Publishing in 1987, historian Christine Stansell’s work City of Women: Sex and Class in New York City 1790-1860 illustrates the shifting terrain of women’s history but also the field of U.S. history more broadly. Stansell like Joanne Meyerowitz, Ruth Rosen, and many others explores the agency of “laboring women” in pre-Civil War nineteenth century New York. As middle and upper class women asserted the supremacy of the female in the “home”, this formulation both liberated and confined women, allowing them to gradually occupy a public presence in the name of religiousity (at least in the early 1800s as the Second Great Awakening exploded) though the evangelical language employed by female charity workers came to be disdained by the later more “scientific” male reformers of mid-century America. Unfortunately, the importance of women in the home often undermined charity workers image of laboring females who, as most working class peoples suffered from overcrowded housing and neighborhoods which emphasized the activity of street life which charity activists and later reformers viewed warily at best.
Stansell disputes the popular charity/reforming discourses of the time that emphasized women’s victimization arguing that “shrewd little girls, truculent housewives, feckless domestic servants, astute trade unionists.” (xiii) acted in self interest with some level of agency even if limited. Laboring women of the period were neither “feminine versions of working class men or working class versions of middle class women.” (xiii) Stansell acknowledges here purporse early, “This book is about the misfortunes that laboring women suffered and the problems they caused. It examines how and why a community of women workers came into existence in America’s first great city; it analyzes the social conflicts which laboring women were involved and the social pressures they brought to bear on others. It explores a city of women with its own economic relations and cultural forms, a female city concealed within the larger metropolis of New York” (xi)
New York City from 1790-1860 underwent great economic and demographic change as immigrants and migrants poured into the city, altering employment compositions, family structures, and gender relations. Women moving into the labor force upset patriarchal breadwinning traditions, undermining male authority while also presenting younger girls with limited economic opportunities. Moreover, “as the poor moved into the foreground of nineteenth century views of the city, constructions of the meaning of manhood and womanhood, motherhood, and childhood fused with already established categories of virtue and vice.” (36) Laboring women refused to play by the proprietary rules set out by middle and upper class reformers.
The “chattering classes” paid little attention to the laboring poor until the 1820 when philanthropists began to view the poor as “as an imposition on the good will of the prosperous.” (19) If middle and upper class women had begun to distinguish themselves more distinctly from the broader grouping of women, others lacked such opportunities, ““Laboring women, however, remained right at the crossroads where views of the contemptible, dependent poor intersected with views of contemptible, dependent women. There, they were left to shoulder the burden of persistent misogynist ideas.” (20) Society viewed these women as dependent, marking them as weak and parasitic. Working men failed to achieve any sense of class consciousness viewing laboring females as a threat or presence to be outwitted, “contempt for women” served as “a bond that men shared across class lines in a “plebian” culture where sporting gentlemen might consort with workingmen at bawdy houses and cockfighting rings and in political frays.” (28) Not until the development of a working class entertainment culture along the Bowery did some idea of intragender class solidarity emerge (Bowery Boys/Girls). The growth of tenements aided this process, “Tenement life overrode distinctions between ethnic and occupational groups and played an important role in the creation of a metropolitan working class culture.” (46)
The family economy often depended on the labor of all members. Reformers fretted over the sparse homes, long hours, and public behavior of laboring women, failing to see the importance of informal networks in such communities; for women “the tenement neighborhoods were a female form of association and mutual aid, a crucial buffer against the shocks of uprootedness and poverty.” (55) Women in these communities policed each other regarding various ends. Such activities scandalized reformers, “Poor women created their communities out of a sometimes boundless emotional energy, a voracity for involvement in the lives of others. For their social betters, who were beginning to pride themselves on the ability of women to create a private space in a city they perceived as corrupt and alienating, the domestic turbulence of the working class neighborhood posed a serious threat.” (62)
Discourses around the city, its poor population and laboring women emerged in popular works but also in the home visits conducted by reformers. Moral reform gave middle class women an identity but also served as a form of class control, imposing bourgeoisie ideals of the home unattainable in the tenement environment. Ironically, this new womanhood placed more responsibility on laboring women’s childcare without allowing them the economic base to do so independently. The growth of a working class popular culture enabled working women to express themselves publicly in new ways. For example, “Bowery Gals” “presented themselves not as streetwalkers on the prowl but as members of a high spirited peer group, reveling in their associations with each other.” (93) Cultural expressions of independence emerged out of fashion “Dress was another expression of class and sex pride. Fancy clothes were the visual reflection of women’s wages, freed from family obligations.” (93) In this way, bowery gals created a new “alternative mode of feminine self-realization to the bourgeois ideal of true womanhood.” (100)
Tracing the economic opportunities available to women, Stansell illustrates the declining interest in domestic service due to irregular hours and lack of autonomy. By the 1850s, the domestic industry had become dominated by female Irish immigrants. Class divisions developed between middle and upper class mistresses and their lower class servants, “By midcentury, the “servant problem” in New York involved as attempt by mistresses to reform immigrant women as women, as well as to discipline them as workers, to change the way they dressed, courted, and carried on their social lives.” (156) Thus, distaste for domestic service, paucity of factory work, and lack of workshop hires due to sex discrimination made “outwork” attractive (though outwork often proved brutally time consuming, underpaid, and physically damaging). Later, the “family shop”, the “learning system”, and “sweating” emerged among the laboring classes as options for wages. By the 1830s, the figure of the factory girl surfaced spreading fears about the presence of women in the public sphere, leading to associations with prostitution and immorality despite the fact that of all laboring women, domestic workers proved more likely to fall into sex work.
Though the Ladies Industrial Association (1845) attempted to organize women workers, it failed as the labor movement adopted an increasingly masculine ideal. Though the developing image of a “universal woman” failed to benefit laboring females at the time “Eventually the conflation of bourgeois and working class women’s experience in the imagery of universal womanhood would prove useful for both groups, at least within the late nineteenth century women’s movement. The notion that similar oppressions affected women of all classes was eventually to enrich all women’s comprehension of gender experience, and was to provide working class women with important allies in labor battles.” (153)
Prostitution also drew the attentions of reformers. Though middle class ideologies viewed the occupation as permanently ruinous, working class women and adolescents envisioned prostitution as an economic decision not widely at odds with popular conceptions of male-female sexual relations, ““adolescents and young women found casual prostitution inviting as metropolitan life made it increasingly viable choice for working girls. Casual prostitution bordered on working class youth culture; both provided some tenuous autonomy from family life.” (180) Among adolescent girls, roughhousing and molestation often blurred lines of prostitution. Furthermore, many observed older women trade sex for male support, lodgings, drink, and dress, these lessons in exchange educated them about sexual bargaining.” (184). Here Stansell once again points to women’s agency even in such unequal interactions, “In this context, the prostitute’s price was not a surrender to male sexual exploitation but a way of turning a unilateral relationship into a reciprocal one” … i.e. it was a “society in which many men still saw coerced sex as their prerogative.” (185)
Finally, family life and the influence of the city’s vice ridden streets concerned New York’s middle and upper classes. Many viewed the working class home as pathologically dysfunctional , “A view of familial patterns as the preeminent sources of poverty moved the center of reformers’ etiology, displacing the evangelical beliefs in the defective moral character of the individual as the fundamental cause.” (202) The creation of the Children’s Aid Society proved to have immense influence on succeeding generations of female reformers, “Their own understanding of domesticity led them to focus on the power of new kind of working class woman to abolish class conflicts.” (214) However, juridical developments codified gender practices of the time. For example, the 1853 Truancy law expanded state into family allowing the law to take “his place”; women lacked any visibility in such discourse. Not until, the settlement house movement , do laboring women secure a place in the debate. Until then “a politics of gender was implied in this nascent politics of the family.” Ultimately, Stansell argues that the importance of nineteenth century New York lay in its “place where the dialectic of female vice and female virtue was volatile; where, in the ebb and flow of large oppressions and small freedoms, poor women traced out unforeseen possibilities for their sex..” (221) Working women, as much as their middle class counterparts, contributed to these developments even if their contemporaries failed to notice.