At the beginning of the 19th century, a market revolution significantly reshaped interpersonal and business relationships in the United States. It was not enough for people to work for some self-sufficiency purposes but to focus on gaining profits and materializing their incomes (Locke and Wright 2019). The quality of family life and gender roles underwent certain changes, introducing new criteria for domesticity and publicity. Economic and social interests mostly depended on family members’ classes, statuses, and education levels. New production systems effectively reestablished the roles in middle-class families where women and children could be hired for minimal wages. In contrast, most women remained dependent on their husbands in rich communities. The market revolution changed traditional economic and social gender roles, diminishing the worth of some domestic tasks, underling the importance of education, and developing business skills in women.
Many centuries before the market revolution, most American families lived in communities where domestic tasks were properly divided between men and women. In the 1820s, it was the period when people reconsidered their social and economic roles. It became evident that many women were ready to join the workforce and use their skills and knowledge outside the already established domesticity cult. According to Locke and Wright (2019), a family’s economic status determined the possibilities and obligations of women within the domestic sphere. For example, women from poor households could be hired as factory workers, domestic servants, and pieceworkers in addition to the necessity to complete their ordinary duties like cloth production or cultivation (Locke and Wright 2019). In middle- and upper-class families, the attitudes toward domestic tasks differed, and mothers were responsible for their children’s education. In other words, poor women were more independent from their men than rich women who could not share personal ambitions but follow their husbands and meet their expectations. Thus, despite a low life quality, earning money in different spheres provided women with a chance to achieve economic stability and social respect.
Education opportunities introduced another reason for changing social and economic gender roles in 19th-century America. Locke and Wright (2019) admit that middle-class children of both genders were able to invest their time in education, which resulted in new economic privileges. In addition to common school knowledge, college education became available and developed additional business skills. Women had a solid foundation for their future “sophisticated, gentle lives” to “exercise both reason and moral” (Locke and Wright 2019, p. 213). In families with low financial statuses, children skipped the period of education and were hired to factories where physical skills and endurance played a more important role. Women got access to new experiences due to their knowledge, moral strengths, and religious convictions (Locke and Wright 2019). At the same time, male and female roles did not significantly differ because men remained the major source of income and took the positions of bankers and clerks, while women continued keeping a house and raising children. More or less equal education was a good achievement for reshaping economic gender roles in American society, but it was hard to get rid of old traditions.
Finally, the development of new business skills in women contributed to certain changes in traditional social gender roles. Even though it was the male world of business where gender hierarchy was evident, women penetrated some spheres to demonstrate their current achievements and awareness of some employment issues. On the one hand, most women became milliners, laundresses, and seamstresses (Locke and Wright 2019). They did what they could, relying on their past experiences. On the other hand, some females could combine their clothing production responsibilities with managing a boardinghouse, strengthening their economic roles in the business world (Locke and Wright 2019). Although women were skilled in consuming clothing, they could not ignore that they spent their husbands’ money. From a legal standpoint, marriage remained a civil contract, and divorce was allowed in several states only. Besides, married women could not earn money to pay without male approval or suing (Locke and Wright 2019). At the social level, the idea of marriage differed because men and women began examining their skills and comparing their possible contributions. Family life had to be convenient for both partners in public and private spheres.
The market revolution was one of the most remarkable events that affected American business, trade, social, and family relationships. Gender roles were reshaped because of the impact of education, the development of new business skills, and the reevaluation of domestic responsibilities. Although most gender-related changes depended on the family’s class and status, women got a unique opportunity to discover some elements of public life. Economic and social gender roles affected female independence in low-income families where women had to earn a living. Middle- and upper-class women remained dependent on their husbands but paid more attention to their ethical development and personal growth. The beginning of the market revolution meant the necessity of additional employment, and women could fill in the gaps. At the same time, household roles were impossible to ignore, and women needed to combine their business achievements with their family obligations.
Locke, Joseph, and Ben Wright, ed. 2019. The American Yawp: A Massively Collaborative Open U.S. History Textbook. Vol. 1. Stanford: Stanford University Press.