What Can Women Do Now That They Could Not Do in the 1800s?

Nineteenth century women's clothes were restrictive and exaggerated the feminine figure.
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You’ve come a long way, baby, according to the famous Virginia Slims' cigarette ad campaign. While the “right” to damage her health as much as a man was a rather dubious privilege, there is no question that a woman’s position in society and the recognition of a woman’s equality within that society has progressed a great deal since the 19th century.

1 Property Rights

At the turn of the 19th century, single women could own property, but before the passage of married women’s property laws, they surrendered ownership of property and any income derived from rents of that property to their husbands when they married. Connecticut, which passed the first married women’s property law in 1809, was one of the first states to legislate property rights for married women. Similarly, single women could sign contracts, inherit money and property, and bring lawsuits in their own name, but when they married they surrendered all those rights to their husbands. Changes in those laws were gradual and were enacted state by state.

2 Political Power

One of the most celebrated rights women have won since the 1800s is, of course, the right to vote. That right was awarded first on a state-by-state basis beginning with Wyoming in 1890 followed by Utah, Colorado, and Idaho by 1900. The 19th amendment to the Constitution was finally passed in 1920, ensuring that all American women would have the right to vote. Women achieved this victory after more than a century of political activism and struggle, with several notable events along the way including the 1848 Seneca Falls, New York, meeting which culminated in the issuance of the “Declaration of Sentiments.” Women were viewed at that time as being too delicate and emotional to endure the rigors of the political arena. That these “delicate” creatures might serve in positions of political power, in all states and at the federal level as is seen today, was unthinkable in the 1800s.

3 Military Careers

There is ample documentation of women fighting in both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, but these women had to disguise themselves as men. Some were discovered, often as a result of wartime injuries, but many served for the duration of the war in their disguises. Until the late 20th century there was no place for women in the military except in nursing, administration and transportation. Many military specialties are now or will soon be open to women including Army field artillery, Marine ground intelligence, Air Force and Navy fighter pilot and Navy ship’s captain.

4 Educational Opportunities

Before the 1800s girls could expect little more than a grammar school education but change was on the horizon. There was a growing movement to provide young women with academies and seminaries where they could be educated on the same level as young men. Subjects included philosophy, chemistry, ancient and modern history, geography, grammar, rhetoric, arithmetic, algebra, geometry, moral philosophy, natural theology and Latin. By the mid-19th century most states realized that coeducation in public schools was less expensive. But post-secondary education was still mostly a male preserve until the demand for teachers became critical. This prompted growth of teachers’ colleges for women. By the end of the century women were receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees in a variety of disciplines. Today women slightly outnumber men in college graduations.

5 Control of Marriage and Reproduction

One of the biggest changes in the lives of women today is the ability to control if and when to marry, and to control the timing and number of children in the family. Until the 20th century women were expected to marry in their 20s and were considered the property of their husbands. They were expected to provide their husbands with as many children as he desired. Women who did not marry were considered incomplete and would have to rely on brothers or other male relatives for their support for the rest of their lives. A married woman who did not produce children was also considered deficient.

Dee Shneiderman, former librarian and paralegal, has been writing for 40+ years. Published in Compute! Magazine, she helped found The Crescent Review literary magazine. Owner of Frugal-Foto Photography, she holds a Bachelor of Arts in English, a Master of Library Science and a North Carolina Truck Driver Training certificate.