Written by John M. Lane


                            Women’s role in patriarchal societies has been and continues to be an issue that is intensely debated. Western societies, including the United States, are included in this debate. Although the lines of domination and patriarchy have not been and are not now as rigidly pronounced and enforced as they are in non-western societies, patriarchy still does exist in the West. This paper focuses on white, middle-class women in the United States from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the U.S. Civil War, the period commonly known as Antebellum or Victorian America. Our examination will include a discussion of Female Friendships, which often were the strongest bonds companionship women had. Also, we will explore the nature of nineteenth-century marriage, the case against marriage, and women and family law.

                        Patriarchy can be defined as a system of male domination and control over women’s actions and thoughts that has its official roots in either religious doctrine or legal code. In some societies, patriarchy is governed and enforced by religious sanctions and the law. In the United States, patriarchy has been implemented by law well into the twentieth century; however, its most effective means of enforcement have been through social mores and customs. Those social mores and traditions have their roots in the religious teachings of fundamentalist Calvinist Protestantism and later Roman Catholicism. These behavioral customs would provide the bulwark against severe challenges to a male-dominated society’s social order along with legal sanctions. How did women cope with this struggle for identity?

Female Friendships: The Permanent Bond in a World of Equals

                        The bond between women in nineteenth-century America was a world that men did not enter (Smith-Rosenberg 2). Intimate friendships between equals only occurred for women with each other. Other than fathers, brothers, and husbands, women could not have such friendships with men.  Friendships or relationships with men outside of the family were governed by strict social conventions, were usually frowned upon as inappropriate and of a questionable nature. Consequently, “deeply felt, same-sex friendships were casually accepted in American society” (Smith-Rosenberg 1). Same-sex friendships included everything “from the supportive love of sisters, through the enthusiasms of adolescent girls, to sensual avowals of love by mature women” (Smith-Rosenberg 2).

                      A primary reason for the development of these friendships was the sharp differentiation of gender roles both within the family and society. This led to what Smith-Rosenberg calls “the emotional segregation of women and men” (9). In a society that relied on strict gender roles, women developed friendships centered on the mother-daughter relationship, branched out to the extended family. “These supportive networks were institutionalized in social conventions or rituals which accompanied virtually every important event in a woman’s life, from birth to death” (Smith-Rosenberg 9). These relationships flourished because of the taboos against substantial contact between the sexes (Smith-Rosenberg 9). 

                    Men and women lived in what most scholars and researchers have defined as different spheres; these spheres were seen distinct and beyond dispute in their certainty (Smith-Rosenberg 9). The world of nineteenth-century women revolved around home, church, and “visiting- that endless trooping of women to each other’s’ homes for social purposes. It was a world inhabited by children and other women” (Smith-Rosenberg 10). Long periods could be spent exclusively in the company of other women, with activities ranging from teas, to extended visits that could last for “weeks and sometimes months, at times even dislodging husbands from their beds and bedrooms so that dear friends might spend every hour of every day together” (Smith-Rosenberg 10). 

                        Kinship provided the foundational structure for a woman’s world. Female relatives helped with every variety of housework, childcare, and even birth (Smith-Rosenberg 12).  “Sister-in-laws visited each other and, in some families, seemed to spend more time with each other than with their husbands” (Smith-Rosenberg 12). For these women, the time spent in these close friendships became the emotional core of their lives. (Smith-Rosenberg 12) Within these friendships, women could share their emotions with people who would be sympathetic and empathetic without being judgmental or critical, both of which were discouraged (Smith-Rosenberg 14).

                       As stated earlier, the mother-daughter relationship was at the core of the kinship- friendship network. The only thing that could break this connection was geographic distance or illness. A daughter’s marriage was traumatic because of the separation it would cause. (Smith-Rosenberg 15) “Expressions of hostility which we today consider routine on the part of both mothers and daughters seem to have been uncommon indeed” (Smith-Rosenberg 15). Daughters would receive the training and skills needed to follow their mothers “into a life of traditional domesticity,” …. which included “the arts of housewifery and motherhood” (Smith-Rosenberg 16).

                     The training and skills taught to a daughter by her mother and female relatives were part of the socialization a child would receive regarding what would be expected of her and what her role in society would be. Consequently, “daughters tended to accept their mother’s world and turn automatically to other women for support and intimacy. It was within this closed and intimate female world that the young girl grew toward womanhood” (Smith-Rosenberg 17). It was during the adolescent years that young women began to develop their own female support networks, especially if they were fortunate enough to attend school. (Smith-Rosenberg 17) Reading was a basic element in the education of adolescent girls, both in and outside of the classroom. By the mid-nineteenth century, an “estimated ninety percent of the United States adult white population could read, and women comprised an extremely visible and highly contested segment of that population” (Ashworth 142). The forces of domination and patriarchy were concerned over the effects this widespread literacy would have on women. “Advice manuals and domestic novels worried over the woman readers’ vulnerability to corrupting textual influences and her tendency to neglect the duties of caretaking for the sensual pleasures of the text” (Ashworth 142). To counter this threat, books on conduct and novels, like The Wide, Wide World, were seen as effective antidotes to “temper the autonomy of the woman reader with idyllic images of female reading – images that enclose her activity in social spaces, moral imperatives, and domestic ties” (Ashworth 142). 

                         In the diaries and letters of adolescent girls, “boys appear distant and warded off – an effect produced both by the girls’ sense of bonding and by a highly developed and deprecatory whimsy” (Smith-Rosenberg 20). According to Smith-Rosenberg, within their groups’ girls would comment in a negative way on the looks and self-centered behavior of suitors. (20) “When unacceptable suitors appeared, girls would band together to harass them” (Smith-Rosenberg 20). The strong bonds of female friendship continued into marriage, and “these bonds were often physical as well as emotional. An undeniably romantic and even sensual note frequently marked female relationships” (Smith-Rosenberg 24). 

                      As noted earlier, nineteenth-century American society did not frown on close female friendships. As Smith-Rosenberg points out, they were seen as viable and essential means of expression throughout a woman’s life. (27) What was inhibited during this era were heterosexual ties, not same-sex expression. (Smith- Rosenberg 27) In what is a paradox to people in the twenty-first century, in the nineteenth century, “closeness, freedom of emotional experience, uninhibited physical contact characterized women’s relationships with each other, and the opposite was frequently true of male-female relationships” (Smith-Rosenberg 27-28). 

                    To understand the nature of nineteenth-century marriage, according to Smith-Rosenberg, it is essential to acknowledge that men and women grew up and functioned in separate spheres of reality (28) and that “marriage represented a major period of adjustment” (Smith-Rosenberg 28). Given how men and women had lived their early lives, “much of the emotional stiffness and distance that we associate with Victorian marriage is a structural consequence of contemporary sex-role differentiation and gender-role socialization” (Smith-Rosenberg 28).  Both men and women entered marriage with little, if any, understanding or real knowledge of the opposite gender, outside of expectations of how each was supposed to conduct themselves. As put by Smith-Rosenberg, “both women and men had to adjust to life with a person who was, in essence, a member of an alien group.” (28)    

The Nature of Nineteenth-Century Marriage: Acceptance and Resistance 

                        Marriage in the nineteenth century involved removing a young woman from her family and her support network. “Marriage was an event surrounded with supportive, almost ritualistic practices” (Smith-Rosenberg 22). The months before marriage were devoted to preparing a young woman for her role as a wife. Friends would visit, consult, and make preparations with the bride and her family. (Smith-Rosenberg 22) After the wedding, “sisters, cousins, and friends frequently accompanied the newlyweds on their wedding night and wedding trip, which often involved additional family visiting. Such extensive visits presumably served to wean the daughter from her family or origin” (Smith-Rosenberg 22).

                        Nineteenth-century marriage could be called the exchanging of one predetermined identity for another. Nineteenth-century married women were totally without rights or status. “Because of her legal non-existence, she could not sue or be sued, own any property, whether earned or brought in to marriage or have any rights in her children” (Basch 23). The fate of widows was just as grim. As Basch points out, the dead husband’s property would be distributed among the children (23). 

                      Ninety percent of women married during the nineteenth century, and over ninety-five percent were not employed outside the home. (Scott Smith 42) Marriage was seen as the only institution where a woman could enjoy some measure of freedom, autonomy, and identity. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, however, viewed marriage as “the last stronghold of woman’s degradation” (Basch 23).  In the opinion of contemporary observers, this degradation was particularly evident in marital sexual relations. “The husband’s right of property to his wife’s body and the control of procreation” (Basch 24) was particularly galling to Stanton and was a subject discussed at women’s rights meetings. (Basch 24)  

                       The temperance issue was closely connected to women’s sexual lives within marriage. “The temperance movement focused on the horror of poverty-stricken families victimized by the sinful intemperance of improvident husbands” (Basch 24). Stanton used her speeches to attack the consequences of drinking on women, “and she constantly exhorted women to fulfill both duties to herself and to mankind by denying her husband access to her body” (Basch 24). The husband’s right of property to his wife’s body was seen by women activists as “legalized prostitution” (Basch 24). 

                         As women sought ways to deal with this issue, there was “such a distaste for man’s physical nature, drunk with wine and passion, that the possibility of asking men to control their sexual urge seemed remote” (Basch 25). As Scott Smith indicates, women were finding ways to deny access to their bodies. An “analysis of nineteenth-century sexual ideology supports the theory that women acquired an increasing power over sex and reproduction within marriage” (41). Although rudimentary contraception methods were available, “the major practices involved controlling male sexuality were– coitus interruptus and abstinence” (Scott Smith 44).

This control could be exerted within the realm of accepted standards of behavior, using a phrase quoted by Lisa Cochran Higgins, “the cult of true womanhood” (197). Within this “true womanhood,” a wife “could exert a Christian influence on her husband and family without direct political activity” (Cochran Higgins 197).  Therefore, the wife could be a shining example of virtue and dignity, which inspired the family toward righteous behavior while at the same time controlling her husband’s baser instincts. Controlling those baser instincts also had a practical function. Becoming pregnant and giving birth regularly, combined with questionable medical practices, at best was unhealthy and, at worse, could be fatal.

                       Another solution to the situation appeared to be divorce. Because women supported other social reform movements in the mid-nineteenth century, the supporters of liberalized divorce “viewed marriage as a contract that could be dissolved, and not as a religious life-binding commitment” (Basch 26). Showing her strong attachment to the temperance movement, Stanton sought to make drunkenness grounds for divorce, which brought together the battles for women’s rights and against temperance. (Basch 26) Prominent women’s rights leaders also sought to hold the churches responsible “for the drunken husband who ruined families, brutalized wives, and produced degenerate children” (Basch 27) because they refused to sanction divorce. According to Basch, “opposition to religion and to the church was woven into suffragist ideology and practice” (27). 

                           The conservative response in the debate over divorce was delivered by Reverend Antoinette Brown, just before the Civil War, at an 1860 convention. (Basch 28) 

Reverend Brown based her arguments against divorce on “the indissoluble marriage tie, and woman’s duty to sacrifice herself and accomplish a moral and religious mission” (Basch 28). (See Ellen Montgomery, The Wide, Wide World, and Eva, Uncle Tom’s Cabin) Susan B. Anthony delivered the counterargument. Anthony wrote: “Marriage has ever been a one-sided matter resting most unequally between the sexes. By it, man gains all-woman loses all. By law, a woman has never been thought of other than a piece of property She must accept marriage as man pre offers it or not at all…” (Basch 28). The sanctity of marriage was seen by most women activists of this period as a farce. Ernestine Rose argued that “the tragic facts, mismatched partners, strife within families, martyrdom of wives, wretchedness, and despair everywhere proved the depressingly human character of the institution” (Basch 28). In the debate over divorce, both Rose and Stanton advocated for the position that because people had a right to happiness, “they insisted on the necessity of divorce as opposed to separation, which maintained the divorce taboo and prevented spouses from remarrying” (Basch 28).

                     In the other major area of family law, child custody, women’s freedom of action, and equality before the law were also very limited. Even when mothers acquired custody through a divorce or the death of the husband, they “had less claim to children’s services, less control of their offspring’s property, and inferior custody rights” (Grossberg 244).  Nineteenth-century law generally “made custody dependent on support, and the general assumption that widows lacked financial independence undermined their demands for guardianship” (Grossberg 244). (See Ruth Hall). The law at this time was used as another means of checking “radical alterations in the subordinate legal status of women” (Grossberg 237). Thus “ensuring that women’s domestic powers did not translate into extensive external political and economic authority” (Grossberg 237). Therefore, overall power in society was intended to remain with men.

                      Another threat to the perceived marital and social order was the concept of “free love.” Free love was never accepted by mainstream women’s rights activists and women in general as a workable idea. However, the reaction to it by moderate and conservative authorities indicates that the potential for upsetting the established order was real and that they took the possible threat posed by Free Love seriously. The concept of Free Love grew out of French social theorist Charles Fourier’s ideas. (Cochran Higgins 201) Fourier believed humans had twelve primary passions and that repression of these passions caused “disharmony and inequity in the present social structure” (Cochran Higgins 201-202). 

Fourier’s discussion of sexual desire would help obviously by the most controversial for mid-nineteenth century Calvinist America. (Cochran Higgins 202) Fourier “imagined a world where marriage was unnecessary, and a range of promiscuous sexual activity was tolerated and even encouraged” (Cochran Higgins 202).  Fourier believed that “the institution of marriage, the sexual double-standard, and the denial of woman’s authority caused women to seek sexual and emotional fulfillment in unnatural outlets such as sentimental love and superficial entertainment” (Cochran Higgins 202).

                       One can reasonably assume from Fourier’s statement that he saw female friendship and attraction as an “unnatural outlet,” as well the sentimental novels women were putting on the bestseller lists regularly being “superficial entertainment.” It is a great irony that reading was criticized as an activity for women, both those who wanted to maintain the status quo and those who saw themselves as “liberators” of women.

                       In nineteenth-century America, as Cochran Higgins states, “national stability was often linked to the containment of female desire” (202). “In a culture already suspicious that individualism could lead to social chaos, the Free Love emphasis on individualism appeared to be a harbinger of doom” (Cochran Higgins 203). According to some critics, Free Love would be the open advocating of infidelity. (Cochran Higgins 203) Cochran Higgins describes the reaction in the New York Times to an 1855 book: “In 1855, after the publication of Mary Lyndon, the autobiographical account of Mary Grove Nichols’s failed first marriage and conversion to Free Love, a reviewer for the New York Times warned that the book was a “deliberate attempt to teach the art of adultery, and to justify that crime as the realization of a true life. Mocking Nichols’s claim that “marriage without love was adultery,” the reviewer warns that the author is actually “sowing the seeds of infidelity in the minds of innocent readers” by exhorting all unhappily married women to follow her example” (Cochran Higgins 203).        

                      If marriage was the ideal lifestyle for women in the mid-nineteenth century, it should be little wonder that women entered marriage with a sense of resignation and fatalism. A woman married to fulfill for duty to her family and society. There were some women, however, who chose not to follow the prescribed path. 

Choosing Not to Marry

                         In mid-nineteenth-century America, two views on the pluses and minuses of marriage emerged, and they existed simultaneously, were equally persuasive and at the same time contradictory. The extreme view portrayed men as irredeemable brutes and the male-dominated social system beyond repair. Marrying into such a situation was degrading, dangerous, and humiliating for women, who would have no chance to establish meaningful identities of their own. The other view portrayed marriage as a high, almost sacred, ideal that must only be entered into under perfect conditions. Both views openly discussed the idea of women’s innate superiority. This inherent superiority as humankind’s best hope to be redeemed from men’s baseness; both valued the concept of love and romance as the foundation of marriage, without that love and romance, there could be no marriage. Finally, both were sentimental in their view of the perfect society, one of gender equality, love, and companionship. The first view has already been examined; let’s now look at the other reasons for choosing not to marry.

                        Zsuzsa Berend quotes Catharine Maria Sedgwick from her diary reflecting on her single life: “I certainly think a happy marriage the happiest condition of human life… [I]t is the high opinion of its capabilities which has perhaps kept me from adventuring in it” (Berend 935). In explaining the end of an engagement to her brother, Robert “Sedgwick refers to an earlier understanding of love like friendship, i.e., love as the result of esteem, and gratitude, a rational sentiment. But she already believes in the new ideal, the ideal of involuntary love. Sedgwick came to realize that love is not simply an increase in liking but a separate emotion altogether” (Berend 937). 

                      Berend traces the evolution of this new kind of love and links it “to the elevation of emotionality in revivalist evangelicalism. Evangelicals associated spontaneity of feeling with true faith. The spontaneous emotions in heterosexual love were now regarded as a sure, though a mysterious, sign of providence” (937). True love thus became a sign of God’s blessing on marriage and the family it produces. Susan B. Anthony also accepted this definition of true love as the norm. Anthony “found a deep resonance with her values when she read Elizabeth Oakes Smith’s Bertha and Lily. Bertha’s opinion of marriage is that it “is very sacred, very lovely in my eyes, and therefore, to be sustained from pure motives” (Berend 938). 

                     Anthony wrote to Smith celebrating the “noble truths” displayed in her novel. (Berend 938). According to Berend, women would not lower their ideals to marry during this era. (938) Because of the serious consequences involved, women were encouraged to maintain high standards in selecting a mate. Quoted by Berend, Mrs. Abell (1853) “believed that young women who did not have high standards would fall in love indiscriminately, thereby compromising the very ideal of Victorian love” (939).  The nephew of Clara Barton, William Barton remembered the choices and dilemma faced by his aunt: “…she had her romances and love affairs …but… though she thought of different men as possible lovers, no one measured up to her ideal of a husband” (Berend 939).

                    Significant features of love and marriage during this era were the “perfect oneness” of the love-marriage (Berend 940), the spiritualization of love, which was “closely linked to the idea of moral motherhood” and, the promotion of sexual purity (Berend 940). Feminine love and affection were strongly tied to the religious and moral realms. The affection of a woman was “above lust, passion, and sensuality.” (Berend 940). Berend quotes Lucy Larcom to explain further this phenomenon: “…The higher women rise in moral and intellectual culture, the more is the sensual refined away from her nature, and the purer and more perfect and predominant becomes her motherhood” (Berend 940). Therefore, the love a woman displays is a “caring, tender, and selfless” love (Berend 940). Spiritualized love could manifest itself both inside and outside of the family to better society. One need not be married to achieve spiritualized love, service as a “…teacher, charity worker, writer of didactic and advice literature were expressions of woman’s motherly nature” (Berend 904).

                      Sexual purity reformers became active in the 1830s and 40s. Their primary targets were young men. (Berend 941) The sexual purity reform movement portrayed “sexual self-control as a manly quality and made few distinctions between physical, mental, and moral order” (Berend 941). This movement was part of several changes in antebellum society that promoted self-control as a virtue. The spiritualization of love separated female sexuality from female love and “deemphasized women’s sexual nature” (Berend 941).

                       Women who choose not to marry gained from the spiritual love movement. By “defining women’s worth in terms of morality and spirituality rather procreation, the new understanding made it possible for spinsterhood to be a respectable variation on motherhood rather than its antithesis” (Berend 941). Women who choose to remain single found their usefulness in their vocations. Berend gives examples of four women who chose that route. “Catharine Maria Sedgwick was in her thirties when she began writing. Elizabeth Blackwell took up medical studies as a result of the strong attraction she felt for a man whom she considered below her standards. Both Lucy Larcom and Frances Willard rejected suitors for reasons of the heart, and both found their calling later in life, Larcom as a poet and educator, Willard as a temperance leader” (943).  

                     In mid-nineteenth-century America, unmarried women had to strongly advocate that their lifestyle was indeed valuable for society. Sedgwick wrote that “we raise our voice with all our might against the miserable cant that matrimony is essential to the feebler sex – that a woman’s single life must be useless and undignified – that she is but an adjunct to a man…” (Berand 948-949).  


                          Sedgwick’s powerful call for the dignity and usefulness of single life for women was, in the end, a need for the identity and self-worth of women as functional, worthy human beings who wanted to live a life of meaning and purpose. Against incredible odds, women managed to carve out an identity in a society that did everything it could to tell them who they were and what they were. Every male-dominated institution in society was designed to ensure that women stayed in the roles designated for them. The language used was gentle, the tone was mild; however, the price of not conforming was one everyone could see: the mailed fist covered by the velvet glove of patriarchy. Mid-nineteenth-century women’s struggles laid the foundation for every breakthrough in rights and opportunities that American women enjoy today, and the struggle is still not over.  

Works Cited


Ashworth, Suzanne M., “Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World, Conduct Literature, and Protocols of Female Reading in Mid-Nineteenth Century America, Legacy, Vol. 17, No.2 (2000) pp. 141-164. JSTOR 20 February 2009 http:// www.jstor.org

Basch, Francoise. “Women’s Rights and The Wrongs of Marriage in Mid-Nineteenth Century America,” History Workshop, No. 22, Special American Issue (Autumn 1986), pp. 18-40 JSTOR 20 February 2009 http:// www.jstor.org.

Berend, Zsuzsa, “The Best or None!: Spinsterhood in Nineteenth-Century New England”, Journal of Social History, Vol. 33, No. 4 (Summer, 2000), pp. 935-957 JSTOR 19 February 2009 http://www.jstor.org

Grossberg, Michael, “Who Gets the Child? Custody, Guardianship, and the Rise of a Judicial Patriarchy in Nineteenth-Century America”, Feminist Studies, Vol. 9 No.2 (Summer, 1983), pp. 235-260 JSTOR 6 February 2009 http://www.jstor.org

Higgins, Lisa Cochran, ” Adulterous Individualism, Socialism, and Free Love in Nineteenth-Century Anti-Suffrage Writing,” Legacy, Vol. 21, No. 2, (2004), pp.193-209 JSTOR 6 February 2009 http://www.jstor.org

Scott-Smith, Daniel, “Family Limitation, Sexual Control, and Domestic Feminism in Victorian America,” Feminist Studies, Vol. 1 No. 3&4, Special Double Issue: Women’s History (Winter-Spring, 1973), pp. 40-57 JSTOR 6 February 2009 http://www.jstor.org

Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll, “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America, Signs, Vol.1, No. 1 (Autumn, 1975), pp. 1-29 JSTOR 19 February 2009 http://www.jstor.org

Featured image credit: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Biographical information:

John M. Lane
BA History, University of Cincinnati
BS Social Studies Education, Winona State University
MA Liberal Studies, Northern Kentucky University
Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History Teacher Seminars – The Ohio State University, Yale University, Princeton University20-year teaching career (Career Changer) Subjects taught: United States History, European History, World Civilizations


  • American Historical Association
  • Organization of American Historians
  • Phi Alpha Theta – National History Honorary
  • Diocesan Excellence in Teaching Award, Thomas More College, 2018

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