Historical development of women in the 19th century

American women today are afforded many rights. They are thought of as equal to their male counterparts. This hasn’t always been the case. Women had to fight for the rights that are often taken for granted. In the 19th century, America experienced changes that expanded the role of women. Women were needed to help carve out a life in the wilderness of the West and as workers in factories. During WWI and WWII, women kept America strong. With these new responsibilities, women began to demand the right to more privileges. The right to the vote and access to contraception are only two of the requests they made for equality.

With the onset of major historical changes all across America, women were presented with opportunities to change their way of life, ending the isolation that had kept them in the domestic sphere in times past. During the 19th century, major cities expanded exponentially. Not everyone wanted to live in the city. Improved transportation made travelling long distances more bearable. As a result, more Americans took advantage of this and headed into the West. In search of economic conquest, cattle ranchers and precious metal miners came prepared to build a life.

To be successful, these men would need wives, the first women of the West. For the West to come into existence as an American place at all, the presence of women—white women—was required, not simply as isolated transients like Susan Magoffin, but white women by the thousands, come to stay” (Scharff, 2002 p. 68). In the west, women could not simply stay in the house. There was more work to be done than the men could achieve without help. The whole family would need to work to keep every aspect of frontier life running smoothly. [Women] engaged in work that produced income for the family. For example, they made clothes, transformed wild game into meals, baked, and cleaned.

In 1888, Susan Laflesche reflected on her experience on the western frontier and said that a woman had to know how to do “everything that a man does besides her own work, for she has to be ready for any emergency that may occur when men are not around” (Riley, 1992). There was never a time during the year that didn’t require hard work. For instance, a farmer’s wife would be needed to help prepare fields, plant crops, tend the crops, harvest, store harvested crops, tend smaller livestock, likely while raising small children. All of this work would be in addition to her daily cooking, cleaning, sewing, laundry, and food curing for the inter. The pioneer women in the later part of the 19th century experienced a life in which they divided their time between farming and household work (Woloch, 2006). Women played a very important role in the conquest of the West.

Without women to help with the many chores necessary to daily life in the West, men would have been overwhelmed. It is likely that they would have given up and gone home. If they could somehow complete all the work by themselves, without women to reproduce with there would not have been a future to build on. The women of the west were still isolated to a farm or ranch, but the circle of duties they were xpected to do had widened incredibly. In every big city, you will find big businesses. The factories keep many of the cities people employed. As business became bigger, high costs pushed owners to invest in machinery. Skilled artisans were no longer required, waged laborers took their place. “In the late 19th century, the United States appeared to be progressing at an incredibly fast pace with the rise of big businesses and the development of new and exciting industrial technologies” (Bowles, 2011).

Keeping a large company running takes a lot of money. The more money you bring in, the easier it will be o run your business. The men at the top of the pyramid were very interested in making money. The rise of advanced machinery caused the decline of employed skilled artisans. Machines were cheaper to maintain and could produce more. America experienced an Industrial Revolution. “…in the late 19th century, a host of new technologies, methods of organizing work, and wealthy industrialists all combined in important ways to reshape American life” (Bowles, 2011). The jobs that required the more hands on experience of a person no longer needed great skill. Waged laborers replaced artisans.

Business owners could pay female workers less than male workers. “By 1900, 20 percent of all manufacturing workers were women and children. Women worked for wages as low as $6 to $8 per week, which was well below the minimum necessary for survival” (Bowles, 2011). This was an incentive to hire women to work in their factories, even if it did go against the societal norm. To live in the cities, the people needed money. They had to pay for all their food and shelter. A family could not afford to keep the women at home if they wanted to eat and have a roof over their heads.

Necessity demanded that women leave their homes every day and be let into the work force. For the first time, women had a place outside the home. With so many women working outside the home, earning a living, some women began to question why they could not make other decisions for themselves. Women wanted to know why they were considered equal enough to help earn money for the home, but not equal enough to have a say in major issues. The Suffrage Movement campaigned for the right to vote, access to a better education, and equality. Another item that women demanded access to was contraception. Margaret Sanger, a New York nurse, led a movement to enable women to control their pregnancies with her American Birth Control League” (Bowles, 2011). Sanger believed that women should be allowed to decide when and if they wanted to have children. This would be beneficial to women who could not afford to get pregnant and care for another child. The battle Margaret Sanger began in the early 19th century continued until a Supreme Court ruling in 1965 that stated women had the constitutional right to contraceptives (Potts, 1988 p. 288). The Suffrage Movement met opposition on the road to equality.

Not everyone believed women were equal to men. There were men and women who thought the idea of women’s rights was deplorable. Rev. Justin D. Fulton wrote, “Three facts stand in the way of Woman’s being helped by the Ballot,–God, Nature, and Common Sense. The purpose for which God made or “formed” woman is clearly avowed in the history of her origin and in the assignment of her duties” (Fulton, 1869 p. 215). Rev. Fulton opposed women’s rights on the basis that God did not make women equal to men. This mentality was not unpopular among those who protested Women’s Rights.

Despite the opposition they met, Women did gain the rights they sought. “On May 21, 1919, the House of Representatives passed the amendment, and 2 weeks later, the Senate followed. When Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment on August 18, 1920, the amendment passed its final hurdle of obtaining the agreement of three- fourths of the states. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby certified the ratification on August 26, 1920, changing the face of the American electorate forever” (100 Milestone Documents). When women won the right to vote, the gained independence and a voice for themselves.

The days of relying on a man to speak or act for you were coming to a close. The vote allowed them a chance to be heard on major issues. Women were now being seen and heard, lowering the walls that had kept them isolated. WWI and WWII gave women the chance to see that they could survive without men to care for them. WWI began for Americans with the Zimmerman telegram. If America stayed out of the war they risked losing territory. In April [1917], President Wilson sadly proclaimed his tragic decision to officially declare war and commit troops and supplies in the hopes of making the world “safe for democracy” (Cooper, 1990).

Men old enough to fight were joining up all across the country. Not long after they would ship out overseas. With so many men gone, women were in charge of the home front. “… the war itself was a pivotal turning point for women, who used their service as an example of why they should be allowed more of an equal participation in the nation that they helped defend. More than 20,000 women served in the armed forces during the war, more than 5,000 of which were nurses stationed in France” (Bowles, 2011). During WWII, women once again made up an important part of the war effort.

One example is Rosie the Riveter who was a symbol of the tough, capable, but also feminine American woman. Woman took on industrial jobs, like Rosie, to show their loyalty and patriotisms. “Eighteen classes of women graduated from the Army Air Forces flight training school; they called the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs). These were the first women military pilots in U. S. history, and the nation needed them because there was a general shortage of trained pilots for the war. In total, 25,000 women applied, 1,800 were accepted, and 1,000 completed the training” (Cole, 1995).

Women proved a willingness to stand by their country in whatever roles were required of them. Rosie the Riveter inspired women to take jobs reserved by men during a time when there was a shortage of capable, fit men in the states. The WASPs are another example of women filling a shortage during America’s time of need. During both World Wars women took jobs that they were previously thought to be unfit for. The jobs were hard and demanding. Women proved that they could do the work of men if necessary. In the 1920’s women were more empowered. The newly earned right to vote gave them the voice to express themselves.

A new type of independent woman, known as flappers, emerged. “…the term [flappers] moved from describing a fashion to the characteristics of the New Woman herself. Daring in her social actions and anxious to overturn staid, Victorian morals, the flapper was easily identifiable with her skirts, heavy makeup, and cigarette in hand, often taping her breasts flat to appear more physically fit and slender” (Bowles, 2011). After the return of the men from WWII, women were not content to go back in the box. They wanted the freedoms they enjoyed during the war. Betty Friedan brought the plight f the American housewife to the forefront with her book The Feminine Mystique. When Friedan interviewed housewives for her book, she learned many of them “expressed a growing emptiness inside”. These fears were kept secret so no one would think them a failure. In the 1950’s a woman was taught to aspire to be a housewife. Women began to get married younger and younger. “At the end of the 1950s, the average marrying age for women dropped to 20” (Bowles, 2011). Women from the working class had been slowly working towards personal independence for years now. The suburban housewife had not been allowed to make such strides.

In the suburbs and certain other social classes, women were still expected to act and look a certain way. Friedan concluded, “If I am right, the problem that has no name stirring in the minds of so many American women today . . . may well be the key to our future as a nation and a culture” (Freedman, 2007). As the years went on, women looked for more fulfilling endeavors than being only a wife and mother. Freedoms like choosing their clothing, without being thought immoral, living independent of a man, and having a career. The American housewife was no longer content to be nothing more than a domestic creature.

Women’s Liberation began in the 1950’s and 1960’s. As historian Nancy Woloch wrote, “Like the civil rights movement that preceded it, the feminist outburst was spurred by a specific federal act” (Woloch, 2006). The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal to discriminate based on race, creed, color, national origin, or sex. As a result, women had the same protected rights as everyone else. Business and organizations could no longer with hold jobs or opportunities from women without risking the law coming after them for discrimination. The National Organization for Women (NOW) [was formed] in 1966 “to take action to bring

American women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now” (Cayton et al. , 1995). This was the final step in a process that began in the early 1900’s. With new laws in place, women had achieved the goals set forth by the generations before them. Due to major changes in American history, Women saw a chance for change in their lives. Expansion in the West, The Industrial Revolution, WWI, WWII, and civil rights were catalysts for change that allowed women the opportunity to explore a new way of life. The isolation of the domestic sphere was no longer an issue for American women.


Bowles, M. (2011). A history of the United States since 1865. San Diego, CA: Bridgepoint


Cole, J. H. (1995). Women pilots of World War II. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press. Cooper, J. M. (1990). Pivotal decades: The United States, 1900–1920. New York: Norton. Fulton, J. (1869). Woman as God Made Her; The True Woman. Boston : Lee and Shepard. Retrieved From http://memory.loc.gov/cgibin/query/S?ammem/nawbib:@field%[email protected]%28Woman+as+God+made+her+++%29%29 Potts, M. (1988). Birth Control Methods in the United States. Family Planning Perspectives , Vol. 20, No. 6 (Nov. – Dec., 1988), pp. 288-297. Published by Guttmacher Institute. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2135485 Riley, Glenda. (1992). A place to grow: Women in the American West. Arlington Heights, IL: Harlan Davidson. Scharff, V. (2002). Twenty Thousand Roads: Women, Movement, and the West. Ewing, NJ: University of California Press. Retrieved from http://site.ebrary.com/lib/ashford/docDetail.action?docID=10062278&p00=women%20american%20west Woloch, N. (2006). Women and the American experience. Boston: McGraw-Hill. 100 Milestone Documents. 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Women’s Right to Vote (1920). Retrieved from http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=63

Posted in Uncategorized

Leave a Reply