Nineteenth Century Woman’s Sphere

A Life of Expected Dependence

Alexis Anderkin, December 2016

Piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. These were the four cardinal virtues of 19th century womanhood, as defined by Barbara Welter [1]. Did these pillars of the woman’s sphere dictate a woman’s life? In the 1800s, free American women were expected to follow these guidelines without question; they were assumed to accept their female fate and continue along this straight, pre-destined path, and remain within the woman’s sphere. However, not all woman did. Some women strayed from their spheres, but in the nineteenth century, white, married, American women were either dependent or expected to be; even women’s citizenship was based on the status of their husbands’.

One expectation of women was a dedication to God. For many, female education was religion, primarily focused on the Protestant faith at this time in the United States. Religion was important to many women, and it was societally expected of them to be highly faithful; “one reason religion was valued was that it did not take a woman away from her ‘proper sphere’, her home” [2]. Women were dependent on God. The average woman kept to her sphere by only leaving the home to go to the market or her church. Piety was one of the most important aspects of the woman’s sphere.

In addition to piety, women were seen as pure and were expected to remain this way. Prior to marriage, it was the woman’s job to resist sexual temptations with men. Often men could not control themselves, so the women had to be the ones to do so, since they were supposed to be pure and men were not. Nevertheless, once women were married (another expectation), they had to be submissive to their husbands, beginning the wedding day. Welter explains that “the marriage night was the single great event of a woman’s life, when she bestowed her greatest treasure upon her husband, and from that time on was completely dependent upon him, an empty vessel, without legal or emotional existence of her own” [3]. The woman’s sphere in the 19th century had a major expectation of dependency. Women were dependent upon their God and their husbands. Her place was in the church and the home, and “a really sensible woman feels her dependence. She does what she can, but she is conscious of inferiority, and therefore grateful for support” [4]. A woman was a wife and a mother; she was dependent of her superiors, her husband, and her Lord. Importantly, women were places of solace for men and boys. She was a nurse to her children, which she was expected to have [5], and her husband. She was a cook and a seamstress. Women should be cheerful and comforting. They could sing or play an instrument, but overall, their place was in the home, and their involvement was in domestic affairs.

In the 19th century, “aspects of married women’s citizenship continued to be filtered through their husbands’ civic identity”, as told by historian Linda K. Kerber [6]. Married, white women were dependent on their husbands for citizenship. If an American-born woman married an immigrant, she renounced her citizenship from the United States. However, if a female immigrant married an American man, she took on his citizenship as an American. Woman’s citizenship was dependent upon man’s in the nineteenth century. Even if women were American citizens, it did not mean they had political representation, and they definitely did not have the right to vote in most places. Even women who were widowed and paying taxes by themselves did not have the right to vote, nor did married or unmarried women who carried jobs, which began issues of “taxation without representation” within women’s spheres [7]. The suffrage movement began with women attempting to convince men that they would not vote differently from their husbands, as “’women have been taught to depend on the men for their opinions’” [8]. Many men were afraid to give women voices in politics because it not only allowed them to deviate from their proper spheres, but it also threatened current politics and the American way of life that was dictated by men, renouncing women’s dependency on them.

For many, the woman’s sphere was an expectation that was not debated. A great deal of women respected their spheres and did not stray from them; the daily tasks they completed made them feel useful and accomplished [9]. Not all women were for changing the women’s sphere. In fact, many were not for it at all. Others, such as Catharine Beecher, agreed that the home was the place women should be, but disagreed in other areas, including lack of education [10]. Many accepted their domestic lives, obeying their husbands, and finding strength in God. Numerous women accepted inferiority, or like Beecher, accepted domesticity but urged others to consider female education. Alternatively, some did not accept the woman’s sphere as their fate, and they strayed from it.

Women deviated from their assigned spheres for a plethora of different reason, including to earn wages or losing a husband and becoming widowed. Many different spheres existed, due to different classes, enslavement, race, citizenship, education (which often went hand in hand with class), and age. One single woman’s sphere did not exist, but one of the most common enveloped freed, primarily white, married women. Marriage was expected of women, and those who did not marry strayed from their spheres in that respect [11]. For many, deviating from the woman’s sphere was unacceptable and those who broke the norm had to deal with the societal consequences that came with it. But for some, drifting from the woman’s sphere was necessary.

Many women needed wage-earning jobs in order to support their family if they were part of the working class. A husband’s wage may not have been enough to care for the family, and therefore some women had to take on jobs, shifting them away from their assigned spheres. Additionally, widows needed a way to take care of themselves and/or their children, so these women were also seen to have wage-earning jobs. These women (although this is not an exhaustive list) broke the gender stereotypes of the 19th century, because they could not be involved only in domestic affairs. They were forced out of the woman’s sphere, without choice.

Differently, it was not uncommon for some women to stray from their assigned spheres by choice. Despite some, who felt the woman’s sphere helped them feel useful and accomplished, there were others who thought it restricted them and did not want to be looked upon as inferior to men. Women from all around the United States began speaking up as representatives for their spheres [12]. They pushed for a change, many women writing publicly, in an attempt to reshape the ways they were treated and excluded from society.

With the women’s suffrage movement, came the debate of political representation by women [13]. In Margaret Fuller’s essay from Women in the Nineteenth Century, issues with gender sphere expectations in 1843 are discussed. Fuller includes imagined dialogue in her essay to show what many men, specifically husbands, thought of women straying from their assigned spheres: “‘…now you must be trying to break up family union, to take my wife away from the cradle and the kitchen hearth to vote at polls, and preach from a pulpit? Of course, if she does such things, she cannot attend to those of her own sphere’” [14]. Many men at the time saw change in their households as negative, because if women were allowed to have other involvements, such as in politics or workplaces, they would not have time to fully tend to the home. Most men did not want women having a voice in society. If they could acceptably begin stepping outside of their domestic spheres, then they would no longer be seen as helpless and dependent. The man portrayed in Fuller’s essay says, “‘Am not I the head of my house?’”, in which he is met with “‘You are not the head of your wife. God has given her a mind of her own’”; the man refuses to accept this saying, ‘“I am the head and she the heart’” [15]. The majority of men wanted women to maintain the four pillars of piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. The man in this pretend dialogue represented the opinions of most in the nineteenth century, along with the fears of change they had; however, the author uses this dialogue to show her readers how wrong it is of men to insist on being the head of their houses. Although women began to speak up in order to fight for female suffrage, Fuller shows through her essay that she wants more than suffrage for women; she demands changes in what society portrays women as, and Fuller wants better living conditions as well. She no longer wants to deal with male superiority in the household or exclusion from her community just because many men say so [16].

Another women’s rights activist, Sarah Grimke, responds to a pastoral letter, but unlike Fuller, Grimke includes a heavy religious influence, upholding the piety pillar in order to appeal to the pastor. She blatantly tells him that he is wrong, using the Bible to prove it. Grimke insists that “Men and women were CREATED EQUAL; they are both moral and accountable beings, and whatever is right for man to do, is right for woman” [17]. She refuses to accept inferiority, and uses Biblical references to prove that, in God’s words, women are equal, in an attempt to disprove the “Pastoral Letter”.

Grimke finds the statements of the letter offensive and fallacious when “It says, ‘We invite your attention to the dangers which at present seem to threaten the FEMALE CHARACTER with wide-spread and permanent injury’” [18]. She argues that men are the ones who tell women to kneel down to their husbands and obey the word of all men. These demands of male superiority are ridiculous to her; “How monstrous, how anti-christian, is the doctrine that woman is to be dependent on man! Where, in all the sacred Scriptures, is this taught? Alas! She has too well learned the lesson which MAN has labored to teach her” [19]. Grimke places the entirety of blame on men and how they want society to be. Women are expected to be dependent on their husbands, because that is the way men want it. Grimke states that because of men “She [women] has surrendered her dearest RIGHTS, and been satisfied with the privileges which man has assumed to grant her; she has been amused with the show of power, whilst man has absorbed all the reality into himself” [20].

Although many women accepted the spheres they lived in, some did not, daring to speak up for the female population and demand justice for women. These women faced certain consequences for their actions, including, but not limited to societal judgments and harassment, or mistreatment from husbands. In some cases, women who protested were even criminalized and arrested.

Overtime more and more women began to debate their domestic lives, and slowly, women’s spheres were modified. It took an exhaustive amount of effort from activists to change expectations and spheres. Some women purposefully deviated from their domestic spheres, while others were forced out due to economic or other reasons. The 19th century was shaped due to the separate spheres for women and men, and for different races, classes, and ages. But slowly, women like Beecher, Fuller, and Grimke helped to alter societal expectations of women that had once focused on piety, purity, submissiveness, domesticity, and overall dependence.


[1] Welter, Barbara. 1966. “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860.” American Quarterly (The Johns Hopkins University Press) 18 (2): 151-174.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] “Gender: Separate Spheres for Men and Women.” American Eras. Vol. 5: The Reform Era and Eastern U.S. Development. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale, 1997. 258-59.”
[6] Kerber, Linda K. No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship. New York: Hill and Wang, 1998.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Welter, Barbara. 1966. “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860.” American Quarterly (The Johns Hopkins University Press) 18 (2): 151-174.
[10] Beecher, Catharine. “The Peculiar Responsibilities of American Women.” The Civil War, Primary Source Media, 1999. American Journey. U.S. History in Context
[11] Welter, Barbara. 1966. “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860.” American Quarterly (The Johns Hopkins University Press) 18 (2): 151-174.
[12] Matthews, Glenna. “Women in the Public Sphere, 1838-1877.” Encyclopedia of American Cultural and Intellectual History, edited by Mary Kupiec Cayton and Peter W. Williams, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2001. U.S. History in Context
[13] Ibid.
[14] Fuller, Margaret. Woman in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Norton, 1971.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Grimke, Sarah. “Letter in Response to the Pastoral Letter.” Haverhill, 1837.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid.

Further Reading

Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women in the Old South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Hewitt, Nancy. Women’s Activism and Social Change, Rochester, N.Y., 1822-1872. Ithaca, N.Y., 1984.

Kelley, Mary. Private Woman, Public Stage: Literary Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century America. New York, 1984.

Lerner, Gerda. The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Pioneers for Woman’s Rights and
New York, 1971.

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