Nowadays it is difficult to imagine the time when the society considered women unequal to men. They were perceived like children in their mental abilities and that is why they did not have any civil rights in the United States until the second half of the 20th century. It was strange to think about giving a child a right to vote, for example. Women were also not allowed to study in the universities, because their intelligence was not considered to be enough for this level. That is why the only thing women were able to do in their lives was to get married, to give birth to numerous children and be a housewife.
This ideal family is depicted in the image from Godey’s Ladies Book in 1851 and called The Constant. It is possible to think that the situation was extremely calm in the society of that time and there were no scandals and protests connected with the woman’s issue. However, the situation was the contrary. There were two significant episodes in the American history that influenced the overall situation in the society and led to active popularization of the traditional family image through printed press. The first one was the murder of the young prostitute Helen Jewett in 1936 that gained publicity. The second episode is the declaration of the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 that also received much attention, because it was the step towards feminism and fighting for women’s rights.
Godey’s Ladies Book was the most popular printed women’s magazine in the United States in the 19th century. It did not provide any revolutionary material or news. That is why the only things that the female readers could find there were the schemes for embroidery, recipes, advice on bringing up children, the latest trends in fashion and piano sheet music. Family was considered to be one of the key issues that formed the society and the decay of such basic and influential social institute was not the thing the current government desired. The image of a traditional family was popularized in mass-culture like nowadays the image of an independent and sexually free woman is promoted. Women’s magazine of the 19th century could not provide the readers with glamorous photo sessions of model families. Instead of it they printed beautiful drawings that every woman would like to cut from the magazine and keep.
The Constant depicts an American middle-class family of 1851. The decent young woman is sitting near the child’s bed and the man is talking to her. It seems like he is pressing her wife, because he is hanging over her, leaning on the char where the woman sits. The man’s pose is free and it is evident that he is used to be the head of the family. Other four small pictures that surround this image illustrate the most significant episodes in the woman’s life and form a life circle that needs to be continued. On those drawings the young girl is walking with a young gentleman taking him under arm. Then she is getting married and is standing in the wedding dress in her parents’ house, surrounded by relatives. On another image the woman is reading a book to two small children, who are playing near the armchair. On the last image an elderly woman is sitting in that armchair and grown-up young ladies read her a book. The woman did everything in her life that the God needed from her – she was the mother and the wife who gave her care and love to the family. The angel is depicted in one corner of the picture and the heading The Constant underlines the main idea, that nothing can be changed in this order.
It is possible to think that everyone in the American society of that time had a descent family, and were pure and moral, judging by this image. Though, the mass media starts to promote something actively only if the real situation is not that optimistic. The situation with the family and moral issues was quite depressing in the second half of the 19th century. The murder of the young prostitute Helen Jewett in 1836 in the brothel where he worked and lived became a popular story in the media of that time. She was shot by her long-time client Robinson. The newspapers created romantic stories about the innocent love of two young people and the cruel society that made the poor girl sale her love1. Though, the problem was deeper in the changes the society underwent. Teenage boys were moving to the cities to study and lived in boarding houses. As a result, they were having more freedom than they used to have at home and wanted to assert their masculinity by means of drinking spirits, smoking, fighting and having sexual intercourses with women.
Young girls from poor families had not many ways of life to choose from. They could not get education and work like men did. They could only get married and live like the addition to their husbands. If the girl did not want to drown in the daily routine, she could go to the town and become a prostitute. Those girls experienced much freedom, especially comparing to other descent ladies. No one could impose social rules and norms on them. In addition, they always had money. The society was not able to blame them for their activity, because everyone knew that if there is a demand, there is a supply. The demand for prostitutes was high and it characterized the American society from the negative side.
The female sexuality was questioned during that period of history. No one could understand whether that prostitute was willing herself to be the part of that all-permissive trend or was she just another innocent victim of the cruel world. The greatest problem was that Jewett did not become the lady of pleasure because she had no money to feed her family. She was an intelligent, beautiful and confident woman, who just did not want to become another victim of the domesticity cult. That was a very urgent problem in 1836 and the media made all it could to prevent those revolutionary new ideas from penetrating into the minds of women deeper. Even in 1851 the pictures in women’s magazine propagated traditional family values that were considered to be constant.
1848 was the year when two female activists Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton declared women’s rights in Seneca Falls. The fact that Mott was not allowed to speak up during the world anti-slavery conference in London made her think about promoting women’s rights2. In the declaration they questioned why the government who consists only on men considered women to be irresponsible beings. The husband automatically became the master of his wife. He was able to administer chastisements to her and to deprive her of liberty. In case of separation, the woman was deprived of the guard of her children and her ex-husband received all power. The Seneca Falls Convention emphasized that women did not have the possibilities to get a thorough education, because the colleges and the institutes were closed for them. Women could not decide anything except the way to cook and to sew. More and more people in the American understood that these ideas were right, but the majority of people and the government itself feared such changes. That was another reason for the pictures like The Constant to appear in the printed media.
It is impossible to understand the historical period without analyzing multiple sources. In the case of women’s rights the picture from the popular magazine, the overview of the murder of the New York prostitute and the first feminist declaration of Seneca Falls describe the issue from different perspectives and underline minor controversies that were not evident in each of them separately.
1 Clin, P. (1990). The Helen Jewett Murder: Violence, Gender, and Sexual Licentiousness in Antebellum America. NWSA Journal
2 Modern History Sourcebook: The Declaration of Sentiments, Seneca Falls Conference, 1848