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Elizabeth Seton, American Saint  

Catherine O'Donnell

Elizabeth Bayley Seton is the first native-born US citizen to be made a Roman Catholic saint. Canonized in 1975, Seton founded the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph, the first vowed community of Catholic women religious created in the United States. Seton’s sainthood marked the culmination of a role she first served during her life: a respectable, benevolent face for a church whose local leaders were eager to demonstrate its compatibility with American culture. Seton’s founding of the American Sisters of Charity was a more practical achievement and one that shaped the Catholic Church in the United States in tangible ways. Starting in 1809, when Seton began a school and vowed community in Emmitsburg, Maryland, the Sisters of Charity expanded throughout the United States, eventually running hundreds of schools and orphanages and offering both a spiritual home and a career path for women who chose it. Seton’s life is expressive for what it reveals about her era as well as for her distinctive achievements. Her prominence led to the preservation of decades of correspondence and spiritual writings. Through them it is possible to see with unusual clarity the ways in which the Age of Revolutions and the rise of Napoleon variously disrupted, reinvigorated, and transformed Catholic traditions; to observe the possibilities and constraints Catholicism offered a spiritually ambitious woman; and to witness changes in the relationship between Protestants and Catholics in the United States. Finally, Seton’s rich archive also renders visible one woman’s experience of intellectual inquiry, marriage, widowhood, motherhood, spiritual ambition, and female friendship.

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The History of Jewish Women in the United States  

Joyce Antler

The story of Jewish women in the United States is one of impressive achievement. Despite their numerically small representation in the American population, they made major contributions to politics and culture, and their organizations were among the nation’s most influential women’s groups. Yet both as women and as Jews, they often confronted troubling inequities in religious and secular life and struggled to balance their multiple identities. Jewish women played vital roles in colonial and revolutionary America, managing their household economies and family life. Highly literate and with extensive social networks, they often engaged in commerce in the interconnected Atlantic world. Jewish women were the mainstays of religious observance, promoting religious worship and the construction of synagogues and schools. Intermarriage was infrequent, with Jewish men marrying out more frequently than women. In the early 19th century, some Jewish women attended the new female academies, becoming teachers, social reformers, and writers. They also founded and managed educational and philanthropic institutions, including the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society, the coeducational Hebrew Sunday School, orphan associations, and mutual aid groups, including the Independent Order of True Sisters, the first national Jewish women’s organization. Jewish women constituted roughly half of the Jewish immigrants who came to the United States from German-speaking European nations in the first half of the 19th century. They also constituted about half of the two and a half million Eastern European immigrants who arrived between 1880 and 1920. Upper- and middle-class Jewish women established sisterhoods, settlement houses, clubs, and schools to aid the new arrivals, inaugurating the first Jewish women’s movement. In 1909, laboring under exploitative conditions, Jewish women garment workers launched an eleven-week strike that transformed the labor movement. Highly represented in movements like socialism, anarchism, and communism, Jewish women also participated in campaigns for birth control and international peace. By the mid-20th century, a new generation assumed leadership at the National Council of Jewish Women, Hadassah, and other Jewish women’s groups. Involved in campaigns against immigration restriction, rescuing refugees from Nazism, and efforts to create a Jewish national homeland, they strengthened Jewish communities throughout the world. In the postwar decades, Jews migrated in significant numbers to the suburbs, where they were the mainstay of synagogue life and helped popularize new rituals like the bat mitzvah. Major leaders in the campaigns for civil rights, nuclear disarmament, and peace, in the 1960s and 1970s they helped launch second-wave feminism. Jewish women were prominent in both liberal and radical branches of the women’s liberation movement. As Jewish feminists, they challenged sexism within Jewish religious and community life and pressed for more egalitarian practices across the denominations. By the early 1970s, Jewish women began to serve as rabbis in the Reform and Reconstruction movements; the first Conservative woman rabbi was ordained in 1985. In the 21st century, Jewish women reflect a more culturally, religiously, and racially diverse population than before. Jewish women and men are increasingly likely to marry or partner with non-Jews, but to raise their children Jewishly. They are more than twice as likely as prior generations to identify with a race or ethnicity other than white. Asian American, Syrian American, and African American women rabbis have been among the most influential voices in their communities. The gay and lesbian synagogue movement, which began in the early 1970s, provided a locus for lesbians to explore their own religious identities. Jewish Women of Color, an expanding group, places itself at the intersection of racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism as it pursues an intersectional vision of social justice.

Article

Same-Sex Love among Early American Women  

Rachel Hope Cleves

The task of recovering the history of same-sex love among early American women faces daunting challenges of definition and sources. Modern conceptions of same-sex sexuality did not exist in early America, but alternative frameworks did. Many indigenous nations had social roles for female-bodied individuals who lived as men, performed male work, and acquired wives. Early Christian settlers viewed sexual encounters between women as sodomy, but also valued loving dyadic bonds between religious women. Primary sources indicate that same-sex sexual practices existed within western and southern African societies exploited by the slave trade, but little more is known. The word “lesbian” has been used to signify erotics between women since roughly the 10th century, but historians must look to women who led lesbian-like lives in early America rather than to women who self-identified as lesbians. Stories of female husbands who passed as men and married other women were popular in the 18th century. Tales of passing women who served in the military, in the navy, and as pirates also amused audiences and raised the spectre of same-sex sexuality. Some female religious leaders trespassed conventional gender roles and challenged the marital sexual order. Other women conformed to female gender roles, but constructed loving female households. 18th-century pornography depicting lesbian sexual encounters indicates that early Americans were familiar with the concept of sex between women. A few court records exist from prosecutions of early American women for engaging in lewd acts together. Far more common, by the end of the 18th century, were female-authored letters and diaries describing the culture of romantic friendship, which sometimes extended to sexual intimacy. Later in the 19th century, romantic friendship became an important ingredient in the development of lesbian culture and identity.

Article

Women and Reproduction in the United States during the 19th Century  

Shannon K. Withycombe

Throughout the 19th century, American women experienced vast changes regarding possibilities for childbirth and for enhancing or restricting fertility control. At the beginning of the century, issues involving reproduction were discussed primarily in domestic, private settings among women’s networks that included family members, neighbors, or midwives. In the face of massive social and economic changes due to industrialization, urbanization, and immigration, many working-class women became separated from these traditional networks and knowledge and found themselves reliant upon emerging medical systems for care and advice during pregnancy and childbirth. At the same time, upper-class women sought out men in the emerging profession of obstetrics to deliver their babies in hopes of beating the frightening odds against maternal and infant health and even survival. Nineteenth-century reproduction was altered drastically with the printing and commercial boom of the middle of the century. Families could now access contraception and abortion methods and information, which was available earlier in the century albeit in a more private and limited manner, through newspapers, popular books, stores, and from door-to-door salesmen. As fertility control entered these public spaces, many policy makers became concerned about the impacts of such practices on the character and future of the nation. By the 1880s, contraception and abortion came under legal restrictions, just as women and their partners gained access to safer and more effective products than ever before. When the 19th century closed, legislatures and the medical profession raised obstacles that hindered the ability of most women to limit the size of their families as the national fertility rate reached an all-time low. Clearly, American families eagerly seized opportunities to exercise control over their reproductive destinies and their lives.