Poor Little “Not-So-Rich” Girls

margaret-fullerIt wasn’t until I began to write about class from the perspective of the 19th century women about whom I’ve written two biographies that I realized how much issues of class lie at the heart of my attraction to these women. Class Action asked me to explore the constraints that even upper class white women experienced during the days before women’s suffrage, when to be married meant giving up one’s financial and personal independence. And unmarried women were derided as “spinsters.”  

I explained that my subjects – the three Peabody sisters (two of whom made famous marriages, to the education reformer Horace Mann and the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne) and the early feminist writer Margaret Fuller – were not upper class. All four women struggled economically and experienced the negative effects of classism in various ways, most acutely when working as governesses or school teachers to the wealthy.  

These were women who lived by their wits, even to the extent of attracting the kind of men that two of them married. Neither Horace Mann nor Nathaniel Hawthorne were well off, although both graduated from college. They couldn’t afford to marry women of the upper class, nor would such women look kindly on them. But they did love smart and hard-working women – Mary and Sophia Peabody – with whom they made partnerships of intellectual equals.  

Living on the Border

These life stories appealed to me because, as I realized while thinking over Class Action’s question, this was a pattern I’d tried to follow myself. Growing up in a struggling household with a chronically unemployed father and a mother who worked at low-paying jobs to support a family of five, I went to college on full scholarship. Since then I have done my best to live by my wits as a writer. I’ll never make history the way Margaret Fuller did. She was a true genius and a pioneer thinker and activist, but her trajectory through life gave me hope.

Sometimes living on the border between classes, or sliding up and down in class, even if painful, can give a person the freedom and perspective to speak truths that others, whether safe or suffering in their niches, cannot.

Margaret Fuller was born into a well-to-do family in Cambridge, Mass., in 1810. Her father, a minister’s son who grew up on a farm that he worked alongside his father and brothers, became a lawyer and a politician and acquired enough wealth to send Margaret to good schools. However, there were no colleges for women then. But Margaret’s father died suddenly when she was 25, leaving nothing but debts. And Margaret went to work to support her mother and five younger siblings.  

When she began using her superior education to write, she looked at women’s lives closely – what was possible for them, and what wasn’t? She resented the fact that dressmaking and school teaching were the main options for women’s work, even for someone as highly educated as she.  (She drafted sermons for a young minister friend, but could not deliver them herself.)

There should be “no arbitrary barriers” to women’s employment, she wrote in her famous book Woman in the Nineteenth-Century, published in 1845. “Let them be sea-captains,” she argued – everything should be possible.  

Fueling Social Conscience

Margaret Fuller might not have been moved to think such thoughts and write such words if she’d continued to live in relative luxury and hadn’t needed to take over her father’s role as bread-winner.

Margaret Fuller could see the way women of vastly separate social classes could find common cause and unite to change things. But did they?

She took up the cause of women in prison, in those days mostly women arrested for prostitution. She considered it profoundly unfair that women were jailed for a “crime” committed by men. And she argued that there was no difference between the woman who was paid for sexual favors and the woman who dressed herself up in a fancy boudoir to attract a husband at a high-class party. She saw the economic motive in both cases, and she considered the prostitute the more honest of the two.  

The underlying problem, she felt, was a system rigged against women: depriving them of a full education, locking them out of the professions, requiring submission in marriage and making divorce extremely difficult (the usual result was that a wife lost everything, including custody of her children). Margaret Fuller could see the way women of vastly separate social classes could find common cause and unite to change things.

But did they?

Clarity and Prescience on Class

Another New England woman of the time who spoke with clarity and prescience on class issues for women, and their intersection with race, was Maria W. Stewart. Stewart was a free black woman, born in Connecticut in 1803, orphaned at age five and “bound out” to a minister’s household. There she learned to read and write and demonstrated precocious intellectual skills.  

Still, after her indentured service ended at age 15 and until her marriage in Boston to a free black man, one of the pillars of the black community, she worked at menial jobs she found to be soul-destroying. After only a few years of marriage her husband died, and a combination of laws that disadvantaged widows and scheming lawyers left her impoverished again.

At this time, the early 1830s, she joined Boston’s fledgling antislavery movement, and she began to lecture and publish in William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator. Stewart spoke against slavery, but she was also early to see and say how “the powerful force of prejudice” also deprived free black men and women from meaningful work and full freedom, leaving them “confined by the chains of ignorance and poverty to lives of continual drudgery and toil” –  “Let our girls possess what amiable qualities of soul they may; let their characters be fair and spotless as innocence itself; let their natural taste and ingenuity be what they may; it is impossible for scarce an individual of them to rise above the condition of servants.”

Race prejudice kept people of color on the bottom rungs of “free” society, a situation that has scarcely changed today. Maria Stewart was able to find work as a teacher, but her position was rare, and she knew it.  

The Strictures of Gender Despite Class

Back to Class Action’s original question: What about upper class white women and the constraints they experienced in 19th century America? Just one example: Julia Ward Howe. Best known for composing the lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Howe was a poet, novelist, abolitionist and women’s suffrage activist. She established “Mother’s Day” over 100 years ago as a time set aside to contemplate and celebrate the prospect of world peace. (Too bad the spirit of that holiday has changed so much!)  

Julia Ward also came from one of the wealthiest families in New York City and married one of Boston’s most admired reformers, Samuel Gridley Howe, founder of the Perkins Institute for the Blind and one of the “Secret Six” who funded John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry.  

But did Julia Ward Howe feel free? By law, her husband took control of her inherited fortune, and he managed it badly. And Samuel Gridley Howe wasn’t enlightened on every topic. When Julia expressed the desire to write, to spread her wings, as she thought of it, he told her, “I shall unmercifully cut them off, to keep you prisoner in my arms.”  

Later in life she wrote, “I have never known my husband to approve of any act of mine which I myself valued. Books – poems – essays – everything has been contemptible or contraband in his eyes.”

It’s a wonder that such a woman accomplished anything. But – sometimes – what doesn’t kill you makes you strong. Reading women’s biographies reminds us of the multitude of ways that old saying can come true.

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