Lesson Plan 15: Gender Roles in the Mid-Nineteenth Century, What Fiction Tells Us

By Tara L. Dirst


  • Students will compare and contrast the moral qualities of characters outlined in the short story "The Daughter-in-Law."
  • Students will generalize what appropriate middle-class gender-specific values were expected in the 19th century.
  • Students will analyze rationales for the creation of and the popularity of such stories.
  • Students will create an etiquette guide describing appropriate gender behavior for men and women in the 19th century.

Note to the Instructor:

The short story the students are asked to read for this lesson is 15 pages in length (as a Word document.) Although this may seem long, since it is a work of fiction and is very dialogue-intensive, it shouldn't be too difficult for the students to read in a reasonable length of time.

Student Preparation:

Students should be given the short story to read in the day(s) prior to the class discussion time. They should also have read the appropriate textbook section that deals with women and gender in the 19th century, changing gender roles, and the influence and expectations of middle-class culture.

Sample textbook sections:

  • Danzer, Gerald, et al. The Americans. "Women and Reform." Evanston, IL: McDougall Littell, 2003. 254-258.
  • Danzer, Gerald, et al. The Americans. "The Changing Workplace." Evanston, IL: McDougall Littell, 2003. 259-265.

Materials Needed:

  • Arthur, Timothy Shay. "The Daughter-in-Law." Lessons in Life, For All Who Will Read Them. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo, and Co., 1852. 59-89.
  • Worksheet to accompany the short story.

Time Required:

Students should be given at least one evening in which to read the short story. One 50-minute class period is needed for the discussion.


Ask the students if anyone has heard of Miss Manners or Emily Post's etiquette books. Elicit a discussion on why such books exist, what kinds of advice they give, their relevance today, etc. Ask the students if fiction can serve the same purpose (informing people on correct conduct). Can they think of any contemporary examples?

Class Discussion:

Go through the worksheet questions and have a group discussion based on what the students observed. Create a chart on the board and record what the students said for each individual's moral qualities.

Additional discussion questions (possible answers are in italics):

  • Generalizing from the qualities on the chart, what makes a "good" man or woman, according to the story? (A man should be intelligent and educated, not greedy, have self-control; a woman should have a "pure heart," respect for the institution of motherhood, be selfless, unselfish, be a caregiver)
  • Generalizing from the qualities on the chart, what makes a "bad" man or woman, according to the story? (Greediness, belief in social rank above all other qualities, pride.)
  • What does it mean for a woman to have a pure heart? (That a woman should always look to serve others, particularly her family members. It is her responsibility to provide a caring, nurturing environment.)
  • What values, actions or roles are not addressed in the piece, either for men or women? (Men or women in the workplace, activities of the laboring classes; any extensive discussion of child-rearing.)
  • If the author did write about men and women in the workplace elsewhere, what do you think his opinion was? (That women shouldn't work; that men should be of a similar cloth in the workplace as the home -- not greedy, of high intellect.)
  • What does it mean that William didn't hit his wife only because of the "fear of disgrace"?(That William didn't have true self-control. He was only concerned with how others would perceive him. His true moral failing was the fact that he actually wanted to strike his wife.)
  • How well do you think this story reflects the experience of people in the 19th century? (Not very well, especially for a large portion of society. It is really only potentially representative of middle-class urban culture.)
  • Who is not represented in this story? (The laboring classes, rural folk, immigrants, African-Americans)
  • Why would literature such as this be so popular? (People often like to have black and white answers to questions about life's issues. Arthur offers specific ways to be a good person which will result in an orderly, stable house, and in the larger sense, an orderly, stable society.)
  • What was changing in society that created Arthur's anxiety over the negative behavior outlined in the story? (With urbanization and industrialization, and economic uncertainties of the early 19th century, people wanted more stability -- rules that one could follow and have everything be ok!)
  • Do you think that today's society would agree with any of the qualities of "good" or "bad" described in the story?


Have the students create a 10 item etiquette/manners guide for both men and women (5 for men, 5 for women) in the 19th century based on the lessons from the short story and from the class discussion. This can be done in a list format, or in a more narrative style.


Students should turn in their worksheet and the manners guide for evaluation. The worksheet is worth 10 points, with one point for up to 10 correct attributes associated with the given character. The manners guide is worth 10 points, with one point for every appropriate etiquette statement.


Arthur, Timothy Shay. Lessons in Life, For All Who Will Read Them. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo and Co., 1852.

Ruppel, Tim. "Gender Training: Male Ambitions, Domestic Duties, and Failure in the Magazine Fiction of T. S. Arthur." Prospects 24 (1999): 311-337.

Acknowledgments: The Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project would like to thank the National Endowment for the Humanities for funding this lesson plan under the We the People Project.