Gender Roles / Women, Marriage, & Family

Sam & Bella

For this week, we are shifting gears to the massive topic of gender. To frame our discussion this week, we will mainly be discussing, in a broad and overarching sense, differing gender roles in the 1880’s, how men and women were perceived and treated differently, the 19th century concept of marriage in a city like Hartford, women and their role in the family, and how gender roles contribute to the growing change in marriage during this time.

Gender Roles

Although Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the first woman’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York (1848) happened before our time frame, it is still immensely relevant to our understanding of gender roles and gender dynamics in the 1880s. At the time of the first convention, there was an increase in consciousness within the women’s rights movement. According to Ann D. Gordon, author of an article in Against the Tide about Stanton, women were demanding political rights, which were their unalienable, God-given rights, they did not possess. Gordon goes onto write, “laws that made woman the inferior of man (and) conflicted with her pursuit of happiness,” (Gordon 43). Also, she points out that laws of marriage and property benefited men more so than women and there were limits of the education and employment of women. We will touch upon this again when we discuss gender roles, in a later paragraph.

Gender roles and the way in which each gender is viewed and treated is very relevant to the murder case of Ada Brown, and our deeper understanding of who Ada was, what her place in society was, and how that may have impacted her death. Next week we hope to dive deeper into this idea and bring in specifics about Ada Brown’s employment and her daughter. For this week we are focusing more on a broader understanding of the landscape of gender in the 1880s. From exploring just one daily newspaper it is clear to see that society both, viewed and treated, men and women differently. “The Day” is a New London, CT newspaper from 1884 with an article about the murder of Ada Brown. To get a better understanding of how men and women were portrayed differently I read all of the surrounding articles, advertisements, wanted ads, marriage announcements, and political articles.

As a whole, men dominated the articles and were often talked about in glowing terms, despite the murder charge in the case of Ada Brown. One article talked solely about how much of a marvelous, smart doctor one man was (The Day). Articles that discussed male employment were typically professional jobs like, doctor, lawyer, judge, politician, or labor jobs like construction or brick laying. Female employment was only mentioned a few times, and it tended to be an offhanded fact about a woman who was getting married or in the paper for another reason. One woman was getting married and it was mentioned that she was a “caring” teacher and her husband was described in more professional terms like “successful” businessman” (The Day).

The article that stuck out the most to me was one about a female actress. She was the star of a play and there was jealously with another woman, leading the other woman to feed the actress false lines to mess her up. The actress got a lawyer, it is safe to assume that her lawyer was male, and he told her that the best course of action was to just give up and to quit the show (The Day).  I found this very representative of gender roles at this time because it expresses a mentality that women should be passive, they are expected to stay within their sphere, and to be agreeable. Therefore, sticking up for herself and doing anything viewed as something only a man could do in her situation, was frowned against. This, in some ways reminds me of Ada. It is possible that she was murdered by Harrison due to a possible fling with Gregory. Ada stepped outside the expectation of a woman of her time, and that upset her lover. However, if a man were to cheat on a partner, that would likely be a totally different story.

Women, Marriage, & Family

Before marriage there is a period of courtship between a man and woman. When we hear courtship, we think chaperones, supervised dates etc., but during this time things began to change… There was more privacy between the couple, but sex was still not allowed until marriage. According to Lisa Norling in the novel Captain Ahab Had a Wife: New England Women and the Whalefishery, “In the nineteenth century parents and other community elders exercised considerably less direct influence over courtship and marriage choice, and young women and men exercised considerably more individual freedom” further supporting the idea that courtship was less monitored.

Marriage meant to subject oneself to a known and coercive public relationship. In the 1840’s marriage became under the radar of legal reformers; proposing revisions, modifications and transformations of the old rules. Marriage meant developing a legal role and identity that was to be represented in public. The mid nineteenth century Webster dictionary definition of marriage was “the act of uniting a man and woman, as husband and wife, for life”. Obviously, the definition is vague and open for interpretation. Even in this short definition, 4 elements are present. The first being that the man and woman united forming a single bond, the second is that a man and woman become something else and that is a husband and wife. Third, marriage is a public and there is no room for negotiation and finally, marriage was irreversible and would stand until death. Although these themes do not touch upon the other indications of marriage, these are the only overlapping ideals that are specified and therefore, lay the foundation.

In regards to marriage in the 19th century, it is important to note that courts recognized two sides of a marriage. The first side being the legitimacy of the commitment under the court’s, while also discouraging the negotiation of private understandings about their marriages. The second, being the “willingness of the courts to recognize and legitimize a variety of private, individualized, marital agreements.” (Hartog, 95). As you can see, this is a major contradiction between the two sides. The courts would legalize the marriage, swaying away from individual differences, but would also recognize them and make them legitimate. What does this mean? Overall, we can see the beginning of a large change within the legal system that is marriage. In the 1840’s  many couples separated but there was no body of law that would negotiate the terms of the relationship. This is what made it so easy for men and women to leave, become mistresses and continue their lives without the divorce process we have today.

The roles in a marriage in becoming husband and wife meant a few things, especially in the nineteenth century. The men would take on a role that would provide them economic success in order to provide for their commitment to the wife and family. There is even a correlation between the way men worked for their families during this time period, to the way they would work for god in the earlier generations of Americans. As we know, their devotion to God was not one of small stature.

The middle class couple also did not exhibit one that was full of love with excitement and drama.  According to Karen Lystra, the author to the novel Searching the Heart: Women, Men, and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-Century America, it was an “…exchange of the liveliness and fervor of courtship for a calmer, more predictable, even more boring relationship” (Lystra, 206). It was an understanding of a trade of goods.





Gordon, Ann D. “Elizabeth Cady Stanton.” Against the Tide: Women Reformers in American Society. By Paul A. Cimbala and Randall M. Miller. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997. 41-53. Print.

“The Day” newspaper of New London, CT

Norling, Lisa. “”Love, Marriage, and Family in the Nineteenth-Century Whaling Communities” Historic Nantucket Article from the Nantucket Historical Association.” “Love, Marriage, and Family in the Nineteenth-Century Whaling Communities” Historic Nantucket Article from the Nantucket Historical Association. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Oct. 2016.

Lystra, Karen. Searching the Heart: Women, Men, and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-century America. N.p.: Oxford UP, 1992. Print.

Hendrik A. Hartog. “Marital Exits and Marital Expectations in Nineteenth Century America.” N.p., 1991. Web.


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