Work, domesticity and localism: Women's public identity in nineteenth-century Hartford, Connecticut

Date of Completion

January 1999


History, United States|Women's Studies|Education, History of




This dissertation examines the development of women's public identity in nineteenth-century Hartford, Connecticut. To build a framework through which to understand the negotiated boundaries of women's public lives, this study isolates three broad categories available to Hartford women when they fashioned their roles. Benevolent womanhood, learned womanhood, and wartime womanhood represent three types that had the greatest currency in the city. Yet all three identities were outgrowths of a persistent focus on localism, an attachment to domesticity, and a reliance on the labor of organized women. ^ Benevolence allowed women to access Hartford's public spaces without explicitly challenging traditional gender norms. Despite their own suggestions that they were simply offering charity to widows and orphans, benevolent women engaged in a complex assortment of work the drew them into the city's commercial economy. The most successful benevolent endeavors adapted traditional forms of domestic labor for the market. By the 1840s, however, the proliferation of formal educational opportunities served as the foundation for a substantial revision of the model of the benevolent matron. Some of Hartford's learned women translated education into new careers in the city's schools, while others constructed identities as authors. Lydia Sigourney, the city's most famous public woman, built a national literary reputation by applying the lessons learned in local benevolence. She called on personal contacts, not an impersonal publishing company, to market her work. ^ Abolition, war relief, and women's suffrage—the traditional agents of progress in women's historiography—never defined female activism in Hartford. The absence of a female antislavery society reveals a rejection of the direct challenges to social convention, gender roles and racial hierarchies that abolition embodied. While the Civil War called upon women to recast fifty years of local benevolent work and retool their labor for the good of the nation, Hartford's benevolent activists refused to abandon their local control over their labor to an impersonal central organization. When the war ended, a small group of the city's women formed a state suffrage association, but the majority simply recast benevolence to reflect new realities of the postbellum city. ^