19th Century Working Women (as told by Rebecca Harding Davis)

In the young and industrializing United States, the effects of Republican Motherhood and what Jeanne Boydston termed the “pastoralization of housework” led to a new ideology among the emerging idle middle class. Broadly, this class saw itself as prosperous and virtuous; it saw the working classes, and working women in particular, as promiscuous at best and wicked at worst. Rebecca Harding Davis, herself a member of the middle class, used fiction to attempt to combat this stereotype and create empathy between the classes by introducing a working woman named Deborah in Life in the Iron-Mills. However, while Davis’ portrayal of Deborah was a short-term success, it ultimately failed because it reinforced the existing gender system.

Deborah is presented as the victimized working woman instead of the depraved and promiscuous slut. Both stereotypes are middle class creations, but Davis chose one over the other to criticize class inequalities and prejudice toward immigrants. Accordingly, Deborah is described as a new immigrant worn beyond her years, a hunchback and loyal and caring to a fault. Davis knew that in order for a middle class woman to empathize with her character, said character had to be the exact opposite of what the reader expected. Deborah is thus shown in a positive light — while the other women who work at the mills go off to party and drink, Deborah goes home to tend to her family, returning to the mills to deliver dinner to her brother. This similarity allowed middle class readers to view Deborah as human, creating a sense of empathy for those who are oppressed only by a capitalist system and not through any cause of nature.

Most Western ideological systems exist only by binary oppositions and the nineteenth-century gender system was no exception. In order to prove domestic bliss as a wife and mother was the ideal, the system needed something to define itself against. Under this ideology, women were, as Boydston wrote, “ill-equipped to venture into the world of nineteenth-century business”; if wives and mothers who kept to their houses were the ideal, then women who worked outside of the home were somehow abnormal. They were even considered not to be women because they displayed traits more commonly reserved for men, the “breadwinners” who dwelt in the duplicitous and cunning outside world. Women who sought employment outside the home were symbolic threats to this concept of manhood and male authority.

Reality however, as Davis knew, was very different; through Deborah, she presents a woman who had theoretical possibility to be any woman. Despite this, however, Deborah lives up to this idealized standard; she is the “victimized heroine” injected with a shot of harsh reality, a way for her to pacify her middle class readers while still managing to convey her message about class inequality. Davis exacerbates this implicit claim by redeeming Deborah in the end, showing her audience that all the working woman lacks to be live up to the middle class standard of womanhood is material goods. By humanizing Deborah, and by extension working women in general, she sets up the middle class standard as the norm.

Was this Davis’ intention? Possibly. Davis may have redeemed Deborah as form of polite and discreet mockery. It seems more likely, though, that Deborah’s redemption is another aspect added to create empathy — and in this Davis succeeded.

However, Davis was a middle class woman representing a working class woman; her representation was slightly off kilter from the ways in which working class women presented themselves. Fanny Fern was much more straightforward, her style blunt and succinct. She is angry, not philosophical. Nor does she merely want to invoke pity. Instead, Fern wanted to force the “rose colored glasses of ideology” from the faces of the middle class. These women, she argued, are laborers and they are still women.

Fern refused to draw a line between womanhood and labor. Instead, she and others posited that the “romance of labor” was a fiction and the girls of Lowell Mills, who received so much attention, were not so much laborers in hard industry but country girls of New England. Middle class society did not wish to see reality and so created a fiction that worked within their ideology. It was easier to see working women as women who could not or would not keep to their homes, instead of women working to support themselves or their families.

To give Davis her due, she did strip away the fiction to show the true horror and horrendous necessity of factory life. Unfortunately, she maintained the romance of labor via her ending. Any working woman would have known that intervention by a kindly Quaker was unlikely; within the realm of possibility, but highly improbable. Davis’ happy ending is not realistic, but it did appeal to her readers. Deborah’s constant and selfless suffering is rewarded with an elevation, via material goods, to the middle class through the intervention of a well-meaning middle class woman. It may have been a cry to the public to act, to alleviate the conditions of people working in the mills, but it ultimately reinforced middle class hegemony.

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