Early in the 19th century, the predominant attitude toward women was that their proper role was as wives (housekeepers) and mothers; she had “no rights, and, indeed, [had] a duty to be uncomplaining and submissive.” However, in the mid- to late-19th century, “the Industrial Revolution and the growth of the new monied middle class profoundly changed attitudes about women.” For example, Deborah Gorham writes of the “cult of domesticity,” which she says “helped to relieve the tensions that existed between the moral values of Christianity with its emphasis on love and charity, and the values of capitalism, which asserted that the world of commerce should be pervaded by a spirit of competition and recognition that only the fittest should survive. By locating Christian values in the home, and capitalist values in the public world, [it was possible] to achieve an efficient moral balance.”
Despite this new important role of women being the protectors of Christian values, however, the roles of women were still defined in relation to the home, which was idealized as a “refuge from the harsh and immoral public world.” Women themselves were idealized as well. As “The Angel in the House” (a phrase taken from a popular Victorian poem by Coventry Patmore), the ideal female was “submissive, dependent, innocent, pure, gentle, and self-sacrificing, and lacked ambition, anger, hostility, and competitiveness. This ideal was implicitly spiritual and asexual.”
In stark contrast to such ideals of a woman who stays at home and has no hopes or dreams of her own, and simply lives to serve her husband and children, women like Fanny Fern wrote in support of the concept of a woman being an individual with as much right to live her own life as any man had. Fern wrote in critique of how women lost their individuality and their independence when they married, and warned women that being married was not the idyllic situation they believed it to be.
Werness, Hope B. “The Modest Maiden in 19th-Century Art: Evolution of a Theme.”Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 5, No 2 (Autumn, 1984-Winter, 1985), p. 7-10. JSTOR. Web. 13 Dec. 2011.
During the 19th Century, women began working to gain some respect. Their forays into the world of academia are momentous, with thinkers such as Margaret Fuller crafting manifestos that still speak to women today. In addition to becoming great thinkers, women began to be known as great readers. In Suzanne M. Ashworth’s essay “Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World, Conduct Literature, and Protocols of Female Reading in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America,” Ashworth discusses the image of the new female reader, describing her this way:
Her feet are bare, her hair curls around her shoulders, she half reclines against the back of a luxurious sofa, and she looks directly at the tablet before her. Her obvious interest in the text suggests that she finds a certain pleasure in her reading, but her upright posture and her feet resting firmly on the floor resist the assumption that she reads idly or passively. (Ashworth, paragraph 1)
As the women’s suffrage movement gained momentum, women themselves worked to be taken more seriously.
During the suffrage movement, women advocated for women’s labor rights. They focused on the poor working conditions for women because they believed that the women were the future. As Ellen DuBois says in Women’s Suffrage and Women’s Rights, “they saw her [Women] as the woman of the future, as an indication of the direction that women’s development as a sex should take towards emancipation” (DuBois, 73). The movement attracted many women from the middle class that were trapped in the role of domesticity; but it also brought to light the double standards and the suppression of women by their male counterparts. This movement started a revolution for women empowerment in all spheres of a women’s life.
Dickinson had a great interest in the politics that were in at the time. Her political views were focused on class. Women had little say in this matter, but here is more on the issue. Here is a link to an article written by Betsy Erkkila. Enjoy!
Ashworth, Suzanne M. “Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World, Conduct Literature, and Protocols of Female Reading in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America .” Legacy. 17.2 (2000): 141-164. Web. 11 Dec. 2011.
DuBois, Ellen Carol. Woman Suffrage And Women’s Rights [Electronic Resource] / Ellen Carol Dubois. New York : New York University Press, c1998., 1998. Saint Mary’s College Library Catalog. Web. 12 Dec.
Erikkila, Betsy. “Emily Dickinson and Class”. JSTOR Academic Resource. American Literary History. Vol 4, No 1. 1992. pp 1-27. Oxford. . 2011.