The Sphere of Woman, illustration from Godey's Lady's Book, March 1850

Nineteenth-century Americans, perhaps even more than their British or French contemporaries, thought in terms of gender and sought to divide the whole of human activity into masculine and feminine "spheres." They did not, as Charlotte Perkins Gilman complained late in the century, recognize human characteristics. So, if one associated a given trait with men, then women should possess its opposite or its complement. If men were strong; women must be frail; if men were rational, then women were emotional. If men tended to be coarse, women were supposed to be naturally more refined. And so on and so on. Virtually every quality, trait, or characteristic presumably belonged to one or the other sex, as they phrased it. Activities were supposed to correspond. Since women were supposedly more nurturing, Catharine Beecher's campaign in the 1830s and 1840s to open the teaching profession to them succeeded. Taking care of children, especially young children, was seen as a "natural" extension of woman's "sphere."

If the basic notion of all this is clear enough, the compulsion behind it is more elusive. And the consequences for daily living, which Paulina Wright Davis, president of the first two national woman's rights conventions, once described as "soul murder," were both pervasive and profound. They were also highly controversial.

One place to begin is with an idealized description of the American woman by the popular novelist and magazine editor, John Neal. Another male view is provided by an anonymous writer in Harper's New Monthly Magazine. This essay was provoked by a pamphlet written by the radical minister, Thomas Wentworth Higginson. The most outspoken woman to write on the subject may well have been Jane Swisshelm. In editorializing on the subject of women voting or holding political office, she observed:

We have watched women making hay, raking and binding grain, reaping, plowing, harrowing, milking cows, churning, hoeing, digging, weeding, planting, wrestling with washtubs and big kettles, driving market carts, carrying loads like hotel porters, whitewashing, scrubbing, scouring -- doing all sorts of drudgery, against which public opinion had not one word to say, and "thinks I to myself, thinks I," if anyone should propose that these women should take any part in making or executing the laws that regulate the reward and relations of labor, what a lecture he would get from public opinion, about feminine delicacy, female weakness, domestic duties, and all that sort of thing! Woman should be very delicate, very depending, very helpless, when men want to be loved; but she must grow very strong, very self-reliant, very efficient when he wants to be served. It is especially silly to place the physical labor or exposure of any branch of legislation, as a reason why women may not engage in it. The preventing causes, if [there] be causes at all, must be mental, moral or religious.

Some Initial Questions:

Both John Neal and the author of the Harper's New Monthly Magazine essay on "Women's Rights and Wrongs" emphasized the "rights" women already enjoyed. What were these? How did they fit with the views of woman's "nature" espoused by each author?

Neal was one of the few authors involved in this whole discussion to write about woman's sexuality, her capacity for the "highest pleasure." How does what he said on that topic fit, or not fit, with the rest of his discussion of American women.

Precisely what did the anonymous author of the Harper's essay object to about women serving as ship captains? What was Higginson's view? What was Swisshelm's? How, according to Swisshelm, did "ignorant country boors" understand the views of "woman's sphere" put forward by poets and philosophers like Goethe?

Additional Resources: Lavinia Warren, the "Little Queen of Beauty"

The wedding of Lavinia Warren and "General Tom Thumb" (Charles Stratton) was one of the notable events of 1863. Both had starred in P. T. Barnum's "American Museum." Harper's Weekly described Warren as follows:

"Little People," Harper's Weekly, January 31, 1863

[from The Lounger column]

P. 67: When paragraphs appeared in the newspapers stating that a wonderful little lady was holding court at the St. Nicholas Hotel, and that she was all that the most fastidious fancy could desire in a small woman, the thoughts of the sagacious instantly turned to [P.T. Barnum's] the American Museum. . . . Her name is Lavinia Warren. She is 21 years old, 32 inches high, and weighs 29 pounds. Unquestionably she is one of the most interesting of the many wonders of this kind which the Museum has offered to the public. General Tom Thumb and Commodore Nutt are henceforth not without hope. The poets of the press describe her faultless form, her winning voice, her sparkling dark eyes, her rich, dark, and waving hair, her exquisitely modeled neck and shoulders, her bust a sculptor's study(!), and her singular intelligence. If Bottom should stray into the American Museum he would be sure that he beheld Titania.1 In the words of one of the enthusiasts -- "What more could we desire?"


Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper was equally taken with Lavinia Warren's "perfect" beauty and devoted a cover to her dressed for a variety of fashionable occasions. To see larger versions of the costumes, click on them. It, like Harper's Weekly and innumerable newspapers, also devoted much attention to Warren's marriage to "Tom Thumb." It was, Leslie's proclaimed, a "Fairy Wedding."

Some questions:

In what respects did the press present Lavinia Warren as a "true woman," in the sense used above? In what ways did her size contribute to or detract from her "womanhood"?

If "little people" were popular curiosities, so were those who were unusually large. The first national woman's rights convention (Worcester, 1850) was occasionally interrupted by music accompanying the exhibition of "the American fat girl" in a hall on the floor below. Here is a cartoon commenting on this fascination with size. How does the attention devoted to Lavinia Warren compare to that given to the "Mammouth Woman" of the cartoon?

Puss In The Corner

At the heart of the question of a woman's sphere, many scholars contend, is the issue of power. Certainly woman's rights advocates of the day made that claim. Women lacked any sort of legal standing vis a vis their husbands, fathers, or male guardians. They were powerless. Not so, many men of the period contended. Women had "influence." They knew how to tie their husbands to their apron-strings or twist them around their little fingers. A most revealing expression of this view is "Puss In The Corner."

"Puss" is portrayed as having a controlling power over the poem's narrator. From what did her power derive? How did she exercise it? Why did the narrator regard marriage as a way of liberating himself from her control? And what does that suggest about male claims that women already had all the power they needed?

Progress and Gender

By the late 1850s some men were willing to admit that the boundaries of the "spheres" were shifting. This was, a Harper's New Illustrated Monthly editorial, proclaimed a good thing. It was a necessary outgrowth of the "progress" of the age. Harper's essayist could retain his equinimity because he was sure that some of the key differences between the genders, or sexes as he and his contemporaries phrased it, were God-given and therefore immutable. So, even in the midst of change, one could hold on to certain truths. Or could one? By the end of the 1860s the Atlantic Monthly was asking "Is There Such A Thing As Sex?" The question was provoked by the stubborn insistence of woman's rights advocates that women, like men, were persons and that they therefore had identical claims to various legal rights and privileges.

How different or similar are these two essays in their view of the reality of differences based upon gender? How different or similar are they in their view of the practical implications of those differences? How does each regard woman's rights advocates?