Purpose Statement: This paper will outline the role of women in society during the Victorian Era and present some real life examples from the Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey of 19th century women following their roles and at times having the those roles challenged by the difficulty of the trail. 19th-Century Women Women in the nineteenth century, for the most part, had to follow the common role presented to them by society. This role can be summed up by what historians call the "cult of domesticity". The McGuffey Readers does a successful job at illustrating the women's role in society.
Women that took part in the overland trail as described in "Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey" had to try to follow these roles while facing many challenges that made it very difficult to do so. One of the most common expectations for women then is that they are responsible for doing the chore of cleaning whether it is cleaning the house, doing the laundry. The McGuffey Readers mentions the women's duty to clean in a multiple places. In this handbook it gives clear directions to the woman on what she is to do when cleaning, "This ceremony completed, and the house thoroughly evacuated, the next operation is to smear the wall and ceilings with brushes dipped into a solution of lime...
(Gorn 111)". The book explains how it is the women's job to thoroughly clean the house once a year in a manner that sounds very laborious! It further states, "The misfortune is, that the sole object is to make things clean (Gorn 112)". In this part of the book it is very clear that it is saying that the woman's duty is to clean.
In Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey it illustrates this in a couple of passages. For example, one woman wrote in her diary, "Oh! Horrors how shall I express it; it is the dreaded washing day... but washing must be done and procrastination won't do it for me (Schlissel 83)". Although this woman obviously did not like doing the washing she saw it as her job to do. In addition, the book describes this scene, "The banks of a river would be lined with women who carried their kettles, their washtubs, and piles of unwashed linen (Schlissel 82)". Again, it is the women who are doing the cleaning.
The McGuffey Readers being the handbook that young girls would read in school taught them that it was their place to do the cleaning. It is apparent that they took that into consideration as shown by the Women's Diaries and even today is seen as their role. Women were a nurturing part of the household and therefore it was seen as their job to take care of the children. For example, the editor of the McGuffey's states, "the middle-class ideal depicted women as nurturers (Gorn 48)". By nurturers he means one that is able to care for somebody, which turns into being the one to look after the children.
In addition, to show what the editor said in the McGuffey's there is a poem that is from a child's point of view talking about his mother, "Smooth the few silver threads out of my hair; Over my slumbers your loving watch keep; Rock me to sleep, mother, rock me to sleep! (Gorn 108)". It is shown here how the mother is to watch over her children and take care of them. Moreover, in the Women's Diaries it talks about the hardship mothers had, "Accounts shade and darken in the pages of women whose energies were spent nursing and caring for infants and small children (Schlissel 115)". It says that their diaries turn in essence bleak because they are being overwhelmed with so many duties and then on top of that having to care for the children.
Being on the trail made it very difficult for the women to perform these duties as the author points out, "The West to them meant the challenge of rearing a family and maintaining domestic order against the disordered life on the frontier (Schlissel 115)". The women had to face to challenge and they did in a way that shows that the men were not the only ones who had an immense amount of courage in this great undertaking. An integral part of the nineteenth century Victorian way of life was having strong morals. The women were seen as pure beings and therefore it was there job to keep the family unit moral.
In The McGuffey's it tells of how the morals were taught to kids very early on, "Victorian moral earnestness was especially aimed at children because it was believed that during youth the habits and ideas of a lifetime were formed (Gorn 59)". Since it was in the youth that they had to be taught these things the woman as the mother had to play an important role in teaching these to her children. Since the women's place was the home she was expected to prepare meals for the children and the men when they came home from work. Meal preparation was one of the hardships for women on westward journey. For example, women had to cook for everyone and at times, "Last night for supper we had stewed peaches. They were all eaten up before we ladies had any.
This morning we had rice and apples boiled together. They were also eaten up before we got any (Schlissel 102)". They would cook for everyone else first and eat last. In addition, since the food had to be cooked over fire what were the women to do when it rained, "In heavy rain, the women might dig a hole in the ground, jam in a hollow ramrod to serve as an air shaft, and then fill the hole with small rocks and bake the bread on these (Schlissel 80)". It seems as though these difficulties of the journey were no match for the inguinty of the women. Women in the Victorian era were seen as subservient to men in every way and that was their role in the institution of marriage.
All over in the Women's Diaries there are examples of the women having to follow the mans decision. For example, the diaries of the women explain in many different ways that, "the decision to cross the continent was a man's decision (Schlissel 28)". In addition, there is a an example of a wagon train that was going to slip up and when it did it would separate daughter from mother, "Janet Stewart grieved, knowing that she and the other womenfolk had not been strong enough to oppose the men's decision to push on (Schlissel 95)". Even though the women strongly opposed it they could not challenge the men's decision. Throughout the 1800's there were many of religious awakenings that spread through the country. The women in this time were to keep the family religious.
In The Mcguffey's a child asks their mother, "Mother, who made the stars, which light The beautiful blue sky? ... 'Twas God, my child, the Glorious One, He formed them by his power (Gorn 117)". The mother tells them that god is the one who created everything and that they must be thankful to him. In another example a mother tells her daughter of living life in a way of good faith and the child is described as pondering, .".. carefully and seriously on what her mother had said. When she thought over her past conduct, a blush of shame crept to her cheeks (Gorn 118)".
The mother being the guiding force for her daughter shames her daughter for not being faithful. The holy Sabbath which is on Sunday was taught to the kids at this time in the McGuffey's to be something that if it was not observed meant that they were immoral as shown here, "No villain regards the Sabbath. No vicious family regards the Sabbath. No immoral community regards the Sabbath.
The holy rest of this ever-memorable day is a barrier which is always broken down before men become giants in sin (Gorn 123)". So, it was thrust into the minds of people that they had to observe this day. Although in the Women's Diaries the accounts tell of them having to forget this, "Although a goodly portion of wagon parties started out their journeys with scrupulous adherence to Sabbath observance, the demands of the road soon made such rituals impractical... made the travelers feel vulnerable to Indian attack... chance of being caught in the mountains by early snow made the delay even more risky (Schlissel 82)". The challenges of the journey were of such extremes that they made the travels skip something that they were forced to believe was a very important ritual. Since people could not run around naked someone had to make the clothes or buy them and that was the women. "And the mother mends Harry's stockings (Gorn 49)".
Once again it states the "mother" as the one doing this chore. The women on the trail though it shows had little time to care about mending clothes, "The majority of the overland women wore what clothing they had and prayed that what they wore would not tear. They were too preoccupied with the necessities of the day to consider fashion at all (Schlissel 105)". I would be happy if I were these women because that just means one less chore that was their "duty" to perform. In conclusion, the woman of the Victorian Era had her role in life planned out from before she was born.
Although it was a dreadful role these women carried it out in a way that shows their purity of the heart and willingness to do so many of things for others and for little return. They were truly a remarkable testament to hard work and ingenuity of the time that even the men of the time could have learned from.