Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Struggle for Freedom: The Impact of Women's Movements in the United States Part I (b)

By Miriam B. Medina

(Continued from Page: 1)

From the early 17th century all the way to the end of the 19th century, small-scale family farming dominated America. Many immigrants from Europe, which included German craftsmen and artisans, left their country seeking better economic opportunities. The Europeans settled in areas where farm land was reasonably priced. Prior to acquiring a market-economy status, most farmers managed to raise enough crops to feed their family. Nonetheless, in America's early years, the women who lived on the farms were apparently well-adjusted in their home lives and with their spouses than the women of the city. This was usually the case even though the burden of farm work was overwhelming. Farm life featured a tremendous amount of a joint effort for the farm to survive and prosper. The women were able to learn a trade as they made their own clothes, candles, utensils and even basic tools.

Though agriculture played a pivotal role in early America, manufacturing and trading was a staple of the times as well. The business scene was characterized by small family run or one man enterprises. Often, the manufacturers were skilled craftsmen and artisans. Many shared some of their knowledge with their wives. It was not unusual back then to see women engaged in the manufacturing of certain products, such as cheese and butter making, soap and broom making and rug making. They also might sell these products in order to make some money. Yet, in the midst of assisting her husband with the business, assuming the role of manufacturer and entrepreneur, she was still a wife and a mother. She still had to take care of her family. This included the drudgery of cooking, cleaning, raising her children and defending the moral purities of all who lived within the confines of her home. Not only were these rural, farm women burdened by extremely long days filled with menial labor, which would mentally and physically drain them, they were also frustrated with frequent impregnation. They simply did not know anything about birth control. The financial burden from having too many children was often overwhelming.

The war conditions of 1812 accelerated the growth of domestic manufacturing and trade. Capitalism flourished, and the working class grew. Textile factories began to spread throughout New England, New York and Pennsylvania. Germans became high-profile businessmen and shopkeepers specializing in various fields. Husband/wife joint ventures were becoming obsolete. The men began leaving the farms to seek better employment in the cities and factories. Their wives stayed home taking care of the family and making sure that all things ran smoothly during their absence. What those suppressed women would have given to trade places.

In this scenario, the man played the classic role of husband and provider, and the female acted as wife, mother and homemaker. This included new demands and responsibilities while the husband was off at work, chores the man once took care of like tending animals or small, home maintenance. In the marriage contract back then, the husband promised to take care of his wife in exchange for her care and obedience to him. In doing so, this would keep her from having to deal with the business world that existed beyond their household. The bottom line, though, was that the marriage covenant was more of a master and servant contract.

Marriage, for better or for worse, prior to and including the 19th century, was highly praised and blessed by society. It signified a woman's maturity and respectability, and motherhood was evidence that she had entered the world of feminine virtue and female fulfillment. In the World of Society, the young woman was considered a family possession, a marketable commodity with no rights of her own. Like a rural, farm woman, she was treated as a work horse and a reproduction machine. In part two of this three-part series, we'll pick up where we leave off here in the 19th century.

To be continued: Part II (a)

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