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.

Jane Austen’s work was not in sync with the emerging American nationalism that was a new social construct of imagined communities (not naturally expressed in language, race or religion) as Columbia’s citizenry moved toward a single overarching national identity. The frontier challenged any fictional portrayal of women having niceties based solely upon virtue. Ann Eliza Bleecker (1752-1783) spawned a homegrown American genre in the form of the captivity novel. The posthumous publication of her History of Maria Kettle (1797) set during the French and Indian War containing graphic scenes of violence presented epistolary prose in the British style that was exciting to readers. No English woman would have witnessed the brutal murder of her children by Native Americans, or have been stripped of her “habits, already rent to pieces by brier, and attired… with remnants of old blankets (Bleecker 2010: 19).” Bleecker’s exaggerated style created a hauntingly brutal journey into a conversation on the American frontier. It inculcated moral lessons that assured its captive protagonist, married at the age of fifteen years to a farmer and immersed in innocent righteousness, would be returned to the loving arms of loved ones.

Crewel stitching by Constance Eliassen turned into a pouch by daughter Meredith

Crewel stitching by Constance Eliassen turned into a pouch by daughter Meredith

In celebration of the first day autumn, a sample of my mother’s stitching:

“Republican womanhood,” a concept of American womanhood described by historian Linda Kerber, to define the notion that the Republican mother integrated political values into her domestic life. She was dedicated to the nurturing of public-spirited male citizens, and infused her sensibilities of virtue into the young country. This reconciled politics and domesticity and justified the status quo of coverture. For instance, P. -J. Boudier de Villemert in his The Ladies’ Friend: Being a Treatise on the Virtues and Qualifications which are the brightest Ornaments of the Fair Sex, and Render Them most Agreeable to Sensible Part of Mankind (1781), asserted that a woman should place her whole affections on her family, which made the mother the ideal parent to rule the “gentle empire” of the home.

However, a woman’s worth on the frontier (without the established class system found in England) was measured by her service to God and neighbor. American women grappled with newly defined gender roles. As in literary fairy tales, ordinary women were tested in daily life and exhibited quiet heroism when their world was economically destabilized; they often employed an unrecognized female-managed “grey” economy dating back to the Revolution when men were on the warfront. This verse of Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820) in her collection of essays called The Gleaner (1798) reflects a rarely delineated sensibility of American womanhood cultivated in Columbia’s less-structured class system:

I love to trace the independent mind;

   Her beamy path, and radiant way to fine:

I love to mark her where disrob’d she stands,

   While with new life each faculty expands:

I love the reasoning which new proofs supplies,

   That I shall soar to worlds beyond the skies;

The sage who tells me, spirit ever lives,

   New motive to a life of virtue gives.

Blest immortality! – enobling thought!

   With reason, truth and honour, richly fraught –

Rise to my view – thy sweet incentives bring,

   And round my haunts thy deathless perfumes fling;

Glow in my breast – my purposes create,

   And to each proper action stimulate (Murray 1992: 493).

In marriage as in fairy tales, the male reflected the active side of the pairing, while the female reflected its passive more receptive side. Traditional parental influence waned in relation to a daughter’s marriage prospects during the 1790s. American women practiced more freedom in choosing marriage partners as romantic love and premarital sex grew. Single women who did not correspond to the status quo were marginalized. Literature of the day justified this conversation by placing women into a model wives as the purveyors of morality. American women were active out of necessity. Where in Sense and Sensibility, a physician is called when Marianne Dashwood becomes dangerously ill to administer the more psychologically dramatic therapy of bleed letting (suggesting a connection to the upper ranks of society), more conservative remedies would be employed by midwifes in rural America.

Marriage was had become a rite into retirement, and not necessarily the enchanted dream of happily-ever-after. Once a woman wed, under coverture she became a mere cipher. The legal doctrine of coverture declared that a husband and wife became but one person in marriage – that person was the husband whether he lived by virtue or vice. A married woman was considered to be sub potestati viri – under the power of her husband – and therefore she was unable to make contracts or establish credit without her husband’s consent. The husband was liable for his wife’s support, but his legal obligations to his wife extended only to necessities – what she needed to survive. In practice, everything beyond the wife’s mere maintenance was dependent upon her husband’s sense of propriety or generosity.


Bleecker, Ann Eliza. The History of Maria Kittle: in a Letter to Miss Ten Eyck. Glouchester, U.K.: Dodo Press, 2010.

Murray, Judith Sargent. The Gleaner. Schenectady, NY.: Union College Press, 1992.