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.
Shannon K. Withycombe
Over two million enslaved people labored on cash crop plantations in the British West Indies in the almost two hundred years between the development of sugar plantations on Barbados in the 1650s and the age of emancipation in the 1830s. Although both the sizes of plantations and the crops produced varied across the Caribbean, generally the system of enslavement and therefore the plantation life generated within that system, did not. The contours of enslaved lives were shaped by myriad forces—the violence of the institution of slavery, the strictures of gender, reproduction, and patriarchy, the racial animosity engendered by whites, the hierarchies of the enslaved community, and the demographic reality of the colonies. The labor enslaved women, men, and children performed, the violence they endured, the familial and kinship ties they forged, the cultural practices they engaged in, and the strategies they employed to challenge their bonded status, were the constituent elements of their enslavement and their daily lives. But once slavery ended, the demands of the plantation did not fade. Neither did the racist attitudes of whites about people of African descent, or elite assumptions about what constituted a good subject in Britain’s burgeoning empire. As they forged new lives in the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s, former slaves grappled with how to set limits on their labor, build families, and live lives free from white scrutiny and oppression.
Nicole Etcheson and Cortney Cantrell
During the Civil War, the entire North constituted the homefront, an area largely removed from the din and horror of combat. With a few exceptions of raids and battles such as Gettysburg, civilians in the North experienced the war indirectly. The people on the homefront mobilized for war, sent their menfolk off to fight, supplied the soldiers and the army, coped without their breadwinners, and suffered the loss or maiming of men they loved. All the while, however, the homefront was crucially important to the course of the war. The mobilization of northern resources—not just men, but the manufacture of the arms and supplies needed to fight a war—enabled the North to conduct what some have called a total war, one on which the Union expended money and manpower at unprecedented levels. Confederate strategists hoped to break the will of the northern homefront to secure southern independence. Despite the hardships endured in the North, this strategy failed. On the homefront, women struggled to provide for their families as well as to serve soldiers and the army by sending care packages and doing war work. Family letters reveal the impact of the war on children who lost their fathers either temporarily or permanently. Communities rallied to aid soldiers’ families but were riven by dissension over issues such as conscription and emancipation. Immigrants and African Americans sought a new place in U.S. society by exploiting the opportunities the war offered to prove their worth. Service in the Union army certainly advanced the status of some groups, but was not the only means to that end. Nuns who nursed the wounded improved the reputation of the Catholic Church and northern African Americans used the increasingly emancipationist war goals to improve their legal status in the North. The Civil War altered race relations most radically, but change came to everyone on the northern homefront.
Marjorie J. Spruill
The late 20th century saw gender roles transformed as the so-called Second Wave of American feminism that began in the 1960s gained support. By the early 1970s public opinion increasingly favored the movement and politicians in both major political parties supported it. In 1972 Congress overwhelmingly approved the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and sent it to the states. Many quickly ratified, prompting women committed to traditional gender roles to organize. However, by 1975 ERA opponents led by veteran Republican activist Phyllis Schlafly, founder of Stop ERA, had slowed the ratification process, although federal support for feminism continued. Congresswoman Bella Abzug (D-NY), inspired by the United Nations’ International Women’s Year (IWY) program, introduced a bill approved by Congress that mandated state and national IWY conferences at which women would produce recommendations to guide the federal government on policy regarding women. Federal funding of these conferences (held in 1977), and the fact that feminists were appointed to organize them, led to an escalation in tensions between feminist and conservative women, and the conferences proved to be profoundly polarizing events. Feminists elected most of the delegates to the culminating IWY event, the National Women’s Conference held in Houston, Texas, and the “National Plan of Action” adopted there endorsed a wide range of feminist goals including the ERA, abortion rights, and gay rights. But the IWY conferences presented conservatives with a golden opportunity to mobilize, and anti-ERA, pro-life, and anti-gay groups banded together as never before. By the end of 1977, these groups, supported by conservative Catholics, Mormons, and evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants, had come together to form a “Pro-Family Movement” that became a powerful force in American politics. By 1980 they had persuaded the Republican Party to drop its support for women’s rights. Afterward, as Democrats continued to support feminist goals and the GOP presented itself as the defender of “family values,” national politics became more deeply polarized and bitterly partisan.
Throughout American history, gender, meaning notions of essential differences between women and men, has shaped how Americans have defined and engaged in productive activity. Work has been a key site where gendered inequalities have been produced, but work has also been a crucible for rights claims that have challenged those inequalities. Federal and state governments long played a central role in generating and upholding gendered policy. Workers and advocates have debated whether to advance laboring women’s cause by demanding equality with men or different treatment that accounted for women’s distinct responsibilities and disadvantages. Beginning in the colonial period, constructions of dependence and independence derived from the heterosexual nuclear family underscored a gendered division of labor that assigned distinct tasks to the sexes, albeit varied by race and class. In the 19th century, gendered expectations shaped all workers’ experiences of the Industrial Revolution, slavery and its abolition, and the ideology of free labor. Early 20th-century reform movements sought to beat back the excesses of industrial capitalism by defining the sexes against each other, demanding protective labor laws for white women while framing work done by women of color and men as properly unregulated. Policymakers reinforced this framework in the 1930s as they built a welfare state that was rooted in gendered and racialized constructions of citizenship. In the second half of the 20th century, labor rights claims that reasoned from the sexes’ distinctiveness increasingly gave way to assertions of sex equality, even as the meaning of that equality was contested. As the sex equality paradigm triumphed in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, seismic economic shifts and a conservative business climate narrowed the potential of sex equality laws to deliver substantive changes to workers.