, saw the devolution of working conditions first hand.  At the start of her career, she gladly promoted her workplace to other women, but within a few years she complained of being overworked and underpayed.

Of course, the mill girls all read Godey’s Lady’s Book.