This paper argues that nineteenth-century American women viewed work as having a moral nature, and believed this idea extended to public advocacy. The latter is true in two senses: 1) that public advocacy also had a moral nature, and 2) that at times a relationship existed between the moral nature of their work and that of their activism. Private work could be seen as a moral duty or an evil nightmare, depending upon the context, and different women likewise saw activism as either right and proper or unethical and improper. More conservative women, for instance, did not support the shattering of traditional gender roles in the public sphere, the troubling efforts of other women to push for political and social change, no matter the justification. Abolition, women’s rights, and Native American rights, if worth pursuing at all, were the purview of men. Reformist women, on the other hand, saw their public roles as moral responsibilities that echoed those of domestic life or addressed its iniquities. While the moral connection between the two spheres is at times frustratingly tenuous and indirect, let us explore women’s divergent views on the rightness or wrongness of their domestic work and political activity, while considering why some women saw relationships between them. In this context, “work” and its synonyms can be defined as a nineteenth-century woman’s everyday tasks and demeanor — not only what she does but how she behaves in the home as well (as we will see, setting a behavioral example could be regarded as crucial a role in domestic life as household tasks).
In the 1883 memoir Life Among the Piutes, Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins (born Thocmentony) expressed a conviction that the household duties of Piute women and men carried moral weight. She entitled her second chapter “Domestic and Social Moralities,” domestic moralities being proper conduct regarding the home and family. “Our children are very carefully taught to be good,” the chapter begins — and upon reaching the age of marriage, interested couples are warned of the seriousness of domestic responsibilities. “The young man is summoned by the father of the girl, who asks him in her presence, if he really loves his daughter, and reminds him, if he says he does, of all the duties of a husband.” The concepts of love, marriage, and becoming a family were inseparable from everyday work. The father would then ask his daughter the same question. “These duties are not slight,” Winnemucca Hopkins writes. The woman is “to dress the game, prepare the food, clean the buckskins, make his moccasins, dress his hair, bring all the wood, — in short, do all the household work. She promises to ‘be himself,’ and she fulfils her promise.” “Be himself” may be indicative of becoming one with her husband, or even submitting to his leadership, but regardless of interpretation it is clear, with the interesting use of present tense (“fulfils”) and lack of qualifiers, that there is no question the woman will perform her proper role and duties. There is such a question for the husband, however: “if he does not do his part” when childrearing he “is considered an outcast.” Mothers in fact openly discussed whether a man was doing his duty. For Winnemucca Hopkins and other Piutes, failing to carry out one’s domestic labor was a shameful wrong. This chapter, and the book in general, attempts to demonstrate to a white American audience “how good the Indians were” — not lazy, not seeking war, and so on — and work is positioned as an activity that makes them ethical beings. And ethical beings, it implies, do not deserve subjugation and brutality. True, Winnemucca Hopkins may have emphasized domestic moralities to garner favor from whites with certain expectations of duty — but that does not mean these moralities were not in fact roots of Piute culture; more favor could have been curried by de-emphasizing aspects whites may have felt violated the social norms of work, such as men taking over household tasks, chiefs laboring while remaining poor, and so on, but the author resists, which could suggest reliability.
Like tending faithfully to private duties, for Winnemucca Hopkins advocacy for native rights was the right thing to do. A moral impetus undergirded both private and public acts. White settlers and the United States government subjected the Piutes, of modern-day Nevada, to violence, exploitation, internment, and removal; Winnemucca Hopkins took her skills as an interpreter and status as chief’s daughter to travel, write, petition, and lecture, urging the American people and state to end the suffering. She “promised my people that I would work for them while there was life in my body.” There was no ambiguity concerning the moral urgency of her public work: “For shame!” she wrote to white America, “You dare to cry out Liberty, when you hold us in places against our will, driving us from place to place as if we were beasts… Oh, my dear readers, talk for us, and if the white people will treat us like human beings, we will behave like a people; but if we are treated by white savages as if we are savages, we are relentless and desperate; yet no more so than any other badly treated people. Oh, dear friends, I am pleading for God and for humanity.” The crimes against the Piutes not only justified Winnemucca Hopkins raising her voice — they should spur white Americans to do the same, to uphold their own values such as faith, belief in liberty, etc. For this Piute leader, just as there existed a moral duty to never shirk domestic responsibilities, there existed a moral duty to not turn a blind eye to oppression.
Enslaved women like Harriet Jacobs understood work in a different way. The nature of her domestic labor was decidedly immoral. In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), she wrote “of the half-starved wretches toiling from dawn till dark on the plantations… of mothers shrieking for their children, torn from their arms by slave traders… of young girls dragged down into moral filth… of pools of blood around the whipping post… of hounds trained to tear human flesh… of men screwed into cotton gins to die…” Jacobs, a slave in North Carolina, experienced the horrors of being sexual property, forced household work, and the spiteful sale of her children. Whereas Winnemucca Hopkins believed in the rightness of her private work and public advocacy, related moral duties to the home and to her people, Jacobs had an even more direct connection between these spheres: the immorality of her private work led straight to, and justified, her righteous battle for abolition. Even before this, she resisted the evil of her work, most powerfully by running away, but also by turning away from a slaveowner’s sexual advances, among other acts.
After her escape from bondage, Jacobs became involved in abolitionist work in New York and wrote Incidents to highlight the true terrors of slavery and push white women in the North toward the cause. Much of her story has been verified by (and we know enough of slavery from) other sources; she is not merely playing to her audience and its moral sensitivities either. One should note the significance of women of color writing books of this kind. Like Winnemucca Hopkins’ text, Jacobs’ contained assurances from white associates and editors that the story was true. Speaking out to change hearts was no easy task — prejudiced skepticism abounded. Jacobs (and her editor, Lydia Maria Child) stressed the narrative was “no fiction” and expected accusations of “indecorum” over the sexual content, anticipating criticisms that could hamper the text’s purpose. Writing could be dangerous and trying. Jacobs felt compelled to use pseudonyms to protect loved ones. She ended the work by writing it was “painful to me, in many ways, to recall the dreary years I passed in bondage.” Winnemucca Hopkins may have felt similarly. In a world of racism, doubt, reprisals, and trauma, producing a memoir was a brave, powerful act of advocacy.
Despite the pain (and concern her literary skills were inadequate), Jacobs saw writing Incidents as the ethical path. “It would have been more pleasant for me to have been silent about my own history,” she confesses at the start, a perhaps inadvertent reminder that what is right is not always what is easy. She then presents her “motives,” her “effort in behalf of my persecuted people.” It was right to reveal the “condition of two millions of women at the South, still in bondage, suffering what I suffered, and most of them far worse,” to show “Free States what Slavery really is,” all its “dark…abominations.” Overall, the text is self-justifying. The evils of slavery warrant the exposé (Life Among the Piutes is similar). Jacobs’ public advocacy grew from and was justified by her experience with domestic labor and her moral values.
These things, for more conservative women, precluded public work. During the abolition and women’s rights movements of the nineteenth century, less radical women saw the public roles of their sisters as violating the natural order and setting men and women against each other. Catherine Beecher, New York educator and writer, expressed dismay over women circulating (abolitionist) petitions in her 1837 “Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism, with Reference to the Duty of American Females.” It was against a woman’s moral duty to petition male legislators to act: “…in this country, petitions to congress, in reference to the official duties of legislators, seem, IN ALL CASES, to fall entirely without [outside] the sphere of female duty. Men are the proper persons to make appeals to rulers whom they appoint…” (This is an interesting use of one civil inequity to justify another: only men can vote, therefore only men should petition.) After all, “Heaven has appointed to one sex the superior, and to the other the subordinate station…” Christianity was the foundation of the gender hierarchy, which meant, for Beecher, that women entering the political sphere violated women’s divinely-decreed space and responsibilities. Women’s “influence” and “power” were to be exerted through the encouragement of love, peace, and moral rightness, as well as by professional teaching, in the “domestic and social circle.” In other words, women were to hint to men and boys the proper way to act in politics only while at home, school, and so forth. This highlights why domestic “work” must reach definitionally beyond household tasks: just as Winnemucca Hopkins and Jacobs were expected to maintain certain demeanors in addition to completing their physical labors, here women must be shining examples, moral compasses, with bearings above reproach.
Clearly, direct calls and organizing for political and social change were wrong; they threatened “the sacred protection of religion” and turned woman into a “combatant” and “partisan.” They set women against God and men. Elsewhere, reformist women were also condemned for speaking to mixed-sex audiences, attacking men instead of supporting them, and more. Beecher and other women held values that restricted women to domestic roles, to “power” no more intrusive to the gender order than housework — to adopt these roles was moral, to push beyond them immoral. The connection between the ideological spheres: one was an anchor on the other. (Limited advocacy to keep women in domestic roles, however, seemed acceptable: Beecher’s essay was public, reinforcing the expectations and sensibilities of many readers, and she was an activist for women in education, a new role yet one safely distant from politics.) Reformist women, of course, such as abolitionist Angelina Grimké, held views a bit closer to those of Jacobs and Winnemucca Hopkins: women were moral beings, and therefore had the ethical responsibility to confront wrongs just as men did, and from that responsibility came the inherent social or political rights needed for the task.
The diversity of women’s beliefs was the product of their diverse upbringings, environments, and experiences. Whether domestic labor was viewed as moral depended on its nature, its context, its participants; whether engagement in the public sphere was seen as the same varied according to how urgent, horrific, and personal social and political issues were regarded. Clearly, race impacted how women saw work. The black slave could have a rather different perspective on moral-domestic duty than a white woman (of any class). One historian posited that Jacobs saw the evils of forced labor as having a corrosive effect on her own morals, that freedom was a prerequisite to a moral life. A unique perspective born of unique experiences. Race impacted perspectives on activism, too, with voices of color facing more extreme, violent motivators like slavery and military campaigns against native nations. Factors such as religion, political ideology, lack of personal impact, race, class, and so on could build a wall of separation between the private and public spheres in the individual mind, between where women should and should not act, but they could also have a deconstructive effect, freeing other nineteenth-century American women to push the boundaries of acceptable behavior. That domestic work and public advocacy had moral natures, aligning here, diverging there, at times connecting, has rich support in the extant documents.
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 Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins, Life Among the Piutes (Mount Pleasant, SC: Arcadia Press, 2017), 25-27.
 Ibid., 25.
 Ibid. 25-26.
 Ibid. 26.
 Ibid., 27.
 Ibid., 27-28.
 Ibid., 105-108 offers examples of Winnemucca Hopkins’ advocacy such as petitioning and letter writing. Her final sentence (page 107) references her lectures on the East coast.
 Ibid., 105.
 Ibid., 106.
 “Slavery is wrong,” she writes flatly. Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, ed. Jennifer Fleischner (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2020), 95.
 Ibid., 96.
 Ibid., chapters 5, 16, 19.
 Ibid., 51 and chapter 27.
 Ibid., 7-18, 26.
 Ibid., 7-9.
 Ibid., 26-27, 207-209.
Winnemucca Hopkins, Piutes, 109-119.
 Jacobs, Incidents, 25-27.
 Ibid., 25.
 Ibid., 207.
 Ibid., 25-26.
 Ibid., 26.
 Catherine Beecher, “Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism, with Reference to the Duty of American Females,” in Kathryn Kish Sklar, Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement, 1830-1870 (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2019), 109-110.
 Ibid., 110.
 Ibid., 109.
 Ibid., 110.
 Ibid., 109-110.
 “Report of the Woman’s Rights Convention Held at Seneca Falls, N.Y.,” in ibid., 163.
“Pastoral Letter: The General Association of Massachusetts Churches Under Their Care,” in ibid., 120.
 Beecher, “Duty,” 109.
 Angelina Grimké, “An Appeal to the Women of the Nominally Free States,” in ibid., 103. See also Angelina Grimké, “Letter to Theodore Dwight Weld and John Greenleaf Whittier” in ibid., 132.
 Kathleen Kennedy (lecture, Missouri State University, April 12, 2022).