Female Networks under Coverture

October 6, 2014

Detail of twentieth century stitching from Happy Hands Studio (Pendelton, Oregon) from unique artist book by Roberta Lavadour called "Happy Hands"

Detail of twentieth century stitching from Happy Hands Studio (Pendelton, Oregon) from unique artist book by Roberta Lavadour called “Happy Hands”

During the Era of Enlightenment men pressed women to place their whole affections upon family, relegating mothers to rule the “gentle empire” of the home. The sensibilities of common law versus civil law dictated how marriage became a woman’s primary social network. Under Anglo-American common law a wife had no rights in regards to making contracts or holding real property. The status as feme covert (married) or feme sole (single) often determined a woman’s ability to network with other women and with men. Under coverture, wives and children were both treated dependents. Female subordination within the family, men argued, reflected their subordination under common law and divine government that asserted, “Influence by reason when you can, by authority when you must.”

Cloth and clothing production became another area supported by female social networking. Adam Smith described the social networks needed to produce a common woolen coat for a laborer in his The Wealth of Nations: “The shepherd, the sorter of wool, the wool-comber or corder, the dyer, the scribbler, the spinner, the weaver, the fuller, the dresser, with many others, must all join their different arts in order to complete even this homely production.” Feme sole, a never-married woman, has remained an anomaly within women’s networking. The woman who remained unmarried was referred to with the derisive term of “spinster.” When it was first used, to define a woman with the occupation of spinning it was a term of respect. However, a woman without a male protector were obliged to live modest and discrete lives of service to family, church, or a respectable occupation like a teacher, or risk being the target of brutal rumors and speculation. Single women were sometimes stigmatized if they resided in boardinghouses located outside of respectable residential neighborhoods, since “boardinghouse” also euphemistically referred to “bordello.” Widows, also considered to be feme sole, sometimes financed other female enterprises utilizing their “dower” income.

In the United States, many single women moved to the frontiers to pursue careers as schoolteachers or missionaries. During the California Gold Rush, the state legislature enacted laws to enable married women to establish businesses as sole traders, rather than to expose single women to the dangers of dealing with volatile males. An important but subtle shift of power occurred when married women and widows kept controlled their real property – women could establish benevolent relief societies in the formal business or public sector for women who found themselves in bad situations. During the 1870s women doctors in San Francisco established the Pacific Dispensary Hospital for Women and Children where only female physicians cared for patients, but as the organization moved to affiliate with medical colleges they were forced to allow male physicians to administer this teaching hospital.

Little girls were socialized as they learned domestic arts throughout. Girls would assist adult women in their households with spinning thread, weaving cloth, making candles, and needlework including sewing, knitting, dressmaking, quilting, embroidery – decorative sewing done with colored thread. They learned how to sew when they were very young, often stitching their first quilt square by the age of four years, and demonstrated skills learned in samplers.

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