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City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860

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How women emerged as a distinctive class in the burgeoning society of New York City in the postCivil War era is explored from an original viewpoint in this interesting study. Female class relations, ``ladies'' and working women, were symbiotic. The laborers had their sexual and social demeanor regulated by their middle-class sisters, who had the leisure to act as ``self-ap How women emerged as a distinctive class in the burgeoning society of New York City in the postCivil War era is explored from an original viewpoint in this interesting study. Female class relations, ``ladies'' and working women, were symbiotic. The laborers had their sexual and social demeanor regulated by their middle-class sisters, who had the leisure to act as ``self-appointed exemplars of virtue.'' The women of the working class come to life in Stansell's identification of their lot. Adrift from family ties, they entered the labor force, many resorting to prostitution and crime, which provoked the philanthropy of genteel bourgeois women, social reformers and the rise of the settlement house movement. The neighborhoods of the poor, the tenements and bawdy houses of 19th century New York are portrayed as important elements in women's history. Stansell teaches at Princeton University.


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How women emerged as a distinctive class in the burgeoning society of New York City in the postCivil War era is explored from an original viewpoint in this interesting study. Female class relations, ``ladies'' and working women, were symbiotic. The laborers had their sexual and social demeanor regulated by their middle-class sisters, who had the leisure to act as ``self-ap How women emerged as a distinctive class in the burgeoning society of New York City in the postCivil War era is explored from an original viewpoint in this interesting study. Female class relations, ``ladies'' and working women, were symbiotic. The laborers had their sexual and social demeanor regulated by their middle-class sisters, who had the leisure to act as ``self-appointed exemplars of virtue.'' The women of the working class come to life in Stansell's identification of their lot. Adrift from family ties, they entered the labor force, many resorting to prostitution and crime, which provoked the philanthropy of genteel bourgeois women, social reformers and the rise of the settlement house movement. The neighborhoods of the poor, the tenements and bawdy houses of 19th century New York are portrayed as important elements in women's history. Stansell teaches at Princeton University.

30 review for City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860

  1. 4 out of 5

    Ioana

    A meticulously documented, well-articulated social history of the politics of gender and labor in antebellum New York. Originally published in 1986, City of Women was quite novel in approach at the time, while its deconstruction of traditional narratives (male centered, universalist) belongs to the first wave of gender histories. Yes, as I write this in 2015, it may seem that there's nothing new to be gleaned here, but one must keep in mind that that's because of research like this which propell A meticulously documented, well-articulated social history of the politics of gender and labor in antebellum New York. Originally published in 1986, City of Women was quite novel in approach at the time, while its deconstruction of traditional narratives (male centered, universalist) belongs to the first wave of gender histories. Yes, as I write this in 2015, it may seem that there's nothing new to be gleaned here, but one must keep in mind that that's because of research like this which propelled the current explosion of books in the field. City of Women essentially interrogates the ways in which the conception of "womanhood" was shaped by social and economic conditions during the antebellum period. Stansell incorporates research on immigration, the changing work-force and types of work women engaged in outside the home, fashion and consumer culture, the advent of the industrial revolution and its effects on housework, public health and the plight of those living in overcrowded tenements--in painting a detailed sketch of the changing ideologies of "womanhood", "purity", "family", and patriarchy. Unlike prior histories, Stansell details the conflict between patriarchal constructs and budding capitalism, suggesting that this discord gave rise to ideologies of gender that survive to this day. For example, women, traditionally confined within the home and relegated to housework, increasingly found work outside the home (were forced to do so by economic conditions and changing familial structures); in the process, their actions conflicted with patriarchal conceptions of "ladylike" behavior, birthing images of the inadequate mother (who chooses work over caretaking for the family), changes in law (related to vagrancy, truancy, parens patriae), moral reform societies (usually administered through religious institutions), and the like. Excellent research, but I am detracting one star for the lack of attention to race. I should probably detract more, but this was written in the 80s. Even though Stansell does mention black women once in a while, and even though she does discuss waves of (mostly white European) immigrants, it's now (2015) taken almost for granted that the race-gender is a spectrum or at least a finely interwoven mesh - generalizations about ideologies of "womanhood" cannot be made from white women's experiences alone. Still, timing doesn't fully explain the omission; yes, gender history was still "cutting-edge", but considering that this was being written during the "third wave", I would have expected Stansell to be more sensitive to issues re: race.

  2. 5 out of 5

    ivan

    An important exploration of working-class women's positions in the urban landscape of the nineteenth century, in particular as it related to revolutionary and post-revolutionary ideals of republicanism. Stansell seeks to correct earlier histories, which cast female workers as “either feminine versions of working-class men or working-class versions of middle-class women,” as victims who occasionally and inexplicably revolted, but were mostly passive. Initially, the American ideology of republicani An important exploration of working-class women's positions in the urban landscape of the nineteenth century, in particular as it related to revolutionary and post-revolutionary ideals of republicanism. Stansell seeks to correct earlier histories, which cast female workers as “either feminine versions of working-class men or working-class versions of middle-class women,” as victims who occasionally and inexplicably revolted, but were mostly passive. Initially, the American ideology of republicanism was built upon independence; those that were dependent -- including women -- could thus not be complete citizens. Yet popular republicanism did create an imagery of motherhood, incorporating virtuous mothers educating their sons in republican values. Ultimately this imagery did not destabilize the patriarchy, but even at its prime it competed directly with working-class female imagery. While upper-class women were moral guardians, working women -- "refusing" to conform to bourgeois female notions of virtue -- were defeminized, and contributed directly to the creation of the “tenement classes,” a source of both moral and physical contagion. Laboring women had little distinction between the public and private spheres, unlike either laboring men or bourgeois women. “Their domestic lives spread out to the hallways of their tenements, to adjoining apartments and to the streets below. Household work involved them constantly with the milieu outside their own four walls ... It was in the urban neighborhoods, not the home, that the identity of working-class wives and mothers was rooted.” While a useful social history of white women and the class tensions that existed in New York, Stansell silences religious and ethnic tensions (black women are almost nonexistent in her book) and uses New York as an emblem of “industrialization” in a traditionally linear theory of progression toward "modernity." Nonetheless, an important work in U.S. urban history.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Kelli Peters

    Stansell describes the lives of working-class women in New York City between 1789 and 1860. There are very few resources from women during this time period which posed a challenge to Stansell, but she was still able to provide an in-depth look into the lives of working-class women. Stansell describes how new jobs available outside of the home, challenged ideas of patriarchy in the early United States and gave women more freedom and opportunities.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Vincent

    In 1405 Christine de Pizan completed her most famous work, The Book of the City of Ladies, in which she defended the virtues and contributions of women against demeaning yet popular contemporary depictions. Christine Stansell’s similarly titled City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860, evokes a similar spirit and, in its own way, continues Pizan’s mission of raising awareness to the contributions of otherwise neglected women. Stansell’s subject is the laboring women of antebellum New In 1405 Christine de Pizan completed her most famous work, The Book of the City of Ladies, in which she defended the virtues and contributions of women against demeaning yet popular contemporary depictions. Christine Stansell’s similarly titled City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860, evokes a similar spirit and, in its own way, continues Pizan’s mission of raising awareness to the contributions of otherwise neglected women. Stansell’s subject is the laboring women of antebellum New York, tracking the trials, hardships, obstacles, as well as the joys and accomplishments, of this long overlooked population, from the birth of the New Republic to the dawn of the War of the Rebellion. She shows how, after the Revolution, working women were seen as incapable of contributing directly to the republic due to their dual dependencies to their husbands and their employers. They were seen as burdens, obligations that hung heavy on the shoulders of working men, and were thus often treated as little more than parasites - necessary evils that men must endure and discipline with a firm hand. In this era, women’s sexuality and obedience were a man’s due. However, industrialization and immigrant influx changed the social landscape of New York society in the antebellum period. Working women did not - could not - fit within the strict mold prescribed by the genteel class who promoted a cult of domesticity. Living in tenements and needing to seek employment, they could not devote their hours to raising liberty-loving sons in the sanctuaries of private homes. Whether by choice or by circumstance, thousands of women found themselves without the benefit of a male to provide the necessary household income, forcing them to support themselves and often their children, granting them an unprecedented opportunity for financial and personal independence. Of course, such a path was not without its hardships, which Stansell details in a multitude of sad, sobering accounts. To be sure, life was difficult for nearly every working woman of the era. Nevertheless, new representations which signaled female independence arose, such as the Factory Girl or the Bowery Gal. Yet despite these strides, upper class reformers, who focused upon domesticity as the cure-all for urban ills or unhelpfully saw poverty as a moral failing, often to reinforce class divisions rather than recognize a bond of sisterhood with working women, hampered or stifled these accomplishments. In the end, reformers focused upon working men, arguing for greater pay for them so that women could stay at home, thereby allowing the revenant of the cult of domesticity to once again haunt the inclinations of reformers’ policies. Stansell organizes her argument in largely chronological fashion, tracking the few triumphs and seemingly countless pitfalls of working women along the way. She divides her work into four parts. The first part focuses upon the years 1789-1820, and establishes the sexual and economic politics of the New Republic, where women were expected to be entirely subservient to men (and treated accordingly), and economies largely revolved around the familial household, with men almost exclusively making the decisions. The next two parts look at 1820-1850, when industrialization and immigration were dissolving the traditional household economy and working women were increasingly the captains of their own destiny, for better or worse. Women also saw more participation in the labor movement. Here Stansell vividly describes the everyday lives of female laborers, from the difficulties of outworking needleworkers to the independent Factory Girls and the trendsetting Bowery Gals, to Irish domestic servants who, having grown up in squalor, had little patience for the cluttered status symbols of their wealthy employers. The final part looks at the last decade before secession, and in particular at the streets where women, and often girls, were drawn into prostitution. Interestingly, Stansell mindfully rejects Victorian condemnations and interprets their choices as frugal and, in a way, empowering. Men were already demanding access to women’s sexuality, and in this way women gained reciprocity and, with their considerable earnings, financial independence. She closes with a look at street children and the denouncements poor mother’s faced as people began associating their economic hardships with moral failing, often resulting in the state removing the children. If any criticism could be found in Stansell’s structuring, it would be in her closing the study here, for just as the state took away the women’s children, the chapter in many ways takes away these women’s voices where it had previously been so pronounced. Then again, perhaps that’s the point. Originally published in the 1980s, Stansell’s book built on existing scholarship by shining a light upon urban female laborers, too often ignored by historians in favor of the genteel cult of domesticity which played a more publicized role in American antebellum culture. Stansell writes that “glancing at history books, it is difficult to discern those problematic poor women. When laboring women do appear in scholarship about the nineteenth century, it is usually as timid and downtrodden souls, too miserable and oppressed to take much of a part in making history.” However, Stanell shows that dynamic working women were integral to the equally dynamic changes in “work, family and politics in nineteenth-century New York.” In particular, Stansell believes that historians have underestimated the contributions of women’s outwork labor on industrialization, seeing it as a transition rather than, as she effectively argues, “crucial to the industrializing process in many cities.” To fashion her argument, Stansell relies on a multitude of sources. For primary sources, Stansell uses manuscripts (mainly from charities), government reports such as statistics, court testimonies, and autopsy reports (especially regarding abortion and infanticide), reports on poverty, newspaper articles, and memoirs, which generally told the perspectives of the genteel class, for “diaries of New York women before 1860 are difficult to find; those of laboring women are nonexistent.” City of Women captures the essence of New York’s antebellum working women. Stansell approaches their difficulties and decisions with a respectable pragmatism, examining their lives on their own terms. In doing so, though these women left no diaries or memoirs, she lets them speak for themselves. She effectively conveys the victories and setbacks that they endured, and gives a clear voice to their sorrows, frustrations, and rare moments of freedom and joy. Stansell convincingly shows how working women navigated dangerous sexual and economic obstacles and survived, making them compelling subjects of study, and how they contributed unequivocally to industrialization while laying the groundwork for later activists, such as Emma Goldman. Christine de Pizan built a metaphorical city using the biographies of virtuous ladies in order to celebrate them and grant women the deserved respect; Christine Stansell also builds a city, embracing the biographies of women who until now had been virtually invisible. Instead of stressing their virtues, as their genteel contemporaries were wont to do, Stansell presents and finds value in her laboring ladies’ vices and practicality and shows that, despite the political and economic dominance of men, New York was undeniably also a city of women.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Kris

    This was a very good book. It's about the formation of the female working class in New York, distinct from and in tandem with the male working class and the female genteel class. A running theme is women's dependency on men, and how they were the most at risk of destitution if abandoned by men or widowed (because they were so poorly paid as workers). Another is working-class men's paternalism, which limited labor solidarity and furthering women's struggle as workers. Does a good job describing w This was a very good book. It's about the formation of the female working class in New York, distinct from and in tandem with the male working class and the female genteel class. A running theme is women's dependency on men, and how they were the most at risk of destitution if abandoned by men or widowed (because they were so poorly paid as workers). Another is working-class men's paternalism, which limited labor solidarity and furthering women's struggle as workers. Does a good job describing working environment of women (domestic workers; outwork, especially in clothing industry; in workshops; as prostitutes). But she also goes well beyond world of work to discuss women in neighborhoods, in recreation (the Bowery), in sexual relations with men, etc.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    Excerpted as "The Geography of Vice" in Gary Kornblith, ed., The Industrial Revolution in America (1998) In her study of female reformers in New York City during the first half of the 19th Century, Stansell demonstrates that class loyalties were stronger than gender loyalties for the women who reached out to the City's poor. Female reformers were middle class first and women second. Though they empathized with poor women as mothers, their reform efforts did little to meet the poor women they mini Excerpted as "The Geography of Vice" in Gary Kornblith, ed., The Industrial Revolution in America (1998) In her study of female reformers in New York City during the first half of the 19th Century, Stansell demonstrates that class loyalties were stronger than gender loyalties for the women who reached out to the City's poor. Female reformers were middle class first and women second. Though they empathized with poor women as mothers, their reform efforts did little to meet the poor women they ministered to on these women's own terms. The objective of their efforts always remained converting the poor to middle class values, which at times seemed superfluous and at others (to our late 20th Century sensibilities) bordered on malevolence. Second Great Awakening witnessed heightened religious fervor and missionary zeal directed at the working poor of New York City. Emerging separate women's sphere of domesticity colors, and is colored by, encounters between middle class reformers and the working poor in this period. Not only do the reformers see the urban poor through the lens of domesticity, but the lens of domesticity is also shaped by these encounters. The stark relief of true womanhood is highlighted by their encounter with "the other," urban poor women whose working class behavior cast them as "unworthy". Neither the fallen Eve nor the frivolous rich aristocratic woman, the evangelical woman was a moral exemplar to man and woman alike. The New York Tract Society sent messengers out to the urban poor. Women who went forth with tracts and bibles were exemplars of "republican womanhood." So culturally powerful was this gendered construction of female redeemers, by 1834 The Female Moral Reform Society was founded to abolish prostitution. Under the cloak of reform, women were empowered to venture into territory reserved for "respectable" men. Sentimental images of victimized womanhood underlay the categories of worthy/unworthy women. When a nine month pregnant woman showed up on the doorstep of the Asylum for Lying in Women, they were sent back out in the night and delivered her baby in a freezing cold garret -- all for lack of "reliable" references proving that the child was legitimate. The next day the references arrived and the woman and her child were given shelter. Mother and baby survived, but the story could have turned out else wise. What did the republican woman find when she entered this exotic terrain of the urban poor? She found a mode of womanhood that was alien, even unintelligible. "The ways laboring women helped one another, raised their children, played out their pleasures and grievances on the streets only seemed to the pious to manifest a belligerent iniquity." (p. 119) The women who were worthy of the reformers' help, on the other hand, cut themselves off from their working class communities. To merit the attentions of the reformer women, the poor woman needed to forsake the "gregarious clamor of the tenement" for the solitude of the garret. Because most women did not choose to separate themselves from their communities in this manner, class antagonisms disqualified them for the assistance of the reformers. Ultimately class loyalties prevailed and the cult of true womanhood was reinforced by these encounters with the exotic world of the tenements.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Jacob

    Detailed but approachable history of women in ninteenth-century New York focusing on the development of the "cult of domesticity" among the bourgeoisie and the ways in which this development harmed and helped the economic aspirations of working- and lower-class women. The major criticism of this book--and one I agreee with--is that it largely ignores differences and conflicts among women in New York's various immigrant communities in favor of its more exclusively class-focused approach. Addition Detailed but approachable history of women in ninteenth-century New York focusing on the development of the "cult of domesticity" among the bourgeoisie and the ways in which this development harmed and helped the economic aspirations of working- and lower-class women. The major criticism of this book--and one I agreee with--is that it largely ignores differences and conflicts among women in New York's various immigrant communities in favor of its more exclusively class-focused approach. Additionally, I would have appreciated if Stansell had situated the narrative more deliberately in the context of New York politics and its chronology. Finally, there are relatively few primary-source journals or diaries from working-class women, which could have really illuminated the story, but this perhaps reflects an objective lack thereof rather than an oversight on Stansell's part. In any event, the fact that I have several quibbles is actually a testament to how engaging "City of Women" is. A great and readable book.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Daeja

    Stansell describes the social status and work class of White women during the 1789-1860 era. It relates the revolutionary systems women had to overcome and are soon to overcome. It goes through the mental state of those women of that time. Going the different individual lives of women and their strengths, vulnerabilites, and specific morals. The relationship between Women and Men brings light to the "Gender Lens", with marriage. Stansell says "Within the day-to-day experience of tenement life, t Stansell describes the social status and work class of White women during the 1789-1860 era. It relates the revolutionary systems women had to overcome and are soon to overcome. It goes through the mental state of those women of that time. Going the different individual lives of women and their strengths, vulnerabilites, and specific morals. The relationship between Women and Men brings light to the "Gender Lens", with marriage. Stansell says "Within the day-to-day experience of tenement life, the mutuality of domesticity shaped married people's relationships, but so did sexual antagonism. Men's violence toward their wives was not only a displacement of the anger explanation that comes easily to mind but was also an attempt to recapture and enforce older kinds of masculine authority."(78) This goes deeper into the marriages of Women and Men during that era. Along with the stereotype of Men and always having the power in the relationship.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Caitie

    While I do believe this is an important book describing how women lived in New York City, many parts of the book were repetitive. I really felt as though the author made her point without having to use five different examples about a specific thing. This happened in the portion about prostitutes, I think that the point was made early on in the section, but the author continually brought up the same facts about why women turned to that profession. Because of this, it didn't feel cohesive at times While I do believe this is an important book describing how women lived in New York City, many parts of the book were repetitive. I really felt as though the author made her point without having to use five different examples about a specific thing. This happened in the portion about prostitutes, I think that the point was made early on in the section, but the author continually brought up the same facts about why women turned to that profession. Because of this, it didn't feel cohesive at times. On the other hand, however, it was nice to get a glimpse of women's lives in New York City before the Civil War.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Joan

    What could have been a stultifying statistical data dump turned out to be a compelling study illuminating the lives of working class and poor women in NYC in the "between the wars" period (in this case, the Revolutionary War and the Civil War). There is no lack of scholarship (or of data) but Stansell leavens the necessary dough with individual case studies whenever possible. City of Women is both an elegant piece of historical scholarship and a readable story. I would be interested in reading u What could have been a stultifying statistical data dump turned out to be a compelling study illuminating the lives of working class and poor women in NYC in the "between the wars" period (in this case, the Revolutionary War and the Civil War). There is no lack of scholarship (or of data) but Stansell leavens the necessary dough with individual case studies whenever possible. City of Women is both an elegant piece of historical scholarship and a readable story. I would be interested in reading updates/revised editions, if such exist.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Joe

    I would have to say that this work is quite remarkable in its revolutionary look at working class women's experiences and the wonderful contributions this work made to thinking about history and women's place in it. However, reading it from a historian's standpoint in 2008, it seems like it's all things I have heard before as pretty standard women's history. I appreciate its significance to history, but it didn't really further my thinking. I would have to say that this work is quite remarkable in its revolutionary look at working class women's experiences and the wonderful contributions this work made to thinking about history and women's place in it. However, reading it from a historian's standpoint in 2008, it seems like it's all things I have heard before as pretty standard women's history. I appreciate its significance to history, but it didn't really further my thinking.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Heidi

    Reads much like a textbook, however it is another interesting history book of mine. It makes you proud that women have so much more power today, and a chance to stand up for themselves. It made me feel so grateful that I live in a time when women have a chance to provide for themselves,as well as represent themselves as citizens.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Elizabethchaos Phillips

    By the time this book began to really grip me, it was nearly over. Though throughout it proved to be a fascinating look at a woman torn between what is right, and what is required. Showing the strength it takes to open ones eyes to the injustices of the world and do something about it, accepting great personal risk.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Karen

    * Understanding Oppression: Women's Rights (Then and Now) Excellent study of working-class women in New York City--essential reading for understanding the interplay between labor history and emerging ideas about gender roles during this period. #gender #politics #history #americas #nyc * Understanding Oppression: Women's Rights (Then and Now) Excellent study of working-class women in New York City--essential reading for understanding the interplay between labor history and emerging ideas about gender roles during this period. #gender #politics #history #americas #nyc

  15. 5 out of 5

    Bruce

    Gender and labor and the effects of each on labor history and feminism.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Jackie

    Excellent book about women’s history.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca

    Not incredibly boring, although it is almost entirely about the lower classes. Some of the chapters were quite interesting.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Ms.Cogan

    some parts were interesting, others dragged

  19. 5 out of 5

    Beth

    Excellent study of working-class women in New York City--essential reading for understanding the interplay between labor history and emerging ideas about gender roles during this period.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Mike Emett

    Assigned for individual Book Review for American History 1787-1877 reading seminar P.h.D. course

  21. 5 out of 5

    Kerry Twohy Tornay

  22. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca Loustiae

  23. 4 out of 5

    Trishtator

  24. 5 out of 5

    Kate

  25. 5 out of 5

    Tiffany Joy

  26. 5 out of 5

    Gregory Miller

  27. 5 out of 5

    Katherine Hensley

  28. 5 out of 5

    Kendra

  29. 4 out of 5

    lisa m. greenwood

  30. 4 out of 5

    Charlotte

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