- Reforming Men & Women: Gender in the Antebellum City, and: Manhood Lost: Fallen Drunkards and Redeeming Women in the Nineteenth-Century United States
Historians have extensively documented the connections between notions of femininity in general and women’s rights in particular and many nineteenth-century reform movements, such as anti-slavery or temperance, for example. Yet, attempts to broaden this approach to a history of gender have been limited. The books by Bruce Dorsey, Reforming Men and Women, and Elaine Frantz Parsons, Manhood Lost, intervene in and add to these debates. Both books make important contributions to our understanding of changing constructions of gender in the nineteenth-century United States and the role they played in social and political change.
Focusing on antebellum Philadelphia, Dorsey sets the framework of his book with an examination of the connections between notions of manliness and womanhood and critical political and cultural issues. The chapters of his book are devoted to investigations of the critical importance of notions of gender in antebellum reform debates, such as charity and poor relief, alcohol consumption and temperance, slavery and anti-slavery, and immigration. Parsons’ book, while it focuses more specifically on one, singular issue—temperance—takes an extensive look in time from the 1830s to the 1890s, highlighting temperance debates in the Midwest.
Dorsey’s study starting point is a shift in understanding between the better ranks of society and the less fortunate in a social order that combined hierarchy and mutuality. By 1820, this understanding and a sense of care had nearly vanished. Dorsey ties this to changing notions of gender. Dorsey traces the changing construction of gender that took place with the formation of a new middle-class that emerged with the onset of the market revolution in 1820. As a result, the gendered perceptions concerning the poor, alcohol consumption, slavery, and immigrants changed according to the ideological needs of this middle class and [End Page 236] its changing constructions of gender. While public politics had always been a masculine domain, women were able to engage in public politics especially in the revolutionary era. After the revolution, a new matrix of gender evolved that reserved independence and public politics for (white) men and dependence and the private domain for women, but also assigned this to other populations.
The first to experience that shift were the poor. After 1820, the poor were no longer considered in material need—those needs, the middle-class felt, should be fulfilled in a free and open market place—but in spiritual need. Not firewood but bible tracts. In turn, charitable societies that provided material assistance declined as new societies that sought to improve the spiritual needs of the poor came to the forefront. These societies immediately encountered a problem connected to notions of gender. They sought to promote a sense of entrepreneurial independence among the poor and they saw the primary need in making men capable, employed providers. However, the vast majority of the poor were women and children—individuals marked by gender and age as dependent, as people who should rely on a male wage earner. The problem was that many of them were poor because the husbands and fathers had abandoned them. The new charitable societies sought to address this problem by offering them work. Since women were not expected to be independent wage earners, they offered wages often below those offered by factories. In short, these charitable workplaces became sweatshops.
Drink similarly invoked gendered notions of dependence and independence and race. For the generation of men who formed temperance societies, the issue of drinking was as much about gender as about class and generational conflict. A true man was independent and drink enslaved him. Temperance was also a means to differentiate oneself from the lower orders and reinforce emerging class differences: in the era of the revolution, marked by...