Factors in the Empowerment of Married Women in the 19th Century

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Lingering structures from the Victorian era caused family to remain the most central institution of middle-class life in the 19th century, even as the nation continued to take shape (Peterson del Mar, 2011, p. 47). The structure and function of family was changing. This essay proposes that married women in the 19th century experienced a substantial rise in status influenced by changes in social, economic, and legal spheres across the nation.

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Shifts in the ways social constructs like religion, education and pop culture influenced married life contributed to wive’s rise in status during the 19th century. ‘The Cult of True Womanhood 1820-1860’ claims that social structures like religion and the ‘cult of domesticity’ served to enforce the expectation of women as pure and domestic to their husbands. This body of research suggests women used these qualities to increase their status, as demonstrated and reinforced through popular culture items like magazines (Welter, 1966, p. 162) and stories like “The Lady’s Amaranth”, which centers around a woman’s withstanding of a man’s assaults on her virtues and how using her persuasions to exert her superiority and power over him, eventually rising to a desirable position (Welter, 1966, p. 156).

Religion, Christianity in specific, promoted traditional patriarchal hierarchy marriage models, however it inadvertently contributed the rise of women’s status because unlike participation in other social groups, church engagements did not make women less domestic or submissive, thus allowing women to exercise power outside of the home without consequence. (Welter, 1966, p. 153). Another social change for middle-class families, increased access to education, gave young women in the 1800’s a space to move outside of their mothers’ support group, develop networks of their own, and practice limited autonomy (Smith-Rosenberg, 1975, p. 17).

Women’s increased ability to execute power over men through legal means was another social change that contributed married women’s rise in status during the 19th century. Although common law denied woman legal existence after marriage, invalidating her ability manage property or sue in court, by the mid 1800’s laws were passed in several states to remedy this condition (Welter, 1966, p. 155). Women could hold men legally accountable for their economic responsibilities to them and their shared family as per the contract of marriage (Haag, 1992, p. 464). Specifically, marriage granted the exchange of women’s services and obedience for men’s protection, and non-support constituted a grounds for divorce (Haag, 1992, p. 467). Courts often sided with men over women during legal disputes, especially when it came to accusations of domestic abuse, as demonstrated by the many cases in “The Ill Use of a Wife”. Police courts were described as having a tendency to dismiss domestic assault (Haag, 1992, p. 468), so women cultivated support networks to provide economic or emotional aid when seeking protection from violence, poverty, or other circumstances (Haag, 1992, p.462). This combined increase in legal standing and female-formed crisis support networks allowed wives to exert power over husbands individually and also seek support from other women, indicating a more powerful role in society than before.

The last social change this essay will use to support the argument that women experienced a rise in status during the 19th century is that of economic prosperity. Society experienced a revolution in economic production during this time that changed the structure of middle-class families and contributed to the rise of women’s status. As the emerging middle class entered an era of economic prosperity, women were no longer needed as extensively in productive labor, freeing them to focus on their families (Peterson del Mar, 2011, p. 50). Middle class women used their leisure time to engage in community activism, often centered on issues of moral righteousness (Alexander, 1988, p. 767) like the Temperance movement. “We Are Engaged as a Band of Sisters’: Class and Domesticity in the Washingtonian Temperance Movement, 1840-1850” provides many examples of the relationship between domesticity and activism, ultimately arguing Washingtonian domesticity was based on the conviction that if working-class men were to continue their roles as dutiful breadwinners, women must take responsibility as champions for benevolent and reform causes.

Like religion, domesticity had the paradoxical consequence of prompting women to protect the morality of traditional family values by leaving the home and participating in temperance, moral reform, antislavery, and women’s rights movements (Alexander, 1988, p. 764). The economic revolution empowered women, and they reminded men that secure families were interdependent, demonstrating their assertion of a role of increased status (Alexander, 1988, p. 784).

Even as the 19th century brought changes in social, economic and legal spheres across the nation, family remained the most important structure in middle-class life. Married women experienced a substantial rise in status due to these shifts, gaining power in the household as well as the community. Religion, popular culture, and education influenced married life in particular, increasing women’s status by elevating purity to a position of power and creating spaces for women to create independent networks away separate from the home. Women’s increased ability to execute power over men through legal means also contributed to the rise of status of wives during the 1800’s. While many groups across the nation remained outside of these new norms, the circumstances and culture of marriage allowed middle-class women to see a rise in status during the 19th century.

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Factors in the Empowerment of Married Women in the 19th Century. (2022, Feb 03). Retrieved February 7, 2023 , from
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