One Reason They Didn’t Smile

Women 1850-1860
Are you sure you’d like to live back then?

“…  [Husbands] may use any reasonable amount of force …. “

“The rights of the husband over the wife, as defined by our laws, are of the most absolute character known to civilization. Held to be one flesh in the religious rite, the being of the wife, or her legal existence, is merged in that of her husband. Except where the Womans (sic) Rights movement has affected recent legislation, the wife has

  • No property
  • Can make no contract or will
  • Collect no wages
  • Nor support herself

in any legal way, independent of her husband.”

So begins T.C. Leland in his Illustrated Manners Book, published by Leland, Clay & Co. in 1855.

And why would this presumed authority include this information in a book on etiquette? Because if a woman were going to behave properly, she had to understand her status. In the case of married women in the United States in the 1850s — and earlier, of course — that status was little better than a slave.

As diarist Mary Chesnut famously has said, “There is no slave, after all, like a wife.”

Spelling Out Subjugation

In case women were in doubt about the specifics of their limitations, Leland continues:

“No debt can be collected of her, for she has no separate power to contract one and her husband is bound to pay her debts, assuming even those she owed at marriage. Her property, unless settled by some entail or trusteeship, is his,and can be spent by him or taken for his debts. It is difficult to imagine a complete surrender of personal rights. The wife must follow her husband, or stay at his bidding; live where he provides a home, with no right to seek another. Her very clothing is the property of the husband. He has supreme power over the children, and can take them from her at his option.

Declaration of Independence

“As these laws are based upon both the religious and civil idea of marriage — the two being but one, and the husband the head of the wife, who promises to obey her husband, and is so commanded in the scriptures, it is hard to say what are the rights of the wife. Her duties, however, are sufficiently plain. We open the first book we can lay our hands on, and copy a few paragraphs:

“‘1. Always receive your husband with smiles — leave nothing undone to render home agreeable, and gratefully reciprocate his kindness and attention.

“‘2. Study to gratify his inclinations, in regard to food and cookery in the management of the family; in your dress, manners, and deportment.

“‘3. Never attempt to rule, or appear to rule your husband. Such conduct degrades husbands — and wives always partake largely in the degradation of their husbands.

“‘4. In everything reasonable comply with his wishes with cheerfulness — and even, as far as possible, anticipate them.

“‘5. Avoid all altercations or arguments leading to ill-humor — and more especially before company. Few things are more disgusting than the altercations of the married, when in the company of friends or strangers.

“‘6. Never attempt to interfere in his business unless he ask your advice or counsel; and never attempt to control him in the management of it.’

An Entire Surrender of Her Will to That of Her Husband

“There are a dozen more, all founded upon the same idea; but if a lady understands that her duties are obedience, complaisance, an entire surrender of her will to that of her husband, and attention to his happiness as the first consideration, she has the spirit of them all.

Woman not smiling
Who looks unhappy in this drawing? This illustration seems to expose a sorrow simmering under the surface.

“Do not pout, dear young lady; we simply perform our duty in laying before you the rules of behavior, in married life, required of you by both the religion and laws of our country; where individual liberty, and the independent pursuit of happiness are surrendered at the marriage altar. (Bold-face is mine.)

(Since the purpose of this post is to acquaint the reader with the legal status of women in the mid-19th century, I will resist addressing the use of Scripture to justify sinful behavior and the error of cherry-picking verses to support one’s position, except to quote Jesus in Matthew 7:12: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”)

“Husbands have also their duties,” Leland continues. “They are to be kind, loving husbands; good providers; watchful guardians of the happiness of those who are entrusted to them. The husband ought never to mortify his wife, by rebukes before company; and though it is her duty to obey him, and he may use any reasonable amount of force, it is doubtful whether he would now be justified in beating her, as not long since in England, with a stick not larger than his thumb! (Another justification for the American Revolution, in my opinion.)

“Having given these maxims, as in duty bound; we may perhaps be permitted to express a private opinion of our own, which is that every woman, whatever her legal position may be, is entitled to be treated with delicacy, justice, generosity,and gallantry; that she is Queen of Society, placed at the right hand of man, to be honored and reverenced, as but very little lower than the angels, and next them in the scale of being; and that the husband should treat his wife with the same chivalrous courtesy, delicacy, and regard for her wishes and happiness, as in the dawning romance of their early love.

“And the wife should treat her husband always as such a husband deserves to be treated.”

Of course, these blessings were dispensed by a beneficent husband without the coercion of law.

An Ideal Enforced by Law

Children were taught early on what their roles would be in later life. Leland’s work represented the prevalent thought on the subject of women’s rights and it was reinforced by teachers, parents, relatives, society in general and in books children were given to read.

Indoctrination? Yes.

There were dissenters, but they did not have the power to change the law yet. That was decades away.

William Lowndes Yancey
William Lowndes Yancey, the fiery secessionist, was an advocate for women’s legal rights. He’d seen his mother mistreated by his step-father and the inequity under the law made him a ready and eloquent advocate for women’s legal rights.


Writing 1850s Women Authentically

So-called historical fiction that portrays women as fiery independents seeking to resist societal restraints paints an inaccurate picture of the 1850s. Conformity was a virtue and even other women generally disapproved of those who did not remain in their sphere: the home, the nursery and the hallowed halls of purity, where their job was to provide a restraint to the natural (and therefore uncontrollable) immorality of men.

There were exceptions, but on the whole women who ventured out of this well-defined ideal lost their prospects for marriage, for what man would want to marry a woman who was not predisposed to subjugation? And if a woman did not marry, she had few appealing choices:

  • Live with relatives, where she would end up doing the disagreeable tasks and the most work and trying very hard not to offend her sister-in-law, brother or others who allowed her to have a roof over her head. She’d never have a home where she could sit in her own chair by her own fireside. By avoiding a life of deference to a husband, she consigned herself to a life of deference to everyone else who provided for her, even their children.
  • Take employment, which would cost her her social position and friends, and possibly even her reputation, if she were from a well-to-do family. Even teaching school made a woman suspect unless there was a man in charge. Certainly, she could not engage in any sort of commerce that would bring her into contact with men she did not know. That would cost her her reputation on the spot!
  • Reside in the poor house.

The Southern female characters in my books chafe under the restraints society places on them, but they do not flaunt societal norms. They are ladies and determined to “do the right thing,” with the exception of one. And she is thought to have lost her mind and probably has.

So, how do my characters, who have the same basic aspirations as women today, find any sort of fulfillment in life, caught as they are between what they are and what society tells them they should be? Is it better to hope in a brother’s kindness than to take a chance on losing every individual liberty and the pursuit of happiness by marrying?

What do you think? Would it be worth wearing Scarlett’s beautiful dresses to have been a woman living in the decade before the War Between the States?



  • Leland, T.C. The Illustrated Manners Book, New York: Leland, Clay & Co., 1855. pp.325-237.
  • Chesnut, Mary Boykin. Mary Chesnut’s Civil War. Ed. Comer Vann Woodward. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1981. p. 59.
  • “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 7:12, Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.

Image References
See for more images.

  • Combined image: the Bartos Collection, The Met and the Library of Congress.
  • Sad dancer. DeGarmo, William. The Prompter Containing Full Descriptions of All the Quadrilles, Figures of the German Cotillon, etc.Raymond & Caulon, Printers: New York, 1865, monographic. Library of Congress, Image 0600453.
  • Portrait of William Lowndes Yancey. DuBose, John Witherspoon. The Life and Times of William Lowndes Yancey. Birmingham: Roberts & Son, 1892. Frontpiece.
© Copyright 2016 Jan Nichols Batts



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