The Women of Antebellum Richmond: Domestic Values and Public Ambitions
Antebellum Richmond was arguably the most progressive city in the South, but most historians seem to agree that the status of women in that Victorian society was one of social and political subjugation. In the mid-nineteenth century, new technologies and a more centralized family life created separate public and domestic spheres. The restriction of a woman's power to the domestic sphere is historically known as the "cult of domesticity". Confinement to the home was more than just an ideal or theory; women were physically barred from the streets, which prevented them from taking part in political and social event s that were essential to the development of their city and the nation. Men dominated the streets as soldiers, firemen, tradesmen, and politicians, while women were expected to only socialize in their feminine circle of friends. Between 1825 and the Civil War, a woman's only acceptable place outside of the home was at ceremonial occasions, such as Lafyette's glorified visit to Richmond, where "Lafyette girls escorted the historical figure around the city. In such ceremonies, women were displayed as paragons of virtue, or symbols of "Lady Liberty". ". . . she paraded not simply as a sexualized mark of exclusion, but as a symbol of newly feminine civic values--chastity, sobriety, passivity, domesticity." These values were the dominate virtues of the cult of domesticity.
In reality, the domestic sphere that confined most women had imperfections that allowed many industrious women to work outside the home, making themselves contributors to society. Working class women worked in positions of servitude that incorporated traditional female tasks into jobs for pay-- jobs that would otherwise have been done by slaves. Although they comprised 55% of the female workforce, little is documented about these women. Because we have no evidence about their relation to the cult of domesticity, it seems that their jobs were deemed unimportant by Victorian society. In contrast, many middle to upper class women had aspirations to be employed in careers that existed in the public eye. In order for these women to avoid being outcast, they had to prove that their ambitions could be achieved without disturbing their roles of wife, mother, and moral guide. An upper class woman had the further obligation to keep her position as a "society" lady by acting according to strict Victorian principles. If a woman could maintain these roles of domestic queen and society lady, there was no objection to her dabbling in the real world. Many women were able to do more than just trifle with a career; they influenced society. White women in Antebellum Richmond undermined societies' domestic rules by becoming indispensable members of their communities and their families.
First, it is important to illustrate the ambiguous social conditions that surrounded Richmond's ladies of society. In 1849, a gentleman by the name of Arbor Vitae submitted an essay to the Southern Literary Messenger called "Advice to Young Ladies". He does not express any qualifications for issuing such a document, so one can only assume that he was a gentleman with a publishable, perhaps popular opinion. He states that the average young lady has two objectives, which he refers to as "ambitions". These are the following Victorian objectives: to be admired as a belle, and to obtain a husband. His aversion to the proverbial belle, is that she often waits too long, and ends up marrying at the last minute, to an undesirable catch. Vitae believes the best way to procure a husband is by building "mental" accomplishments. By these, he means singing and dancing, with a lesser emphasis on languages and liberal arts. Of course, these talents were to be used for entertaining at social gatherings, not pursuing a career. A lady's conversation was supposed to be enhanced by her education, but remain simple and modest at all times. This essay reflected the idealized views of what men and women of the time believed a young lady should aspire to achieve. It can be best summarized in the following excerpt: "The true sphere of woman is at home. There her loveliness is pure, bright, and unfading." Historians agree with Vitae's ideology to the extent that it reflects the values of the Victorian age. Southerners were desperately clinging to an aristocratic society that was threatened by modern technology and social reform. Victorian women were the moral guardians of this dying society. Hence, they were balanced on a precarious pedestal of virtue that would crash at the slightest breath of impropriety.
The attributes of true womanhood, by which a woman
judged herself and was judged by her husband, her
neighbors, and society could be divided into four
cardinal virtues--piety, purity, submissiveness,
Women were supposed to use these virtues for the happiness of the home and family, but changes in society forced women to employ their virtues in the public world. The ambiguous aspect of the "cult of domesticity" is that women's virtues were obviously what made them qualified to be employed in the public world. Women's roles involving passive endurance, sewing, morality, and family health care were essential to such modernization as westward migration, textile industries, social reform, and the Civil War. Drastic changes in society gave women the window they needed to join their rightful place beside their brothers in the process of advancing society. The following biographies will prove that women did desire to maintain their "domestic spheres", but they also had ambitions to influence the world beyond their homes.
Anna Maria Mead Chalmers survived three husbands and four children as a great educator of young southern ladies, and a devoutly religious woman. Born in 1809, she was raised in Massachusetts, but moved to Richmond with her second husband, the Rev. Zachariah Mead. There, she became active in the Episcopal community, and upon her husband's tragic death in 1840, took over the editing, and most of the writing of the magazine "The Southern Churchman". Mead had received an extensive education in girl's school's up North, so she was qualified. The reasons for her endeavor were strictly for the monetary necessities of raising four children alone. After a year, she sold the magazine, and was asked to establish a girl's school in Richmond. The school flourished, and by the opening of the second term (1843-1844), there were nine assistants and 131 students. In Mead's personal statements to her students, she encouraged a genuine love of education. She stressed the values of piety, industry, and charity, as the most important for any woman to have. Despite these domestic ideals, she believed in equal education for girls and boys. Her only surviving son, Edward, the author, makes many claims to the fact that her core curriculum was love, and that all of the students respected and obeyed her.
Explaining Mead's gentle and religious nature is applicable, because she was the embodiment of the perfect lady, yet she ran a very successful business. The most distinguished families in the South clamored to have their daughter's applications accepted. She claimed that the academic standard of her school was equivalent to Harvard. Apart from the school's academic reputation, the real purpose of Mead's teaching was to enforce what she believed God and society expected.
While we desire therefore, to see our young ladies
go forth from this institution with well-stored minds
and refined literary tastes, we are still more anxious
to see them go hence prepared to act well their part
as Christian daughters, wives, and mothers.
We envy not for them the vain admiration of the gay
and brilliant world, but we earnestly desire to see
them fitted to adorn and bless the sanctuary of home.
In this way, Mead upheld the values of domesticity, but in her own life, followed a career path that put her very much in the limelight of society. Perhaps, she unintentionally defied the very limits she taught her girls to have, yet remained moral and pious in the public sphere.
In her later years, Mead remarried to a planter named David Chalmers, but never ceased to educate the young grandchildren around her. She wrote some of the first children's books with illustrations, and raised thousands of dollars for volunteer efforts during and after the war. Loved and admired by all who knew her, Chalmers kept her religion close to her heart when her beloved husbands died, her oldest son died, her only daughter died in her youth, and her youngest son died in the war. Needless to say, her last years were described by her only surviving son as being filled with sorrow, and a longing for eternal life. Until her death at 82 years of age, Anna Maria Mead Chalmers impacted the lives of her family and community with love and wisdom. She was not a feminist, but she became a role model for hundreds of young women. Mead is an example that a woman could be publicly and independently successful and still be an honored lady, only if her ideals favored the domestic roles of women.
Anna Mowatt Ritchie was a remarkable woman who defied the societal norms of propriety through her career as an actress, yet maintained her dignity in her personal life. Her honorable life disproved the stereotype that actresses were immoral women. She was raised by a respectable family in Paris and NewYork, and was married to James Mowatt, a distinguished member of society. She is described as a lovely, petite woman, with soft, curly, blond hair, and equally soft blue eyes. "Of her smile, Edgar Allen Poe wrote: 'A more radiant gleam could not be imagined'". Her autobiography gives an impressive account of the intellectual, emotional, and upstanding woman that Anna Mowatt was. On a deeper level, it provides a historical account of the position of actresses, and all other working women in society. In those times, the actress was seen as more than just a woman who left the confines of home; she was a woman with no humility, who found lascivious pleasure in parading her body and soul around for a salary. In other words, an actress' social standing was not much better than a prostitute's. Mowatt's unintentionally revolutionary assertion was that actresses could leave their domestic spheres, and still be honorable and moral. This can be applied to all working women of the time.
The woman who, on the stage, is in danger of losing
the highest attribute of her womanhood,--her priceless,
native dower of chastity,--would be in peril of that loss in
any situation of life where she was in some degree of
freedom, particularly one in which she was compelled
by circumstances to earn her own livelihood.
This opinion is that the position of an actress itself does not drive one towards moral degradation. She says that any type of freedom, especially a job, could corrupt a morally weak woman. Mowatt acknowledges, even stresses, that talent and success are not enough. At all times, the honor of womanhood is more important. It is this belief that enabled Mowatt to be readily accepted into the elite society of Richmond soon after the conclusion of her eighth year on stage.
This brilliant career on stage commenced in Mowatt's childhood days, performing plays for social occasions with her six sisters. When her husband lost all of his savings, she was forced to consider using her talents for money. She began performing public readings, and even this tiny step outside of the domestic sphere jeopardized her social standing. A man would only have faced career rejection if he was not successful, but a woman confronted the prospect of losing her entire circle of friends, and probably even her family if she failed to captivate the audience. Mowatt thrived in Boston and New York, but in the latter, she suffered the loss of some powerful family friends. Upon hearing her read, Frances S. Osgood, a prominent figure in elite society, wrote this poem in her defense:
Ne'er heed them, Cora dear,
The carping few, who say
Thou leavest woman's holier sphere
For light and vain display.
'Tis false as thou art true!
They need but look on thee,
But watch thy young cheek's varying hue,
A purer hope to see.
Osgood thus suggests that women must have pure intentions in their endeavors, as opposed to a "light and vain display". It also demonstrates that women were expected to be modest and humble in public, as signified by Mowatt's "young cheek's varying hue". Overall, this quote illustrates the audience's opinion that Mowatt's talent and modesty overpowered the eccentric nature of her occupation.
Mowatt's first encounter with the acting community was as a playwright, when she published her first play, called "Fashion", which was relatively successful. After coming into direct contact with actresses, all of her personal, ingrained prejudices, were dispelled.
Many a woman whom I have known, bears the
too often contemptuously uttered name of "actress;"
women who, with hearts full of anguish, nightly
practice the forgetfulness of self, and their
private sorrows, to earn their bread by delighting
a public who misjudges them.
Upon realizing the women she met were as hardworking and moral as herself, she felt confident enough to enter into an acting contract. Incidently, she asked both her husband and father for permission before making any decision. Thankfully, they were very enthusiastic. In a few years, Mowatt thrived in both the United States and England. She left the stage eight years later because of a serious illness that occurred shortly after her husband's death in 1853.
The purpose here, though, is not to give a biography of this amazing woman's life; rather, it is to prove the historical relevance of the social implications of her career.
Mowatt does not intend to write a historically accurate account of the times in which she lived, but her ardent defense of actors and their art demonstrates many of the social proprieties enforced by elite society. These moral codes were usually considered to be broken or completely ignored by actors. Mowatt often digresses from her personal accounts to share anecdotes that are meant as a defense of actors. The three attributes she stresses most through these anecdotes are mental fortitude, humility, and morality. In order to accentuate the value of mental strength, she tells of many women she knew who performed to great acclaim, despite the recent death of loved ones. She demonstrates humility by telling stories of the physical endurance of actors, who selflessly perform because of love and necessity, while ignoring dire illnesses. She tells of one lowly ballet dancer, (a class of performers less respected than actors) who tirelessly performed, and died a spinster, just so she could take care of her family; this demonstrates one of the most important virtues of the time, morality. The mere fact that Mowatt felt the need to defend her peers, proves the prevalence of prejudiced attitudes towards actresses, and any woman who would dare to place herself in the public sphere.
Mowatt herself rose above prejudices to enter into Richmond society as Mrs. William Ritchie, wife of a prominent businessman, the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger. Her memoirs were written before her emergence as a society lady, and in her later life she became a popular writer. Anna Mowatt was a woman who established herself as a respectable member of society to the extent that she was considered qualified enough to make an argument that societies' prejudices against her profession and the women involved were unfounded. In this way, Anna Mowatt becomes an unintentional feminist. Her autobiography further documented and refuted the preconceptions held against working women, thereby allowing the ambitious women who read it to use her as a role model. The most important theme of Anna Mowatt's life, is that she existed in both the domestic and public spheres, upheld the values of the former, and flourished in the latter
The crowd must honor as well as worship.
They can always be made to do the latter at the
feet of genius; they can only be compelled to do
the former when genius sheds its halo around
Marion Harland, the pen name for Mary Virginia Terhune, was a contemporary of Mowatt. She was one of the most beloved writers of women in the South, and a respected member of society. She met Anna Mowatt in 1854, the year of the actress' marriage to Ritchie. Prior to their meeting, Harland had some anxiety about associating with a former actress. She felt that any member of that profession was socially and morally beneath her, but complied to see the actress because of Ritchie's rave review of her recent book. After talking to the actress, Harland maintained the friendship that developed, describing Ritchie as one of the most kind, religious, inspiring women she had ever met. It was this personality that allowed Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie to be accepted into the high moral standards of Richmond society.
It is not surprising that these women were friends, because Harland is another example of the influential, working women of Richmond. The daughter of a Richmond businessman, Harland grew up in an educated, respected family. At the age of fourteen, she began submitting stories, and being published in Southern magazines, such as the "Southern Era". Harland's first book, Alone , was written between the young ages of sixteen and eighteen as a humorous commentary on the various characters that comprised southern society. It was very successful, to the extent of meriting a praising letter from Henry Longfellow. Her second book, The Hidden Path, was published in New York, and established Harland as a member of the literary community. She became a member of the Literary Guild of America, and claims to have known "every writer of note" in her lifetime. This career as a writer is one of the few that was considered perfectly acceptable for society women, but authors had far more influence on society than anyone of the time seemed to recognize.
By writing a book, an author pours her soul out onto paper, for as many people as possible to share. This obviously puts a woman into the public sphere, but since it did not take her away from domestic duties, it was admitted into the small field of women's careers. Harland's influence on society was twofold. First, she wrote books about women for women. Secondly, her autobiography demonstrates antebellum Richmond's history from a woman's point of view. In this way, Harland influenced the social and political aspects of society by sharing her views with other women. She describes the permeating fear of slave insurrection, and the hopeless realization that slavery was wrong, but doing anything to end it would bring a violent end to the southern society that was her livelihood. She speaks of the devastating defeat of Clay and the whole Whig party in 1844, showing that politics affected women as much as men, even if it was in different ways. She shows that all women existed in the public sphere, if not in body, then in their minds and souls.
Harland herself thrived, body and soul, in the public and domestic spheres. She was a dedicated housewife and mother of five, obediently moving away from her beloved Richmond, when her husband decided to go to New Jersey. Her autobiography stresses these feminine attributes, yet it also implies the power she had in her household. "I had come to look upon royalties as my husband regarded his salary, as a sure and certain source of revenue." What a bold statement for a nineteenth century woman to make, implying that she was of equal importance in supporting her family. Harland makes these bold statements in her literary, as well as her private life.
Harland's book Daughters of Eve, part of the popular Common Sense In the Household series, is a book of advice to young ladies of the time. It contrasts sharply to Vitae's advice, because it is meant to advise the true antebellum lady, not the idealized one. She advocates the complete education of girls, stressing that the fine arts should not be forced upon them. She also covers the importance of health extensively, but her main priority is to prove that women are of equal merit as human beings. The revolutionary aspect of this book is her insistence that a girl have ambition to be more than a belle.
Choose a special line of study and of thought,
bearing directly upon whatever profession, trade,
or vocation you may select as the business of your
life. Choose something to do, and do it!
Of course, Harland still believed strongly in the domestic role of women. She encouraged
intellectual equality, but never expected a woman to work outside of the home for money, unless necessity forced her.
It may - I pray that it will be the lot of every girl
who reads these lines - to dwell in a sheltered home,
maintained and protected by those who love her and
esteem the care of her a privilege.
It may seem odd that these conflicting statements came from the pen of the same woman, but it was that duplicity of ideals that allowed Harland to join the ranks of accepted antebellum working women.
These three women, the teacher, the actress, and the writer, embody the coexistence of domestic values and public ambitions, which was the imperative concept for all successful antebellum women to grasp. The ambiguity of the "cult of domesticity" was that it gave women the means to exist in the public world, but attempted to confine them to the private, domestic world. No woman would ever be more than an ornamental housewife if she conformed to the domestic ideal of a southern woman, and no woman would have been a functioning member of her society if she cast away all sense of domestic propriety. By finding a medium between the domestic and public extremes, a woman could thrive in society, and influence history. The implications of this combination of the domestic and public spheres are twofold. First, these women dispel the myth that southern ladies were mere adornments to the history of the South. Second, and most importantly, these women were the cornerstones of the movement to incorporate women into the public world. In the South, Mead, Mowatt, and Harland set the precedent for successful women that eventually led to feminine liberation from the bonds of domestication.