Title: City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860
Author: Christine Stansell
Categories: Gender, Class, Urban History, The Market, Domesticity, Republicanism, Labor, Cultural History, Social History, Antebellum
Place: New York City
Time Period: 1789-1860
Christine Stansell describes the lives and culture of urban working-class women in antebellum New York. First she looks at the early republic, during which the shift from a family economy towards urban industrialization changed the conditions and relations of these women. Wage labor was destabilizing for family dynamics, and often resulted in women having to go outside the household economy to help support their families. However, they remained dependent on men and operated within a stressed patriarchal economy that could barely support them. In this context, women faced dual hurdles of dependence that made them unfit for republicanism: dependence of being a woman and dependence of being poor.
Then, between 1820-1850, Stansell turns more towards the tension between middle-class women reformers (on the rise during this period) and the realities of working women. Middle-class women stressed the cult of domesticity and the home that was totally at odds with the needs and realities of laboring women, who had to turn away from the home towards the streets to survive: sharing resources and child-rearing responsibilities with other women, turning to prostitution or domestic service, etc. However, this also gave rise to new opportunities for empowerment and autonomy. The transition from outwork (piece-meal sewing) to factory wage labor created for the first time a rising segment of young, single, semi-autonomous women with new possibilities. Although fraught with sexual danger and still steeped in dependency, wage labor allowed some women the chance for public leisure, embodied for Stansell in the rise of the Bowery Girl, who openly participated in the working class leisure culture of the Bowery (in a way that was denied to them by republicanism or middle-class views of domesticity).
However, factory work also posed a challenge for women's integration into the labor movement. Stansell argues there was a moment of possibilty during the 1830s for female participation in the labor movement, but by 1850 this window had closed. Instead, men used women as a stepping-stone, arguing that wage-earning men needed better conditions and wages in order to support their women so that they wouldn't have to work and could stay at home. Finally, in the decade leading up to the Civil War, the second generation of middle-class reformers (often more men than before) increasingly viewed poverty and aid through the lens of a scientific analysis of environment, giving rise to the undifferentiated faceless mass of the "tenement class" and concluding that the "street" was the problem. If poor mothers would just keep a strong domestic home and keep their children off the streets, it would solve poverty problems.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Laboring women seen as unqualified for republican virtue due to twin dependencies: as women (on men) and poor (on wages/charity)
- Bowery Girl and Factory Girl as two symbols of female independence that city life offered (even if both were heavily circumscribed)
- Middle class reformer women focusing less on universal sisterhood and more on class-based divisions centered on domesticity
- Labor movement betrays working class women by arguing that men need better wages in order to be independent providers for their women and keep them at home and out of the workforce
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License