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article number 574
article date 07-19-2016
copyright 2016 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
American City Woman Part 1: A New Country - New Freedoms, Late 1800’s
by Arthur Schlesinger

From the 1933 book, The Rise of the City.

* * *

THE American woman reigned if she did not govern. She was in transition—as she always has been—and while the American man was too gallant to regard her as a “problem,” her unusual restlessness in the eighties and nineties proved a constant source of worry to the old-fashioned of both sexes.

It was as mistress of the home and dispenser of its hospitality that she was most favorably known; and in this role she inspired masculine visitors from Europe to a catalogue of such adjectives as vivacious, fascinating, candid, unaffected, intelligent, self-reliant.

With an effort at statistical restraint the musician Offenbach at the opening of the era declared, “Out of a hundred women, ninety are perfectly ravishing”; while another artist, Soissons, observing America twenty years later, could agree that the “modern American woman is charming and almost superior to the majority of European women.” Even Matthew Arnold, who saw little to relieve the drab monotony of the transatlantic scene, accounted the unusual measure of feminine charm as an authentic touch of civilization.

Nothing more sharply set off the American woman from her sisters abroad than the deference paid her by men and the unaffected social relations between the sexes. “It is the pride of Americans,” noted one foreign observer, “that a woman, unaccompanied, can travel from one end of their country to the other without being subjected to any unpleasantness or to a vestige of impertinence.”

This attitude, of course, had long been a national characteristic; but as a product of frontier and rural influences it was subjected during these years to a new and unexpected strain as greater numbers of people came to live under urban conditions and women entered the world of men as breadwinners.

In correct social circles of the Eastern cities the practice of chaperonage took root during the 1880’s, stimulated by the example of the Old World with which an increasing number of traveled Americans had become acquainted.

“The duties of a chaperon are very hard and unremitting, and sometimes very disagreeable,” wrote an editor of ‘Harper’s Bazar’ in 1884.

“She must accompany her young lady everywhere; she must sit in the parlor when she receives gentlemen; she must go with her to the skating rink, the ball, the party, the races, the dinners, and especially to theater parties;

“She must preside at the table, and act the part of a mother, so far as she can; she must watch the characters of the men who approach her charge, and endeavor to save the inexperienced girl from the dangers of a bad marriage, if possible.”

Three years later another authority noted that the chaperon was “slowly but surely extending her sway,” and in 1898 it was announced that the practice was so generally observed in the East that “a girl of the present generation would not venture to combat it without the risk of sharp criticism from alien tongues.”

Despite the undoubted spread of the new custom its well-wishers overstated the facts. As Mrs. Sherwood ruefully acknowledged, the “vivacious American girl, with all her inherited hatred of authority, is a troublesome charge. All young folks are rebels.” Not appreciating “what Hesperidean fruit they are,” they “dislike being watched and guarded.”

And the young lady found an ally in her young man who, besides sharing her libertarianism, objected to the extra drain on his purse which the presence of a third party at dinner or the theater entailed.


In the smaller towns and rustic parts of the nation the two sexes continued to mingle socially, go buggy riding in the moonlight and pay court unvexed by the attentions of a duenna.

Even in the cities spinsters or “elderly girls” of twenty-five years or more were generally regarded as exempt from the requirement, for “with the assumption of years” had they not safely left behind them “the wild grace of a giddy girlhood”?

Yet an “elderly girl,” though of thirty-five, was deemed to act unwisely if she visited an artist’s studio alone, even though “there is in art an ennobling and purifying influence which should be a protection.”

On none did the yoke of Victorian convention lie so heavily or so unreasonably as on affianced lovers.

“A chaperon is indispensable to an engaged girl . . .
Nothing is more vulgar in the eyes of our modern society than for an engaged couple to travel together or to go to the theatre unaccompanied, as was the primitive custom. . . .

“Society allows an engaged girl to drive with her fiancé in an open carriage, but it does not approve of his taking her in a close carriage to an evening party.”

While the young lady was not expected to abstain entirely from social contacts, she must be extremely circumspect in her relations with the other sex, for even the “shadow of a flirtation” constituted a breach both of manners and morals. Once the wedding cards were issued, it was “de rigueur” for the bride-to-be to withdraw from the public gaze, allowing herself only the occasional privilege of a quiet walk with her future husband during the day.*

* One regrets to note, however, that on one occasion “A young lady at the sea-shore greatly shocked public opinion by going down to the surf beach and bathing on the morning of her wedding day.” Hall, ‘Social Customs,’ 171.

Despite new social and economic conditions, marriage continued to be the cherished goal of the majority of women, all the more so as the numerical excess of females over males steadily climbed in the urban parts of America.

Nevertheless the growing practice of seeking matrimonial mates through the advertising columns of the newspapers was generally frowned upon as betraying an unmaidenly zeal.

Though in a few Eastern cities the “woman bachelor,” as she called herself, gained steadily in standing and public respect, in most parts of the country the “elderly girl” was looked upon as a creature of frustrated purpose. A fragile clinging vine was the ideal of an age which little dreamed a later generation would prefer the rambler.

The Americans were, in fact, one of the most married peoples in the world, being surpassed in Western Europe only by the French.

There was a difference, however, between city and country. Matrimony generally took place earlier in the rural districts, was likely to endure longer and, whether ended by death or divorce, was more often followed by fresh nuptials.

In the cities the higher cost of living, together with the greater economic independence of women and the many substitutes for the sociability of the fireside, served to delay marriage or to prevent it entirely.

Higher education also proved a deterrent, at least so far as women were concerned. It was widely noted that fewer college-bred girls married proportionately than did their less educated sisters, though the graduates of coeducational institutions showed less reluctance in this respect than those of women’s colleges.


From the later marriages of middle-class urban folk came smaller families, due partly to an increasing resort to the practice of birth control. One medical authority dared assert openly that such conduct was “not only, not in itself sinful” but even “under certain circumstances commendable.”*

*Contraceptive information and devices had been excluded from the mails under heavy penalties by a federal act of 1873.

The result, as Bryce and others pointed out, seemed a reversal of the principle of natural selection, for the progeny of poor and undernourished parents multiplied while the better-nurtured classes barely held their own. In general, the membership of the average household steadily shrank. In 1890 the most usual size was four members; in 1900 three.

All the moral preachments of the time pointed to the wife and mother as the one upon whom rested the chief responsibility for connubial bliss. Hers it was “to embellish the home, and to make happy the lives of the near and dear ones who dwell within it.”

Addressing her in the ‘Christian Herald,’ the Reverend T. DeWitt Talmage declared:

“Whether in professional, or commercial, or artistic, or mechanical life, your husband from morning to night is in a Solferino, if not a Sedan. It is a wonder that your husband has any nerves or patience or suavity left.

“. . . If he come home and sit down preoccupied, you ought to excuse him. If he does not feel like going out that night . . . , remember he has been out all day.

“. . . Remember, he is not overworking so much for himself as . . . for you and the children.*

* That a husband with a slatternly wife “stays at home as little as possible is no wonder,” he added. “It is a wonder that such a man does not go on a whaling voyage of three years, and in a leaky ship.”

Nevertheless the law, more charitable, it would seem, than the pulpit, accorded married women larger rights than they had ever before enjoyed in America. The old common-law discriminations, already beginning to crumble prior to the Civil War, continued to fall before the assaults of new legislation.

By 1898 the special disabilities of wives had been wholly removed in Mississippi Oregon and Washington; and in most other states they could own and control their property, retain their earnings, make contracts, sue and be sued.

Here and there, however, inequalities of civil status remained. Thus in Georgia, Louisiana, New Mexico, the Dakotas and California the law still expressly designated the husband as head of the family and the wife subject to him.

Furthermore, in all but seven states, the father continued to enjoy prior authority in the guardianship of minor children; and a few commonwealths—North Carolina, Kentucky and Texas—ordinarily permitted divorce for adultery only when the wife was the offender. So widely was the principle of civil equality recognized, however, that only time was required to remove the few remaining discriminations from the statute books.


Liberation from Household Routine

The progressive liberation from household routine left the middle-class woman with more leisure on her hands than ever before and opened the way for a wider participation in the world that lay beyond domestic walls.

The wives and daughters of the poor had long been swelling the ranks of industry, and the five-year depression following 1873 had shown that women even of the comfortable classes might unexpectedly be obliged to supplement the family income.

At the same time the colleges and universities were training increasing numbers for pursuits hitherto followed chiefly by men, while the new conditions of American life were opening employments to them wholly unknown to previous generations.

Though the old prejudice against self-support for women lingered, its doom was rendered more certain with the passage of each year.

“We have reached a new era,” declared a women’s magazine in 1883. “Slowly as woman has come to her inheritance, it stretches before her now into illimitable distance, and the question of the hour is rather whether she is ready for her trust than whether that trust is hampered by conditions.”

Never before had such attractive and multifarious occupations been within reach. Women who would have shrunk from factory work and domestic service or even from teaching trooped forth with a sense of adventure to become typists, telephone girls, typesetters, bookkeepers, nurses, librarians, journalists, lecturers, social workers, doctors, lawyers, artists.

Even in the realm of mechanical invention, a time-honored monopoly of men, they were displaying surprising capacity in a variety of fields. Miss Faithfull reported that in Massachusetts alone there were in 1882 nearly three hundred branches of business and industry in which women could earn from one hundred to three thousand dollars a year.

It is not surprising that the number of feminine breadwinners in the United States rose from two and a half million in 1880 to four million in 1890 and to five and a third million in 1900, or that legislatures in the chief industrial states began in the 1880’s to give serious attention to acts for regulating factory conditions of female toil.

Nowhere was the change in the position of the sex more striking than in the old Confederacy. There the “nobility of helplessness in woman” was still cherished as an ideal by many survivors of the old régime; but postwar realities—the goad of poverty, the opportunities of city life, the shiftlessness of hired help—caused the younger generation to discover the ideal of self-reliance and self-support.

“The crowning glory of the present age is that every woman is free to develop her own personality,” proclaimed one daughter of Dixie in the early 1890’s. In contrast to former times, “a woman is respected and honored in the South for earning her own living, and would lose respect if . . . she settled herself as a burden on a brother” or hard-working father.

It was noted that a larger proportion of girls, even of the poorer classes, were going to college than formerly and that more of them stayed on to take their degrees.

Not all American women used their new-found time in bread-winning pursuits: many of them, especially of the upper middle class, found an outlet in club activities. “We have art clubs, book clubs, dramatic clubs, pottery clubs. We have sewing circles, philanthropic associations, scientific, literary, religious, athletic, musical, and decorative art societies,” testified one writer.

“The absence of men,” observed a visiting French woman, “would make French women feel . . . as if they were eating bread without butter.”

But such extramural contacts were the best means the average house-wife had of learning about the complex world in which circumstances were forcing her to play a part; and though the clubs often served as mere excuses for evading domestic responsibility, they proved to be an indispensable training school for countless women who became active civic and humanitarian leaders in their respective communities.


By 1889 the clubs were so numerous and influential that they became linked together in a great national system under the name of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs.*

* By 1896 the membership consisted of 495 individual clubs and 20 state federations.

Conservative folk were not at all certain that the widening range of feminine activity denoted progress. “What is this curious product of to-day, the American girl or woman?” asked one woman writer, “. . . is it possible for any novel, within the next fifty years, truly to depict her as a finality, when she is still emerging from new conditions . . . , when she does not yet understand herself . . . ?“

She added, “The face of to-day is stamped with restlessness, wandering purpose, and self-consciousness.”

As the years passed the note of disapprobation was sounded more and more frequently. “The great fault of the girl of to-day,” declared another member of the sex in 1890, “is discontent. She calls it by the more magnificent sounding name of ambition, but in reality she is absolutely restless and dissatisfied with whatever may be her position in life.”


Nothing more excited both male and female disapproval than the energetic attempts of certain women to claim for their sex equal political rights with men.

In the opening years of the period even the historian Parkman, was tempted away from his cloisters long enough to deliver some smashing blows against this effort to overleap “Nature’s limitations,” disrupt the home and give women excitements and cares “too much for their strength.”

Especially in the “crowded cities,” he pointed out, woman suffrage would be “madness,” a certain means of making bad government worse.

Five leading feminists joined in a powerful counterblast; Julia Ward Howe, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Lucy Stone (Blackwell), Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Wendell Phillips. Reaffirming the principles of the Declaration of Independence, they declared that women as well as men had contributions to make to public life and denounced the failure to accept the consequences of woman’s altered position as an effort to “put the bird back into the egg.”

“One of two things is true:” asserted the forthright Phillips, “either woman is like man—and if she is, then a ballot based on brains belongs to her as well as to him; or she is different, and then man does not know how to vote for her as well as she herself does.”

This widely read debate marked the lines on which the great battle over the ballot was fought in periodicals, public gatherings, legislative halls and constitutional conventions.

While the majority of women remained somewhat indifferent spectators, the militant “antis” did not feel that their disapproval of feminine political activity precluded them from organizing committees and societies in opposition. In effectiveness of organization, however, they were completely outdone by their antagonists, many of whom had been trained in the old days of the antislavery struggle and the Sanitary Commission.

Already two strong woman-suffrage associations were in the field, the American and the National, one seeking the ballot through state action, the other through a federal amendment. New branches of these bodies were organized in the various states; and in 1890, when it became clear that the parent societies were but two blades of the same scissors, they united under the name of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

Meantime campaigns were being hotly waged on every front and with many weapons. As Colonel Higginson pointed out, “Mrs. Stowe helps to free Uncle Tom in his cabin, and then strikes for the freedom of women in her own ‘Hearth and Home.’ Mrs. Howe writes the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ and keeps on writing more battle-hymns in behalf of her own sex. Miss Alcott not only delineates ‘Little Women,’ but wishes to emancipate them.”


Prominent men lent their pens and voices to the cause: George W. Curtis, Senator G. F. Hoar, the venerated Whittier and others.

Both the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor rallied to the banner.

In 1878 Senator A. A. Sargent of California introduced into Congress an equal-suffrage amendment, drafted by Susan B. Anthony in the very language which forty-two years later was to find lodgment in the Constitution. In the next two decades Senate committees reported five times and House committees twice in favor of the proposal, but action went no further.

The platforms of the major parties ignored the issue, and the Prohibitionists perhaps hurt it by associating it in the public mind with their battle against rum.

In 1884 a group of suffragists launched a political party of their own, the Equal Rights party, defiantly nominating for president a woman lawyer, Mrs. Belva A. Lockwood of Washington, D. C. Though the outcome scarcely justified it, she was put forward in the next election as well.

The policy of divide-and-conquer brought more encouraging results. Campaign after campaign was conducted in state after state under the inspiration of veteran leaders like the angular Miss Anthony and the motherly Mrs. Stanton, aided by such new recruits as Dr. Anna Howard Shaw and Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt.

The initial gains, as in Britain and the Scandinavian countries during these same years, took the form of obtaining the vote in school elections and sometimes also in regard to municipal or taxation questions.

Thus in 1878 New Hampshire and Oregon, following the earlier example of a few other states, authorized school suffrage. Massachusetts, New York and Vermont acted in the next two years, and by the close of 1898 thirteen additional states and territories, representing all parts of the Union but the old Confederacy, had fallen into line.*

* Montana, Iowa and Louisiana established a form of taxation suffrage, respectively in 1887, 1894 and 1898; Kansas municipal suffrage in 1887 and Michigan in 1893 (declared unconstitutional).

The cause of full equality in voting, on the other hand, showed signs of losing ground when Congress, by the Edmunds law of 1887, deprived the women of Utah territory of the ballot as a means of destroying polygamy and when, two years later, the voters of Washington refused to authorize the reestablishment of equal suffrage at the election for adopting a state constitution.

The next year, however, Wyoming was admitted into the Union with the universal suffrage she had practised since 1869; and three of her neighbors after achieving statehood—Colorado in 1893 and Utah and Idaho in 1896—ranged themselves by her side.

Women of Colorado - You Have the Vote. Get it for Women of the Nation by Voting Against Woodrow Wilson. Their Party Opposes National Women’s Suffrage.

Nevertheless the closing years of the decade showed an apparent decline of interest in the movement. For some years to come most Americans were to regard “ballots for both” as an aberration of the wild and woolly West.


The growing absorption of women in interests outside the home, whether as social butterflies or as breadwinners or reformers, seemed to some a sufficient explanation of the waning sanctity of the marriage relation.

Whatever the reason there could be no doubt as to the fact.

With sixteen thousand divorces granted in 1878, the number rose to nearly twenty-nine thousand in the year 1888 and to almost forty-eight thousand in 1898. The rate of increase was far greater than the rate of population growth—indeed, in the last decade of the century, three times as great—and the proportion of divorces granted in the United States far exceeded that of any foreign country except Japan.

In 1890 one divorce was granted for every sixteen marriages solemnized, in 1900 one for every twelve. Since the practice was forbidden by Roman Catholics, the frequency of divorce among those not of that faith was even greater than these figures indicate.

The situation excited the widespread alarm of press and pulpit. As a result of the activity of the National Divorce Reform League, formed in 1881, the federal government undertook in 1887-1888 a comprehensive collection of data concerning marriage and divorce.

The findings confirmed a cherished notion of the reformers that one fruitful source of the evil was the diversity of state legislation. In some states marriage was permitted as early as twelve or fourteen years; in most a civil ceremony would suffice; and, in perhaps half, a ceremony could be dispensed with altogether under the general principles of the “Scotch law of marriage,” which required merely mutual consent.

Divorce might be made an equally simple matter provided the proper jurisdiction was sought.

South Carolina denied divorce on any ground whatever; but elsewhere the causes varied from the single one of adultery, in the case of New York, to a list of ten or more, including, in the case of Washington, “any other cause deemed by the court sufficient”—the so-called “omnibus clause.”

While residence of a year or more was usually necessary to secure a divorce in most states, in Nevada and Wyoming only six months were demanded and in the Dakotas but ninety days. As a result “large divorce colonies” were to be found in the Dakotas, and in all four commonwealths a majority of the defendants were residents of other states.

The fruits of such a system were scandalous and demoralizing. As one writer expressed it, “a husband who has obtained a divorce in one State on trivial grounds . . . may marry again, and with his new wife and children travel through the United States, and in some places his new relations will be considered legal and proper, while in others he will be a bigamist, his new wife a paramour, and their children illegitimate.”

The lax standards of the law were largely an inheritance from a rural age when early and easy marriage was desired for population growth and community disapproval prevented reckless recourse to the divorce courts.

The phenomenal increase of divorce was largely an outgrowth of urban conditions: the anonymity of city life, its distractions and temptations, the growing practice of living in boarding houses and flats, the harsh struggle for existence, the opportunities for self-support afforded women.


Not only was the divorce rate higher in large cities than in small ones and country districts, but the rate of increase was also greater there than elsewhere.

Since twice as many divorces in the period 1878-1898 were granted upon the wife’s complaint as on the husband’s, it is likely that the increase reflected, in part, a greater self-respect among women and an unwillingness to put up with conditions which their mothers would have accepted in silence.

Legislative changes during the period were in the direction of greater strictness, Connecticut leading the way in 1878 by repealing her “omnibus clause.” But the gains were not impressive, and no headway was made toward the reformers’ goal: a uniform divorce law for all the states. The more thoughtful perceived that what was needed was not so much a change of legislation as of ethical attitudes.


Indeed, in spite of the whips and buffetings of circumstance, the American woman had substantial cause for pride in the advances made by her sex. Though, as the writer in the ‘Atlantic Monthly’ had said, she might not yet understand herself, she was responding to her highest instincts in struggling toward an easier, more self-respecting and self-reliant footing in American society.

Her failures, though disheartening at the time, were not irreparable, while her successes formed a lasting heritage to those who were to follow.

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