The Lost Museum Archive

The Debate Over Women's Roles in Public

by Roberta Koza

Barnum's American Museum and its Lecture Room were one of the few public spaces in antebellum New York City where middle-class women felt comfortable appearing unescorted by men. During the early decades of the nineteenth century, although they could not vote and were barred from many forms of employment, women-- especially middle-class, white women--became culturally prominent as the guardians of the nation's social and moral life in their roles as wives and mothers. Many women extended these responsibilities beyond the private realm of the family by joining or starting reform organizations to promote temperance, abolish slavery, curb prostitution, and extend women’s rights. This activity for high school or college students explores debates over public roles for women.

Historical Context
During the 1820s and 1830s, commercial prosperity and industrial development swelled the ranks of property-owning farmers, merchants, professionals, and master manufacturers. The decline of household manufacturing, the separation of home and business, and the increased availability of consumer goods altered the lives of these emerging middle-class families and contributed to a hardening of distinctions between the private sphere of home and family and the public sphere of work, commerce, and politics. In this scheme of "separate spheres," women’s role was to preserve the home as a domestic haven and to instill in their children the habits and standards of behavior deemed essential to republican government and personal prosperity. With this new emphasis on women’s domestic role as moral teacher and exemplar, middle-class women assumed greater responsibility for overseeing the morals not only of their own households but also, by extension, of society as a whole.

While this ideology of separate spheres established a social power for women based on their special female qualities rather than on general human rights, it was a form of social power that many women used to gain a limited public role as activists in movements to outlaw alcohol (temperance) and end slavery (abolition). These activist efforts also planted the seeds of the women’s rights movement. The Baby Shows that were held at the American Museum reflected this idea of separate spheres, as did the promotion of Jenny Lind. Many objected to the Baby Shows because they made public the private female world of home and motherhood. However, the same Baby Shows also engaged some of the leading feminists of the time (Lydia Fowler, Harriot Hunt) to speak or act as judges at these shows that some saw as a cautious attempt to exploit the baby show for feminism.

Themes: social expectations of male and female roles in the mid-nineteenth century; reform movements in the mid-nineteenth century

Students will
1. Obtain historical data from a variety of sources (National History Standards, Standards of Historical Thinking, 4-B)
2. Identify issues and problems in the past and analyze the interests, values, perspectives, and points of view of those involved in the situation (National History Standards, Standards of Historical Thinking, 5-A)
3. Analyze the activities of women of different racial and social groups in the reform movements for abolition, temperance, and women's suffrage (National History Standards, United States History Standards Era 4, 4-C)
4. Use their analysis of these varied sources as the basis for a creative writing assignment (NCTE English Language Arts Standards, 5, 6)

Assessment: creative writing

1. Contents of The Lost Museum Archive (including images and documents about Jenny Lind, the Baby Shows, Temperance, and Elizabeth Greenfield (type "Greenfield" in the keyword box on the Archive search page)
2. Other Web sites on women’s roles and social reform in the mid-nineteenth century


Step One:
Read Background Essay on Women in P. T. Barnum's New York City and its related documents and images.

Step Two:
Read the Archive documents and examine the images related to the Baby Shows, Temperance, and Jenny Lind.

Step Three:
Begin to gather your ideas for writing either a scene from a melodrama or a short lecture that might have been presented in the Lecture Room at the American Museum. The lecture or scene must draw on the materials you read in the Archive and consider the public role of women during the 1850s and 1860s in suffrage movements, temperance reform, abolitionism, or careers open to women. Your writing should focus on the contested definitions of what was appropriate for women in public.

Step Four:
If you are writing a scene, read the sample scene from The Drunkard in the Temperance Archive; if you are writing a lecture, read all or part of "Lectures on Phrenology and its Application" in the Phrenology Archive to get a sense of the genre in which you will be writing.

Step Five:
From the lists below, choose two historical themes or subjects (for example, women in the temperance movement) and two historical figures that you will include in your writing.

Historical Themes/Subjects
1. Careers open to women--teaching, writing, etc.
2. Daily life for middle-class and working-class women
3. Fashion and women’s dress
4. Unique restrictions placed on African-American Women
5. Ridicule of female reform efforts
6. Anti-Slavery feminists
7. Women and the law
8. The Seneca Falls Declaration, 1848
9. Temperance and other reform movements
10. Marriage vs. "spinsterhood"

Historical Figures
1. P. T. Barnum
2. Catherine Beecher
3. Harriet Beecher Stowe
4. Lydia Maria Child
5. Susan B. Anthony
6. Jenny Lind
7. Harriet Jacobs
8. Sarah Grimke
9. Frederick Douglass
10. Lucretia Mott
11. Elizabeth Greenfield

Step Six:
Go to one of the following Web sites to learn more about your chosen themes, subjects, and figures:

Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1775–2000 --
Look at documents under The Appeal of Female Moral Reform, 1835-1841; Lucretia Mott's Reform Networks, 1840-1860; The Nineteenth-Century Dress Reform Movement, 1838-1881; and Male Supporters of Women's Rights in the 1850s

Godey's Lady's Book --
Look at S. J. Hale's editorials, illustrations and fiction

Worcester Women’s History Project, --
Look at materials on 1850 & 1851 Women's Rights Conventions

An American Family: The Beecher Tradition --
See pages on Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe

Library of Congress's Selections from the National American Women's Suffrage Association, 1848-1921 --

Step Seven:
Write your scene or lecture. Be sure to include information on at least two topics covered in The Lost Museum Archive (for example, Jenny Lind, Elizabeth Greenfield, Temperance, the Baby Shows, the Lecture Room). You must also include two historical figures (a descriptive paragraph for each character is required) and two historical themes or subjects.

Writing Tips:
The scene must have a dramatic build: an opening, development with a conflict, high point or climax, and conclusion. The lecture must have a similar organization.

The writing should be persuasive, delineating the political position of the characters or speaker. Persuasive writing can be done through dialogue, using the correct format. Dialogue should develop characters and advance the story line. Remember: show, don't tell.

If you choose to do the scene, the setting should integrate details and language from the time period. If you select the lecture, you should also try to write in the language of the time period and make appropriate references. You should avoid anachronisms.

The conflict or issue of the lecture should reflect the issues of the time period as noted above.

Illustrations are not required, but are encouraged.