"Meekness, humility, gentleness, love, purity, self-renunciation, subjection of will.... The fairest flowers, which our fallen world can produce," woman"s virtues, according to the most acceptable definition of the natural order in society (Melder 2). Men and women occupied totally different social situations. Between 1815 and 1840 the circumstances of women"s lives changed in a number of ways, especially in education, under law, and in the attitudes influencing woman"s social status.
The most significant phase of American women"s education before 1850 was the female seminary movement, which in it"s serious phase began about 1815. Emma Willard, the founder of one of the earliest seminaries wrote the first "comprehensive design for a female institution of learning to be circulated in America, Plan for Improving Female Education (Melder 16). In 1821, she began The Troy Female Seminary which became one of the most advanced and famous institutions for educating women in the United States.
Catherine Beecher, like Emma Willard, "sought to change the emphasis in the curriculum from fashionable subjects to more substantial courses, including, Latin, philosophy, history, chemistry, and mathematics. She created The Hartford Female Seminary, considered a model building "with it"s large hall seating 150 pupils at writing desks, a library, dressing room, and nine recitation rooms"(Davis 399). One of the most useful contributions of the seminary movements before 1850 centered around making school teaching a major vocation for women.
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Women replaced men as teachers first in the New England states during the 1830s, and spread through other regions in the 1840s. "School reformers believed that the introduction of women teacher would not only be economical, but that the influx of females would raise the quality of instruction"(Melder 25). Education gave women practical experience in leadership as well as examples to follow, yet produced a double standard in learning, limited opportunities to use their new knowledge, and the pattern of unequal pay for the same work as men. Further evidence of the changing status of American women may be found in the law.
According to Blackstone"s interpretation of women"s legal condition, "By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law, that is, the very being, or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage" offering women little freedom (Melder 120). But in 1823, Maine gave legal protection to the property rights and personal independence of married women who had been deserted by their husbands, and Massachusetts followed in 1835. Then in New York in 1836, came an early proposal to give married women the right to hold independent property.
While not many other legal firsts were granted to the women"s cause, during the 1830s, American women participated in a series of reform movements which included the use of strong drink, education, and the issue of slavery; each of which would benefit the well-being of the woman"s cause. Women were finally involved in the formation of meetings, circulating pamphlets and newsletters, while gaining a new since of sisterhood and intellectual independence. Socially, woman"s position began to change considerably. "After 1800, middle class American women apparently developed a distinct sense of their appropriate sphere"(Melder 7).
Women were to elevate the intellectual character of her household [and] kindle the fires of mental activity in early childhood"(Graves 402). The private home was now the woman"s domain in keeping the peace and "practical piety"(Melder 8). Woman"s crowning glory was motherhood; "in the bearing, nursing, and rearing of her offspring, she could most fully carry out the responsibilities of her appropriate sphere"(Melder 9). "The relations between mother and child might hold a key to the solution of many social and moral ills, and perhaps the future of the nation itself"(Davis 22).
While Elizabeth Cady Stanton omits the word "obey" from her marriage vows, women would be assigned to "conserve the moral and religious values, especially to transmit these values to succeeding generations"(Melder 143). Women were still considered second class citizens, sub-sets of their husbands, and limited mostly to the home and care of the children; much less given any real or significant rights. Women were considered mere objects of beauty, and were looked upon as intellectually and physically inferior to men.
The struggle for women"s rights was a product of change, challenging conventional attitudes, demanding the end of restrictions, expanding opportunities for women, and helping to organize them nationally. The movement"s purposes, momentous yet simple, were described by an advocate in 1840: "I shall claim nothing for ourselves because of our sex, we should demand our recognition as equal members of the human family. The term "Woman"s Rights" will become obsolete, for none will entertain the idea that the rights of women differ from the rights of men. It is then human rights for which we contend"(Davis 158).
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