Women’s Experience and Gender Roles

By Drew VandeCreek


Women came to Illinois during a time of profound changes in American gender roles. Women and men had often labored together on the farms of colonial America, producing food, clothing and other goods for their own use in a system that subsequent historians have called "household economy." But the large economic and social changes of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century led to the division of labor along gender lines.

More and more men worked outside the home in workshops, factories or offices. Many women stayed at home and performed domestic labor. The emerging values of nineteenth-century America increasingly placed great emphasis upon a man's ability to earn enough wages or salary to make his wife's labor unnecessary, but this devaluation of women's labor left women searching for new understandings of themselves.

In the early nineteenth century women editors, authors and lecturers redefined women's roles. Led by the New Englander Catharine Beecher, they emphasized the dangerous and unhealthy aspects of the competitive public world of men, and portrayed the home as a safe haven that women could provide for their husbands. This new domestic ideal went on to articulate women's responsibility for inculcating religion and moral values in their families. While economic development built a new America, women retained responsibility for turning that growth into civilization. Ultimately, the architects of the new domestic ideal argued that women's acceptance of their diminished economic role demonstrated their moral superiority and leadership.

By the time Illinois became a state in 1818, most middle-class women living in the North understood themselves in these terms. Middle-class women made up the great majority of emigrants to the West, for poor and working-class families often could not afford the journey's significant expenses. These women, most of them married, carried the ideal of domesticity with them to the new West.

The move to the Illinois frontier provided a challenge to many women's understanding of themselves. Frontier life demanded a return to a household economy in which women produced basic materials necessary for their family's survival.

Rude frontier conditions defied many women's increasingly refined conceptions of what a home should be. Many settlers also picked up and moved frequently, in search of a better plot of land. This pattern thwarted women's attempts to establish a respectable household characterized by order, cleanliness and a modicum of luxuries.

Many settlers’ frontier homes were mere shacks. Others lived in the proverbial log cabin. A significant number of early frontier families also lived in sod houses constructed by laying long strips of thick prairie sod upon one another to fashion walls.

Often women found these conditions profoundly disheartening, particularly if they arrived in a region at the beginning of its settlement. But as more settlers established themselves, many women emigrants from New England formed lasting friendships and joined together in voluntary associations devoted to civilizing the frontier. Some of these associations emphasized religion, or sought to bring high culture to the frontier in the form of lyceum speakers. Others took on more avowedly political goals, while maintaining their separate sphere, by campaigning for temperance reform, strict observation of the Sabbath, or even the abolition of slavery.

Women also poured their energies into encouraging education on the frontier. Teaching provided an opportunity for unmarried women to come west. While teaching paid a wage that many men would not tolerate, the advocates of women's domestic ideal proclaimed that it made a perfect career for women. Teaching's important role in molding young characters demanded women in the schools, Catharine Beecher argued.

Most of white Americans' cultural assumptions stood in sharp contrast to Native American ways of life. But Indian women's roles differed little from those of white women operating in a system of household economy. In Native American society men regularly occupied themselves with hunting and war, and enjoyed large periods of leisure time, which they often turned to gambling and sport. Women tended fields and gathered berries, roots and other foodstuffs in season, in addition to supervising children.

Despite their isolation from white society and many of its legal and economic benefits, Illinois' free blacks largely embraced white Americans' domestic ideal. Thus free black women became pillars of the black community. Some organized anti-slavery societies and other benevolent associations. Yet the twin burdens of racial prejudice and closely circumscribed gender roles left many black women with severely limited prospects outside the home.

Not all white frontier women embraced the domestic ideal of separate spheres. Historians have noted that a significant number of those settling southern Illinois paid no heed to the concerns of "civilizing the wilderness." Many of these settlers emigrated from the rural South, where they had not found themselves involved in the broader economic changes that contributed to the division of labor and the rise of separate spheres.

Southern settlers' avowed anti-authoritarianism and more casual family and social structures repeatedly clashed with Yankee settlers' preoccupation with order and morality. Yankee women often tended to characterize southern settlers as lazy and ill-kempt, while many southerners perceived their northern cousins as meddling busybodies.

As the nineteenth century passed those women not previously exposed to domestic ideals found it more difficult to resist this pervasive world view. A market economy's emphasis upon the division of labor reached more deeply into social life with the development of new technology like the railroad, the mechanical reaper, and the telegraph. Increasingly women who questioned or rejected the cult of domesticity found themselves severely questioned or rejected by their sisters. Women hoping to live and thrive in an increasingly integrated society faced few alternatives.

As the son of a hardscrabble Kentucky family Abraham Lincoln emerged from a background that emphasized household economy. But his choice of Mary Todd for a bride showed how men invested themselves in the nineteenth century's domestic ideology. Mary Todd was also a Kentuckian, but she hailed from a prominent Lexington family and was related by marriage to Ninian Edwards, a former Governor of Illinois.

As a young lady Mary Todd became accustomed to the order, culture and refinements characteristic of nineteenth-century Americans' ideal of civilization. Despite her husband's somewhat straitened circumstances as a young attorney, Mary Todd never left the house to work. For his part, Lincoln unwittingly illustrated another characteristic of American gender roles.

As a Whig political operative, Lincoln published letters in 1842, under a pseudonym, that mocked the Democratic State Auditor James Shields. The proud Shields demanded a full retraction and, when Lincoln refused, challenged him to a duel. Lincoln, goaded by his friends, accepted. Because Illinois law prohibited duels, the parties and their entourages traveled to Missouri, just across the Mississippi River from Alton, Illinois. The duel was averted after many last-minute negotiations, which obliged Lincoln to publicly state that he had meant no harm to his opponent's "personal or private character or standing...as a man or a gentleman." Instead, he had published the pieces "solely for political effect."

Duels had once been an important part of American life. In 1804 the sitting Vice-President Aaron Burr killed former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton in a New Jersey duel. Southerners especially embraced the duel as an expression of men's reflexive defense of their honor, or public reputation.

Lincoln's memories of the event reflected northerners' changing gender roles, which slowly pushed men away from the violent defense of personal honor and toward a new ideal of self-control and responsibility. In the north a man's honor became synonymous with principled behavior and the absence of tangible vices. Southerners continued to interpret honor in terms of physical courage, and the maintenance and defense of honor against attacks and rumor often could lead to violence like duels. In this context Lincoln judged his confrontation with Shields to be among his greatest follies and embarrassments. As a duelist, he had allowed his emotions to govern his actions, a failure of self-control.

Several months after the abortive duel, Lincoln resolved the great dilemma in his life by marrying Mary Todd. He had previously proposed to her, then gotten cold feet and broken off the engagement. His actions had precipitated a crisis of confidence in the young Lincoln. Before renewing the engagement, Lincoln wrote that he considered himself "honor bound" to marry Mary Todd. He mused about losing "the only, or at least the chief, gem of my character," his "ability to keep my resolves when they are made." Lincoln's crisis revolved around a variety of courage unlike that required by the duel. He had controlled his profound reservations about married life and kept his word.

Thus the great upheaval in American gender relations decisively influenced women and men. But these cultural changes, and the deep economic changes so closely linked to them, proceeded at an uneven pace in the United States. Despite the pervasive influence of Yankee values in antebellum Illinois, the violent defense of personal honor remained important in the South. Lincoln would be reintroduced to this phenomenon in the political realm, in the great struggle over the future of slavery in the United States.