Feme Decovert

New York in the 1840s and 1850s was an intensely homosocial city. Men clubbed, ate, drank, rioted, whored, paraded, and politicked together, clustered together in boardinghouses and boards of directors, even slept together. Whitman spent much of his time in the company of handsome young workingmen, occasionally bringing them home for the evening, and whether or not he and they engaged in sexual intimacies, other men certainly did.

New York provided many opportunities for same-sex encounters. Vast numbers of men lived outside traditional families in all-male boardinghouses. Casual acquaintances could be struck up in bathhouses near the Broadway hotels, at bohemian bars like Pfaff’s, in theaters, aboard ships, along wharves, while strolling in parks, and in church (in 1846 two men who had met in a house of worship lived together for three months in a boardinghouse, engaging in nightly “carnal intercourse”). Passing references to “male prostitutes” suggest more strictly commercial options were available.

When reports of “buggery” or “sodomy” cropped up in the press they were usually accompanied by traditional abuse. Thus in 1846 the Herald excoriated a respectable storekeeper who had been caught “in one of those revolting and disgraceful acts which are nightly practiced on the Battery or in the vicinity of the City Hall.” City authorities, however, were remarkably unconcerned. Consensual buggery was seldom prosecuted by public officials. There were only five arrests for sodomy throughout the 1850s. Authorities usually intervened only in cases involving force and violence, underage participants (in 1857, a man was arrested for committing sodomy with boys aged eleven to fourteen), or indecent exposure, punishing less the “act” than its visibility. In 1846, when one Thomas Carey alleged that Edward McCosker, a young Irish policeman, had accosted him while he “was making water in Cedar Street” and “commenced indecent­ly feeling his privates,” the mayor, after a hearing, dismissed McCosker from the force but took no criminal action.

Homosexuality wasn’t a crime. It didn’t even exist. The very notion of “homosexuality”—understood as a category describing a person’s sexual being—was not invented until the eighties. And while same-sex acts still fell under ancient proscriptions, “consenting to sodomy” would not be criminalized in New York law until the end of the century. In an era when passionate male bonding was universal, and all-male gatherings the norm, a little buggery between friends might well have been taken as an extension of existing norms rather than a flagrant transgression of them.

What really alarmed critics of same-sex behavior was males who adopted “feminine appearance and manners”—men like Peter Sewally, a.k.a. Mary Jones, a black New Yorker who lived in a Greene Street brothel where he cooked, greeted patrons, and dressed in female clothes because, he explained, he “looked so much better in them.” The unnerving thing about cross-dressing was that it transgressed the frontier between gender domains, which same-sex displays of affection reinforced.

Males were the most vociferous about keeping spheres separate—no surprise, given that the distribution of gender perquisites so heavily favored their sex. But upper-and middle-class women spent much of their time weaving and sustaining densely homosocial associational networks, forming intense friendships, hugging, kissing, sleeping with, and ardently proclaiming their love for one another. They trooped to one another’s homes for visits and teas. They offered extensive support at crucial moments in a woman’s life: marriage, pregnancy, birth, nursing. They spent entire days on joint shopping trips, moved in with one another while husbands were away, shared summer vacations. They apprenticed their daughters in housewifery and motherhood at a time when apprenticeship in the male trades was collapsing. They built together a world that provided the emotional warmth and connection absent from the increasingly stiff relations across the gender divide.


“The Man Monster”—Peter Sewally, a.k.a. Maty Jones (1836). (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)

City space manifested these delineations. The downtown worlds of politics and business remained physically off limits to ladies, and many of the civic parades that trooped through lower Manhattan streets were totally masculine events. When genteel women ventured out into heterosexual terrain, they found a network of safe spaces and corridors awaiting them. By the 1850s New York had a Ladies’ Oyster Shop, a Ladies’ Reading Room, a Ladies’ Bowling Alley; banks and post offices had special ladies’ windows. There was even a ladies’ eatery: Taylor’s, at Broadway and Franklin Street, grew from being a humble ice creamery to serving three thousand women on the average weekday at over a hundred black walnut tables (“the restaurant of the age,” the Herald called it). Olmsted made sure that when his Central Park skating rink opened in 1858 it included a “ladies’ pond” where the timid could tumble without blushing, and his park regulations strictly prohibited “boisterous or indecent conduct or language.”

Much as many bourgeois women may have appreciated the provision of such accommodations, and others may have found honor, dignity, even a modicum of power in presiding over their sphere, others felt increasingly restless and constricted. As they watched male fields of action expand so dramatically in the boom years, the balance between the gender spheres was coming to seem increasingly unequal, even unjust.


Nowhere was this new sensibility more in evidence than in the separate sphere of women’s literature that had emerged, in the 1840s and 1850s, with such astonishing rapidity. The books that hundreds of thousands of female buyers boosted to bestseller status (dwarfing Dickens’s sales) included domestic novels that explored the pleasures and trials of running a modern household (including struggles with servants and husbands), dreamy romances that celebrated decked-out and adored young heroines, weepy tales of dying children, and illustrated guides to the latest fashions. Much of what made it into print accepted, even glorified, the sentimental stereotypes of female passivity. Susan Warner’s 1850 blockbuster The Wide Wide World urged readers to seek spiritual strength in submission and obedience, and that same year author Grace Greenwood defined the feminine genius as “timid, doubtful and clingingly dependent; a perpetual childhood.”

Yet what was most striking about the new women’s literature was how angry much of it was, how full of complaints about what one 1856 novel called “that living death to which it is the fashion to consign females of the wealthy middle-class.” “I feel like rushing out,” said a character in Charlotte Chesebro’s Children of Light (1853). “But here I am, only a woman—a housekeeper . . . to be kept in my ‘proper sphere’ and ‘place,’ and never to stir an inch out of it in any direction, for fear that all creation would turn against me, and hunt me down, as they would a wild beast!” Many novelists fumed at men they saw as jailers. A host of masculine villains paraded through their plots—neglectful fathers, cruel husbands, and assorted gamblers, alcoholics, philanderers, failures, or murderers—with whom courageous and creative women did combat or from whom they fled.

Authors ritually agreed that the “Home” was “woman’s empire” and that the work women did there raising republican children was indispensable, but in go-ahead New York City, the action was patently elsewhere. Urban society celebrated producers—the men who made ships, built railroads, traded stocks and commodities, got on with business. Some New York women, too, were censorious of what one British visitor called “the utter idleness of the lady class.” Novelist Catharine Sedgwick found her peers as little trained for the actual business of life “as if we had been born in the royal family of Persia.” Women didn’t choose idleness, insisted Lydia Maria Child, they were pressed into it.

What particularly galled writer and editor Child was the dictum that women “must not study, because gentlemen do not admire literary ladies.” Worse, the conventional male assessment (particularly that of medical “experts”) held that mental acuity wasn’t really possible for women, driven as they were by their wombs, not their heads. But growing numbers of women were in fact receiving rigorous intellectual training at institutions around the metropolitan area. The Brooklyn Collegiate Institute for Young Ladies insisted its charges be educated “as carefully, as substantially, and as liberally” as men, and the Rutgers Female Institute, incorporated in 1838, taught belles lettres, history, mathematics, and philosophy. Such academies were not intended to prepare graduates for careers or roles in the public realm, to be sure, but rather to help them attract and later assist the right kind of husband. Yet without denying their special responsibilities to home and family, some ladies began to argue they should be allowed to enter the occupations and professions into which their brothers were flocking.

The notion that respectable and educated females might undertake gainful employment ran up against the reality that, as an 1846 article in the feminist Advocate for Moral Reform put it bluntly: “Men have monopolized almost every field of labor. They have taken the learned professions, they have entered every department which commerce opens, and indeed, almost every place where skill and talent is required, they have excluded women.” While the city’s flourishing publishing industry had proved hospitable to women, other suitable professions were growing morerestrictive, notably medicine.

Childbirth had long been a jealously guarded female domain. New York midwives had to swear they would not reveal “any matter Appertaining to your Office in the presence of any Man.” Since the development and use of obstetrical forceps, however, male doctors had begun to assist midwives at difficult births and then, slowly, to displace them in the birthing room. To consolidate control over this lucrative practice, they refused to train midwives in the new methods, claiming women were too emotional to make cool judgments in medical emergencies. Midwives dwindled, male obstetricians multiplied.

They did not, however, sweep the field, in part because examinations by male doctors continued to outrage female modesty. Many physicians were forced to communicate with their patients on delicate issues through elderly female intermediaries. In this context, female doctors constituted a serious threat, one reason women were barred from medical college. Those who did receive medical training attended unorthodox institutions, like the New York Hydropathic and Physiological School, which in 1856 graduated thirty males and twenty females. Such women could be dismissed as quacks. Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell could not.

Blackwell, an English immigrant, had gotten into an upstate medical school and received the first American M.D. degree ever conferred on a woman. But when she returned to New York City in 1851, physicians prevented her from practicing in city hospitals and dispensaries, and she became the target of hate mail. In 1853 Blackwell opened what would become the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, in a oneroom dispensary on 7th Street near Tompkins Square. She would be assisted by Dr. Marie Zackrzewska, former chief midwife of Prussia’s largest hospital, who had emigrated to New York City convinced that “only in a republic can it be proved that science has no sex.” Poor women flocked from all over Manhattan and Brooklyn to this first medical charity in the United States staffed by female physicians. The New York Infirmary took root, despite vitriolic opposition from the city’s male medicos, though its efforts to add a women’s medical college would be thwarted until 1868. It would be the Women’s Hospital of New York (1855), organized by male physicians to treat female disorders, that would receive significant appropriations of money and land from state and city.


Working-class women faced quite a different problem. The same booming economy that was tempting some of the lady class into the workplace was driving poorer women into it willy-nilly.

Many female Irish refugees, large numbers of whom came over on their own, tried to reconstruct familiar domestic arrangements, but a good man, any man, was hard to find. Though Irish females only slightly outnumbered males on the immigrant ships, in New York there were 125 women of marrying age for every hundred men. The demand for Irish brawn was continental in scope, and many males swirled in and out of the city to great construction projects in surrounding states and points west. “The immense majority,” noted a New York Irish paper in 1859, were “as yet but a mere floating population, migrating from place to place, wherever they may find a market for their labor.” Irishwomen, on the other hand, found it relatively easy to get jobs as domestic servants with affluent New Yorkers and tended to stay in the metropolis. The gender imbalance created by male mobility was exacerbated by male mortality, as dangerous jobs chewed up Irish laborers.

Germans, whose flight was less chaotic, found it easier to reconstruct existing families and create new ones. Though early in the exodus 60 percent of the mostly youthful arrivals were male, by the late 1850s the gender ratio had evened out at fifty-two to forty-eight, and over two-thirds of the community were settled down in families. As a general rule, the higher uptown in Kleindeutschland one went, the more likely one was to find married couples predominating over boardinghouse singles. Yet those who did marry hardly lived middle-class lives. Some skilled craftsmen’s wives could afford to tend to their parlors, but with male incomes low and sporadic, women had to work if their families were to get beyond the basics or, in some cases, even to survive. Taking in boarders was one solution: over half the working women in the Sixth Ward over thirty did so in 1855. Taking in garment piecework was another, and young unmarried Ger­man daughters worked alongside their parents in tenement workshops. Even then, poor immigrant wives were, of necessity, out and about the town far more than their middleclass counterparts. And many immigrant women were forced to live and work in other people’s families: servants boarded with employers in sufficient numbers to give the genteel wards a decidedly feminine majority.

Among Irish women, moreover, the ranks of those who could not marry were increasingly bolstered by those who would not, or who delayed doing so as long as possible. Violence, drink, poverty, desertion: all these devalued matrimony for Irish women, continuing a Famine-generated retreat from traditional marriage patterns. Males and females in Ireland increasingly led sex-segregated lives—in the family circle, at church, and in places of recreation—and convents flourished in post-Famine Ireland. They thrived in New York too, because they offered sisters an appealing combination of spiritual fulfillment, power, respect, significant work (most orders being activist, not contemplative), and freedom from subordination to husbands and the dangers of childbirth.

A growing numbers ot jobs—products ot the city’s development as a publishing, communications, manufacturing, and fashion center—provided young and childless women with the wherewithal to survive outside traditional family units. For exploited seamstresses, this autonomy could be a miserable experience. For the old, the frail, and those with children, life without male support could be catastrophic. But others carved out a decent independence by doing “women’s work,” such as hairdressing, photographic tinting, etching, engraving, jewelry making, cameo cutting, enameling, toymaking, and bookselling. In addition, the city’s commitment to public education (and its desire to cut costs) created new opportunities. The ensuing demand for teachers was increasingly met by women, who worked for far less than male counterparts, and soon three-quarters of the thousand public school teachers were women.

Such jobs allowed single young females to live apart from parents. One survey of single working women in 1855 found over half living on their own in boardinghouses or sharing tenement rooms with siblings, cousins, or workmates. Conditions could be spartan, even harsh, with half a dozen factory girls crammed into a single garret. On the other hand, they were no longer obliged to cook, wash, haul water, and carry wood for their parents after they had finished their paid jobs for the day.

Efforts to improve wages and working conditions in female trades continued to go nowhere. Not only did the great labor upheavals of the 1850s almost completely exclude women, but the Industrial Congress adopted rigid positions on “woman’s place” and said female wage work was “incompatible with the true dignity and nature of woman.” The real solution was for men to be paid a “family wage” that would allow them to keep their wives at home, as did the men of the bourgeoisie.

Some German socialists adopted a feminist stance. Weitling’s Republik der Arbeiter formally acknowledged women’s rights, and the labor societies he led included a few women—among them Mathilde Giesler Anneke, daughter of a wealthy Westphalian landlord and mine owner. Estranged from her class, she married forty-niner Fritz Anneke, arrived in 1852, joined Weitling’s organization, and regularly lectured at workers’ vereins in New York City and Williamsburgh on her view “that the social question could only be solved by the emancipation of women.” Few rank-and-file socialists agreed. The hausfrau should be a companion but stick to guarding the proletarian family. German radicals defended the family wage and scorned feminists as dupes of Manchesterian liberal economics, thus elevating domesticity to the status of scientific principle.

That this stubborn rearguard battle to keep women out of wage-work would prove costly was already evident in the printing trade. Male typesetters were understandably dismayed that mechanization had allowed poorly paid young women to replace highly skilled men, but rather than include them in the union, men argued women should be banned from the business. The result was that in 1853, when the union struck the Day-Book, it had little recourse after the publisher established crash typesetting courses for women and hired graduates as strikebreakers.


By decade’s end, women’s trade unionism had been obliterated; it would not revive until the twentieth century. With working women unable to speak for themselves, some middle-class feminists proposed to speak for them. “Every woman in misfortune,” wrote Caroline Kirkland, “is the proper object of care to the happier and safer part of her sex.” Indeed, Kirkland suggested, “women should consider themselves as a community, having special common needs and common obligations.” But the effort to throw womanly bridges across the class divide would prove far more difficult than nascent feminists imagined.

In 1845 the all-female editorial staff of the Advocate of Moral Reform, newspaper of the American Female Moral Reform Society, declared that “the ordinary rate of wages for female labor is unjust and oppressive.” They excoriated male employers who “drive the young and unfriended to dens of shame, while they fill their coffers with the avails of unrequited toil.” Catharine Beecher (Henry Ward’s sister) was less flowery and more specific. “Capitalists at the East avail themselves of this excess of female hands,” Beecher wrote. They got work from poor women “at prices that will not keep soul and body together; and then the articles thus made are sold for prices that give monstrous profits to the capitalist, who thus grows rich on the hard labors of our sex.”

In 1848, the Reform Society established a four-story Home for the Friendless and House of Industry, uptown on Fifth Avenue between 29th and 30th streets. Here the “unprotected female whose only crime is poverty and the need of employment” could learn a trade as well as the precepts of religion and morality. The American Female Guardian Society, as it now renamed itself, also established an Industrial School for those too poor to attend public school, which taught sewing and provided free lunches. The idea was quickly replicated at a German Industrial School, a Brooklyn Industrial School, and across the United States.

Even these limited efforts by affluent women to reach out across class lines to their poorer sisters were—as in the case of analogous projects by their male counterparts—hampered by elite fears and prejudices. The notion of laboring women as active and equal partners was unimaginable. The lady class would succor shivering seamstresses, but only if they bore their ills in silence and maintained a grateful and deferential demeanor to their benefactors. Proper recipients, moreover, had to uphold (or at least aspire to) bourgeois domestic standards, keeping their houses and raising their children in a manner of which ladies approved. But as this was virtually impossible in the clamorous and grimy tenement quarters, genteel visitors tended to see Five Points females as less than truly women. Above all, there was the religious gulf, drawn deep and wide. For Protestant missionary women, Catholics were priest-ridden heathen with whom no accommodation short of conversion was possible.


Class lines are enforced in a fashionable store, (torn Harper’s Weekly, January 8, 1859. (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)

In the end, while genteel feminists did provide tangible services to immigrant women, they themselves were the primary beneficiaries. Reform projects justified respectable women’s claim on city space. Social housekeeping was deemed a legitimate extension of women’s sphere into the public arena, accepted (at times hailed) by wealthy males of their own class. It allowed them to create and run large, complex organizations that commanded considerable assets. Like the women writers who (with the help of readers) had secured a position in the marketplace, so female reformers (with the help of reformees) secured a place in the civic and charitable arena. A feminist alliance would remain elusive, however, not least because women of different classes were as far apart on issues of sexuality as they were on those of economics and theology.


In 1857 the Reverend William Berrian had been for three decades the rector of Trinity Church, the most prestigious pulpit in the United States. In a sermon that year he admitted to his congregation that “during a ministry of more than fifty years I have not been in a house of ill-fame more than ten times!” Perhaps even more remarkable than this pronouncement by such a model Christian was the fact that what startled his listeners was not that he had gone whoring at all but that he had gone so infrequently. For the years of his ministry had seen a luxuriant growth of prostitution in New York City—marked by the widespread patronage of eminently respectable bourgeois men—to the point that the metropolis had become the wide-open national capital of commercialized sex.

In the 1840s and 1850s, when Broadway between Canal and Houston streets emerged as the city’s grand shopping and entertainment boulevard, New York’s bawdy houses trekked northward too. They clustered directly behind the commercial strip, in the small cobbled streets of Mercer, Greene, Howard, and Wooster—present-day SoHo. In the evening, scant hours after the afternoon promenade of fashionable ladies, Broadway filled with fashionable streetwalkers, who sauntered past the hotels, paused at the gas-lit shop windows, loitered outside the theater entrances. As the fifties wore on, these femmes de pavé invaded the daylight, cruising Broadway after shopping hours, casting inviting glances at passersby.


“Hooking a Victim,” streetwalkers on Broadway, c. 1850. The adoption of the term hooker as a synonym for prostitute may have been inspired by the proliferation of brothels and streetwalkers on the Corlear’s Hook waterfront. (© Museum of the City of New York)

The SoHo brothels, most of them run by entrepreneurial madams, were stylish affairs, noted for attractive women, luxurious furniture, fine liquor, and black servants, some of whom doubled as piano players. Different houses had distinctive clienteles (southerners, Germans, Astor House visitors) and particular specialties: Mrs. Hathaway’s “fair Quakeresses,” Mrs. Everett’s “beautiful senoritas [who] are quite accomplished,” Miss Lizzie Wright’s “French belles.” Carnally inclined males kept abreast of the possibilities by perusing handbooks such as Charles DeKock’s Guide to the Harems, Free Lovyer’s [sic] Directory of the Seraglios, and Butt Ender’s Prostitution Exposed. They could also consult the newspapers, the calling cards brothels dropped off at hotels, or the city directories (in 1855 sixty-nine women listed themselves as “prostitute”).

The ethnic composition of women “on the town” reflected the larger transformation in working-class demographics. In 1855 Dr. William Sanger, chief resident physician at Blackwell’s Island Hospital, carried out a statistical survey with the aid of the police. He estimated the total number of prostitutes as 7,860. Of these 38 percent were country girls (most of whom worked in brothels), while 35 percent were Irish and 12 percent German (most of whom plied the streets). These numbers included children. Not only was pedophilia a popular gentleman’s vice, but the likelihood of contracting disease and producing pregnancy was thought to be lessened by intercourse with prepubescent girls. Conveniently, the age of menarche was approximately fifteen, the age of consent but ten.

Dr. Sanger administered a questionnaire to two thousand prostitutes, asking survey participants why they had entered the trade. Many cited “destitution,” which had usually resulted from being seduced, abandoned, widowed, orphaned, or otherwise deprived of male support. But a sizable percentage cited “inclination”; they preferred prostitution to a father’s or husband’s drunken abuse, a mother’s nagging, the monotony of a rural existence, or the miserably paid life of a seamstress or servant. Where the latter might make two or three dollars a week, an elite courtesan could pull in ten to fifty dollars for a single trick. As the city’s highest-paid women workers, they were able to avail themselves of fancy clothes and urban entertainments. Prostitution had innumerable drawbacks—syphilis and gonorrhea not the least of them—but it afforded poor women their best chance for autonomy.

The demand for commercial sex, like its supply, had broadened dramatically since the 1820s. New York was inundated with transient males: country storekeepers, gentleman travelers, and suburban ferry commuters. Roughly sixty thousand ship crewmen (oystermen, steamboat deckhands, sailors from whalers and naval vessels, canal boatmen) passed through town each year by the late 1850s. Thousands of single male immigrants settled here, and hundreds of thousands more paused in the city on their way west.

Workingmen seeking sex could find it in Kleindeutschland basement bars, Five Points interracial brothels, and the waterfront area of Corlear’s Hook, where halfexposed women sat on stoops of tenements and former mansions along Walnut, Water, Pearl, and Cherry streets, beckoning nautical males and men from the nearby shipyards, coal dumps, sawmills, and ironworks.

A prominent new venue was the “concert saloon,” a hybrid entertainment place that combined music, drink, and sex. The concert saloon had emerged in the depressed 1840s when taverns drummed up business by converting back rooms or cellars into small concert halls, which put on specialty acts to encourage drinking. By the 1850s many old theaters or three- or four-story brownstones were being rigged up with a long bar and a curtainless stage at the rear. The entertainment was a pastiche of French vaudeville, Italian opera, German beer garden, and English theater. When vocalists sang, the audience, waiters, and “waiter girls” (frequently full- or part-time prostitutes) joined in the chorus. Between acts, performers sat in the audience and solicited customers for prostitution in private rooms upstairs.

In SoHo, at the top of the commercial sex chain, second-class brothels for clerks and “the higher class of mechanics” could be found near the district’s lower end. Farther north lay the rows of patrician and middle-class establishments, which were, the Tribunenoted, “frequently visited by gentlemen of the best standing,” a category including “aldermen, judges, lawyers, assemblymen, state officers, country merchants, and others.” From Saturday night through the Lord’s Day and on into Monday morning, SoHo’s streets were filled with expensive carriages. The sidewalks were lined as well, with young men who had strolled over from Broadway, all camped out in front of their favorite brothels waiting their turn. Editor Walt Whitman contended that nineteen of every twenty males—including “the best classes of Men” in Brooklyn and New York—visited brothels regularly.

Some men justified brothels as “safeguards to the virtue of maidens, wives, and widows, who would otherwise be exposed to violence and outrage.” “Sporting men” went farther and celebrated brothel culture, calling it an essential part of sophisticated urbanity. Their ranks included stylish Bowery soaplocks, young clerks on the make, and “fast” gentlemen who set up their shopgirl, milliner, or servant “sweethearts” in brownstone apartments. Sporting males detested matrimony, which turned men into “captives” of women, and read sporting papers like the Flash, the Libertine, the Rake, the Whip, and the National Police Gazette, which featured up-to-date information about New York underworld offerings (along with ads for the cure of venereal disease).

Many respectable women were enraged that their husbands and brothers so casually flaunted a sexual code that women were forbidden to transgress. Theoretically both sexes of the bourgeoisie agreed on finding in sexual repression a badge of their moral superiority to class inferiors. True, it was supposedly easier for women to adhere to these standards—medical texts insisted that most “are not very much troubled with sexual feelings of any kind”—so marriage manuals urged wives to assist husbands in subduing their passions. Some husbands went along with the dictates of propriety or agonized over their lapses when they didn’t, but many cheerfully bifurcated their sexual lives, turning for fun to working-class women who embraced sexual pleasure, or were forced by circumstances to pretend they did.

With males’ self-assumed prerogatives negating whatever control respectable women had gained over the sexual system, they set out to rein in prostitution. The traditional approach—redeeming or rescuing prostitutes, thus helping dry up supply—was carried on by the Female Benevolent Society, founded in the early thirties. In 1838 the society built a refuge in Yorkville, several miles outside the city, where residents could learn useful trades. It also began to take in the “friendless female orphan, when no way is left for her to obtain a livelihood but that of prostitution.”

Other women reached out to prostitutes in prison or immediately upon their release. The male Prison Association of New York set up a Female Department, which later, having come to believe “women could work best independently for the redemption of their own sex,” split off to form the Women’s Prison Association (1854). These ladies opened a refuge on Tenth Avenue for former inmates; it housed over a hundred women, on condition they forsook smoking, drinking, and cursing and took up sewing, laundering, and “religious study.” The ladies promised to “whisper hope to [each exconvict] amid her despair, teach her lessons of self-control, instill into her ideas of purity and industry”—then get her a job as a maid. In its first twenty years the refuge sheltered 2,961 women and placed 1,083 with private families, finding only 480 to be “unworthy” or hopelessly recidivist.

Reformers also crusaded tirelessly against male “licentiousness.” “Every man who will sport with female virtue,” declared the Advocate, should be fixed with “an eternal stigma.” Virtuous females were asked to boycott seducers: “Let them be regarded as enemies to the sex.” The Female Moral Reform Society turned to state power to rein in forward males. After a lengthy struggle, including a petition campaign that drew thousands of “virtuous mothers and daughters” from around the state, the legislature passed an Act to Punish Seduction as a Crime (1848). “Any man who shall under promise of marriage seduce and have illicit connection with any unmarried female of previous chaste character shall be guilty of a misdemeanor,” the law proclaimed. But with redress available only to women willing to prove their virtue in court, and with the “testimony of the seduced female, unsupported by other evidence,” being insufficient for conviction, the seeming triumph fizzled. It was a rare year in which more than one or two rakes were arrested under its provisions.

Prostitution per se was not outlawed by statute, but the police could and did arrest “all common prostitutes who have no lawful employment” as vagrants or “disorderly persons” and send them to either the almshouse or penitentiary for six months. However, though the police periodically raided Sixth Ward brothels and often hauled in streetwalkers from predominantly immigrant areas, elite brothels were almost never disturbed: the New York district attorney charged a grand total of seven during the entire decade of the 1850s.

Prostitution proved irrepressible because New York males supported it, patrons and profiteers alike. The latter included landlords who collected hefty rents from madams, municipal tax collectors who skimmed their share of landlord revenues, and two new beneficiaries: pimps and politicians. Madams had begun hiring men to protect their employees from assault by drunken packs like the one, forty strong, that in 1851 trashed Catherine Cauldwell’s place on Lispenard Street. But streetwalkers were far more vulnerable and were soon dominated by their protectors. By the 1850s pimps had become a common sight, lounging in front of the monster hotels or in nearby bars, waiting for women to hand over their earnings.

Politicians too leeched off sex workers. The local ward bosses who relied on muscle to dominate the polls also used it to extort revenue, often in conjunction with local police. Tammany gang leaders like Isaiah Rynders and Thomas Hyer levied tribute from brothels, saloons, and gambling dens and in return extended them “protection.” In 1850, when police rounded up brothel keepers in the Points, Alderman Patrick Kelly scurried to their aid.

By mid-century prostitution had become deeply imbricated in the business life of the city. Dr. Sanger calculated its aggregate annual revenues as exceeding three million dollars and if liquor sales and rental income were added, the figure doubled, to an annual cash value just below the garment industry’s $7.5 million. For all the feminists’ efforts, New York would remain a “city of orgies.”


While respectable women fruitlessly battled the sex trades, they barely held their own in another arena, control of their own fertility. The average number of children born to white New Yorkers surviving to menopause continued to decline, dropping from seven or eight in 1800 to five in 1860. But abortion, one of the leading weapons in women’s birth control arsenal, came under heavy censure, touching off a public struggle over sexuality in the city.

Abortions were legal if done before “quickening”—a woman’s first awareness of fetal movement, usually late in the fourth month. Given most people’s assumption that a fetus was not human before this, the procedure’s morality was not generally an issue. Most considered abortion akin to contraception, and white, married, native, middleand upper-class Protestants dramatically expanded their reliance on it in this era. Catholics aborted far less frequently—their lower rate and later age of marriage provided an effective substitute—but there is no evidence of any public activity against abor­tion by the city’s Catholic leadership. By the end of the 1850s, according to one estimate, perhaps 20 percent of all New York pregnancies were being aborted, a substantial increase from earlier in the century.

Since 1828, however, abortion after quickening had been a crime. A person convicted of performing one—though not the woman herself—could be found guilty of second-degree manslaughter and given a year in jail or a hundred-dollar fine. This law, passed at the insistence of regular doctors, stipulated that postquickening abortions could be done legally if necessary to save the mother’s life, though only if two regular doctors attested to such necessity. The law, part of a larger package physicians had pushed through the state legislature in an effort to clamp down on their “irregular” competitors, had little practical effect throughout the 1830s.

Indeed, at decade’s end abortion had become a public commercial enterprise. Practitioners began advertising in newspapers. In March 1839 a notice in the Sun suggested it was neither moral nor desirable for families of any class to grow beyond their means, nor was it necessary “when a simple, easy, healthy, and certain remedy is within our control.” Those interested in limiting the size of their families need only come by the Liberty Street office of Mrs. (soon to be Mme.) Restell and pick up some pills, which could “be used by married or single, by following directions.”

Mme. Restell was the public persona of Ann Lohman, an English immigrant seamstress who had married Charles Lohman, a printer at Bennett’s Herald and an avowed admirer of Robert Dale Owen’s writings on birth control. Charles and Ann set to producing preventive pills and powders—not placebos but potent drugs. If they didn’t work, as they often didn’t, Mme. Restell offered more extensive services along with “private and respectable board.” For an income-adjusted fee (twenty dollars for the poor, a hundred for the wealthy), she would use instruments to pierce the amniotic sac and induce a miscarriage, at which point the woman would go for further treatment to her regular doctor.

Restell was a spectacular success, especially with the carriage trade. Soon she had six pill outlets in the city, an enlarged Greenwich Street lying-in facility for aborting a fetus or bearing a child, branch agencies in Newark, Philadelphia, and Boston, and salesmen on the road marketing her abortifacients and making referrals to the New York clinic. Rivals set up shop, including a Madame Costello, who also pretended to a Parisian background, and a Mrs. W. H. Maxwell, whose clinic on Greene Street offered abortions, treatment for venereal disease, and a “sanctuary to which to flee” for the unfortunate.

Commercialization afforded new ease of access for women seeking abortions, but it also brought their changing sexual habits forcibly to public attention. Before 1840 there had been virtually no mention of abortion in the popular press. Now one George W. Dixon, owner and editor of a weekly named the New York Polynathos, started a campaign to expose Restell as a malefactor. Dixon, a self-appointed scourge of lax public morals, was less concerned with the life of the fetus or health of the mother than with the presumed threat to female virtue. Spouses could now commit adultery without detection, Dixon warned. Worse, a man about to wed a professed maiden could well discover that “Madame Restell’s Preventive Powders have counterfeited the hand writing of Nature; you have not a medal, fresh from the mint, of sure metal; but a base, lacquered counter, that has undergone the sweaty contamination of a hundred palms.”

In 1841 a carman with the Harlem Rail Road claimed his dying wife had accused Restell of a botched abortion. Restell was arrested, accused of murder, and confined to the Tombs. In the end, however, she was convicted of only two minor infractions, and the publicity garnered her additional business. She was indicted again in 1844; though none of her wealthy clients dared defend her in public, Restell boldly argued her own case in letters to the public press and again got off without serious penalty.

As she grew wealthier Restell took a certain delight in her notoriety. She rode daily along Broadway in a showy carriage with four superb horses and a liveried coachman, brushing aside press depictions of her as a “she devil.” But now Restelle came up against more powerful enemies. Medical doctors had been arguing that a fetus was alive from the point of conception, not the moment of quickening. Abortions were therefore immoral at any stage and should be recategorized as murder and outlawed. Doctors also claimed abortions were dangerous (and there wereincompetent and avaricious practitioners, though the operation remained far less hazardous than childbirth). Physicians backed Dixon’s charge that abortion fostered sexual license among females; “Madame Restell,” one doctor claimed, “offered to those who would not control their appetites, impunity.” Doctors neglected to mention their concern that female abortionists were undermining male efforts to dominate the lucrative new field of obstetrics and gynecology.

Physicians set out to persuade the state legislature to criminalize the procedure and eradicate New York City’s burgeoning reputation as the nation’s abortion capital. Dr. Gunning S. Bedford, professor of midwifery and diseases of women and children at the University of New York, led the attack. He and his colleagues had substantial influence, and the combination of medical pressure and sensational publicity won passage of a new abortion law in May 1845. It declared the death of a fetus or its mother to be second-degree manslaughter if quickening had taken place, a crime punishable by four to seven years in the state prison. It also made the mother herself liable for seeking and submitting to an abortion or for performing one on herself—an unprecedented revocation of women’s common-law immunity from punishment.


Madame Restell demonized in the Police Gazette, March 13, 1847. She is shown holding a bat with a dead baby in its jaws. (American Antiquarian Society)

With law in hand, press and physicians stepped up their assaults. The new National Police Gazette denounced abortionists as murderers and alleged they ran a lucrative side business selling their victims’ bodies to surgical clinics. Dixon, Restell’s old nemesis, incited the public to force her from the city, and in February 1846 a crowd of several hundred descended on her Greenwich Street quarters, yelling, “Where’s the thousand children murdered in this house?” and “Hanging’s too good for the monster!” Forty policemen, commanded by Chief Matsell, prevented mayhem, but city authorities proceeded to station men outside her office who followed callers home and noted down names and addresses.

In 1847 Restell was arrested again, indicted for manslaughter in the second degree, and tried before a crowded courtroom that included numerous lawyers from other states, among them Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. Dr. Bedford was a leading prosecution witness at this first highly publicized abortion trial in U.S. history. Restell was found guilty, though only of a misdemeanor, and to the applause of spectators, she was sentenced to a year on Blackwell’s Island. It seemed a decisive victory for antiabortion forces.

It wasn’t. Restell did easy time—a featherbed instead of the usual straw mattress, food from the keeper’s table—and after she was freed, in June 1849, promptly resumed her advertisements and practice. More remarkably, throughout the 1850s the authorities and general populace alike virtually ceased hostilities against her and her competitors. Some attributed this to behind-the-scenes support from a combination of influential gentleman-patrons and to politicians and policemen won over by campaign contributions and bribes. Restell was certainly wealthy enough to afford payoffs. In spring 1857 she and her husband bought the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street—outbidding Archbishop Hughes, who had wanted to build an official residence there—and began erecting a mansion. Now, to the prelate’s dismay, the future St. Patrick’s Cathedral would have the city’s foremost abortionist as its neighbor.

Abortion thus remained in place as a leading option for women seeking birth control. But if the women who used such services were relieved, the feminists crusading against prostitution were not. Like Dixon, they feared its regularization would facilitate adultery (though they feared husbands would be the errant parties). Indeed in 1847 the American Female Moral Reform Society had rejoiced at the arrest of Mme. Restell, the “mistress of abominations,” and visited the “heroine of licentiousness” in her cell to encourage her to Christian contrition—with singular lack of success.

So female reformers turned to promoting alternatives to abortion, though once again their initiatives were hampered by religious and class convictions. New York City lacked a lying-in hospital where unwed mothers could bear illegitimate children and receive medical attention in private. Many European cities had such institutions, so as not to box pregnant women into choosing between abortion and disgrace. In Catholic Ireland, Dublin’s lying-in hospitals freely admitted all of the thousands who applied each year, never asking if they were married. The New York Asylum for Lying-in Women on Orange Street also offered poor pregnant women a midwife’s services and postpartum care, but the “lady managers” accepted only “reputable married” females—lest they encourage “criminal improvidence”—and demanded references in advance, ideally from a “respectable New York citizen.” Once admitted, moreover, patients were treated like servants: forbidden to have visitors, to leave without permission, or to use liquor or profane language. A female matron enforced deference and decorum, with violators subject to dismissal. After delivery, the asylum placed many of the mothers as wet nurses with respectable women, assuring prospective employers that their candidates’ breasts were in good condition and that “their characters [had] already [been] investigated by the Visiting Committee.”

The sole alternative to the.asylum was the almshouse, and poor women preferred the former to the latter. It was nearer their homes, was reputedly safer, and protected them from having to associate (and be associated) with prostitutes, and its wet-nurse employment service provided them with a year-long “situation,” even if it did require they nurse only their employer’s baby and farm out their own. Most avoided both if possible.

New York had no place that would take in foundlings, either. No hospital (again excepting Bellevue) would accept deserted or abandoned children, or even admit a sick child under two. Bellevue paid poor women to care for these unwanted children—usually less than it cost them to do so—with the result that nearly 90 percent of those farmed out died. According to the Almshouse commissioner, nearly one thousand babies perished each year between 1854 and 1859.

Awakened to this situation by a personal experience, Mary Delaneld DuBois, wife of a well-to-do Gramercy Park lawyer, joined with Anna R. Emmet, wife of a famous New York specialist in the diseases of women and children, and in May 1854 they opened a Nursery for the Children of Poor Women in a small house on St. Mark’s Place. It became the first institution in the country devoted primarily to day care, taking in the children of working women (including wet nurses) so their mothers could “go out to service.” Yet here too the pioneers drew back from establishing a Dublin-style opendoor institution. They would only accept the progeny of an unwed woman if it was her first lapse and she could demonstrate victimhood: “The mother must produce evidence of having borne a good character until the dark shadow of him who ruined her fell across her path.”

Beyond these efforts, women unhappy with existing sexual codes and practices would not or could not go. Public discussions about erotic matters remained difficult or impossible, and only those wrapped head to toe in the mantle of purity dared address such issues at all. It was left to a tiny handful—the men and women of the Free Love movement—to issue a more frontal challenge to the conventional order, and the rough handling they received served as a warning to others to keep silent.

Free Lovers rejected coercion in sexual relations, whether from male lust or legally prescribed duties of marriage. Stephen Pearl Andrews, a philosopher influenced by anarchism and Fourierism, argued that only “passional attraction”—spiritual holy love—should bind two individuals. The state had no business in the bedroom. Legal marriage, like many other governmental or religious institutions, was inherently enslaving, little more than a form of legalized prostitution, and ought to be abolished. Deci­sions about engaging in sexual relations should be left to the “well developed conscience,” with women having an absolute right to refuse such connections.

Free Lovers by no means advocated promiscuity. Most considered themselves particularly chaste and pure and rejected sex apart from procreation. Respectable sorts assumed the opposite and denounced them as sexual libertines. When Andrews and Fourierist Albert Brisbane founded the New York Free Love League in 1853, Henry Raymond’s New York Times accused its five to six hundred members of holding regular “orgies” at its 555 Broadway clubhouse, though his own news columns admitted that, whatever their theories, their social events were refined gatherings, little different from “an ordinary family party.” But it was precisely the theory that alarmed Raymond, who saw in it an assault on the family; he kept up his sensational coverage and prodded police into raiding the club and arresting some members. The cases were thrown out of court, and the circle continued in existence, but from then on, respectable and conventional feminists would find themselves charged with being Free Lovers, stifling further discussion.

New York women thus faced substantial obstacles when they tried to loosen some of the constraints that bound them. They were barred from most professions, banned from labor unions, balked in their efforts to limit prostitution, excluded from many public activities and spaces. City life did afford women new avenues of expression, however, wherever an expansion of female possibilities suited the needs of the marketplace.


As rapidly as republican simplicity was scrapped in urban architecture, it waned even faster in the field of feminine attire. Nowhere was this more striking than in New York City, capital of America’s clothing industry and portal for la mode parisienne. Fashion was the affluent woman’s metier, a way to display her expertise (as well as her husband’s wealth). Devotees of fashion redeployed old words to describe new looks: “elegant” gained currency from 1845, “stunning” from 1849, and “chic” from 1856.

The pursuit of fashion also validated expanded female claims on city space. Shopping was irreproachably legitimate, and respectable women could wander the Broadway commercial district without reproach in search of commodities. This “midtown” terrain, easily accessible from uptown’s female zone yet satisfactorily distant from downtown’s all-male turf, emerged as an acceptable heterosexual domain (as would Central Park).

Fashion provided women farther down the social scale with expanded employment opportunities. Quite apart from the thousands employed in the garment industry itself, milliners and dressmakers blossomed, most of whom affected fancy French names, though most were Irish working class. They subscribed to French fashion magazines, kept up with current French designers, and maintained correspondents in Paris who dispatched dress dolls in the latest styles. Cosmeticians did a thriving trade too, now that New York women had abandoned the old republican association of painted faces with aristocrats or whores. Some professional hairdressers in the 1850s opened their own shops, and others were attached to hotels for out-of-towners, but most still attended wealthy patrons in their homes. On New Year’s Eve hairdressers went from house to house, crimping with heating irons, working through the night until noon next day when visiting began; those clients done early might sit up all night so as not to spoil their hairdos.

Working women were consumers too. Immigrants might arrive at Castle Garden in traditional costume, but those who could afford it shed such garb with great alacrity and slipped into something fashionable. Stylish dress could signal one’s aspirations, attract an upward-striving husband, and erase (or at least smudge) sartorial discrepancies of class. When Irish maids donned hoopskirts and flowered bonnets, one observer noted, they were “scarcely to be distinguished from their employers.” Irritated mistresses agreed, and some insisted their employees wear costumes adapted to their station in life.

Democratization of fashion led to contestation as well as imitation. The bourgeois model of beauty favored a pale-complexioned, heart-shaped face with a “rosebud” mouth (the right degree of pucker was obtained by repeating the mantra “peas, prunes, and prisms”). It required a tiny eighteen-inch waist (whose stylish circumference was achieved with the aid of straitlaced corsets). Bowery g’hals paid little attention to these conventions. They opted for the “plump and hearty” look, reported George Foster, and whenever they thought about the “poor, pale-faced creatures of Broadway, they actually and heartily pity them.”

Shopgirls, milliners, and dressmakers’ assistants—professionally well versed in prevailing styles—mischievously parodied elite fashions. They adopted startling color combinations, ornate hats, and elaborate decorations even gaudier than those favored by the wealthy. By recycling fashions of the 1820s, they essayed a retro look. G’hals, like ladies, promenaded in public space, sashaying along the Bowery after working hours with girlfriends or young men, indulging the pleasures of city life, reveling in new freedom from customary constraints.

Yet fashion could restrain women as well as liberate them, and a largely female band of feminists, writers, editors, reformers, and advice givers pointed to its more problematic aspects. They found prevailing styles cumbersome and imprisoning. Layers of petticoats weighed down the wearer, long skirts dragged through the mud, and corsets were positively hazardous to health. Emily Thornwell, in her Lady’s Guide to Perfect Gentility in Manners, Dress and Conversation (1856), was one of many who deplored tight lacing as causing coughing, consumption, headaches, heart palpitation, deformed ribs, uterine and spinal disorders, and “an extreme heaving of the bosom, resembling the panting of a dying bird.”

Fashion was unrepublican, the handmaiden of aristocratic luxury and self-indulgence. It valued consumption over production, appearance above character, idleness over industry. “Do we not see females in every fashionable circle,” queried Mrs. A. J. Graves in her Woman in America(1843), “who fill no loftier station in social life, and who live as idly and as uselessly as the gorgeously attired inmates of the harem?”

Fashion was expensive. It undid hardworking husbands. Magazine writers often depicted bankrupt businessmen as victims of their wives’ pursuit of lavish wardrobes. The pursuit itself opened women to ridicule. Anna Cora Mowatt’s popular play Fashion(1845) presented a parvenu Mrs. Tiffany who, in her attempts to become a woman of fashion, made a complete fool of herself until set straight by Adam Trueman, her virtuous friend from the country.

Stylish women, finally, were slaves to fashion, which is why feminist reformers attuned to the politics of dress declared that “our sex should rise above subserviency to fashion’s despotic rule.” Determined to take grass-roots control of the mode, the women boldly proposed an alternative costume. Picking up on a gymnastic uniform promoted by the New York City Water-Cure Journal during the 1840s, two upstate women, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Amelia Bloomer (editor of the Lily, a temperance paper) began to wear and publicize a seemlier version in 1851. It consisted of a simple woolen dress, shortened to midcalf or knee, worn over billowing Oriental pantaloons—a blend of Turkish and Quaker. Soon many feminists were wearing the reform attire, which journalists promptly labeled “bloomers.”

The initiative came under instant and ferocious attack. Men were outraged to see women wearing trousers, a patent transgression of gender boundaries. Little boys wore dresses until five years of age, when they ritually signaled their departure from the female community by donning trousers. Strong women who disagreed with their husbands had long been accused of trying to “wear the breeches.” Men jeered at bloomer wearers in the street. Boys pelted them with snowballs in winter, apple cores in summer. They were the butt of vicious caricatures and sexist jokes.

Women didn’t much care for the new style either. Conservative women saw it as a threat to their sphere. Fashionable ladies sniffed because it hadn’t come from Paris and no society leader (or even actress) would take it up. Style-conscious working-class women agreed: when a manufacturer of painted window shades urged his female employees to wear bloomer dress, as their voluminous skirts were brushing against the still-wet product, they refused, accepting dismissal rather than don the outfit. Truth to tell, even Bloomerites found the costume unattractive, and when the hoop skirt arrived, bearing the endorsement of Empress Eugénie of France, Bloomer herself adopted it, declaring that its doing away with heavy petticoats was an acceptable enough reform. Stanton hung on alone until 1853, then gave up.

Soon the hoop skirt was all the rage. With firms like Douglass and Sherwood of Broadway churning out four thousand of them daily, it was clear that the bloomer movement had run up against more than gender stereotyping and bad design. The fashion system was as deeply imbricated in New York City’s economy as was prostitution, and the profitable matrix of designers, department stores, fashion entrepreneurs, garment manufacturers, and the clothing trade would prove highly resistant to tampering.


In the world of commercial entertainment it was much the same. The imperatives of profit opened new pathways for city women, though only if they stayed within prescribed patterns and places of consumption.

Barriers tumbled quickest in the midtown entertainment district. Where it had been quite improper for a woman of refinement to enter a public eating house, feeding ladies became a lucrative business. Some restaurants allowed mixed dining, others arranged special accommodations (ladies’ dining rooms, separate ladies’ entrances), and some (notably ice cream parlors like Taylor’s) became completely identified as women’s spaces. The explosion in the number of women travelers speeded this transformation, as such visitors were obliged to eat in public. Many of the new hotels established reserved drawing rooms. Astor House went farther, refusing to admit any lady unless accompanied by a gentleman: while this offended reputable single women, it effectively excluded prostitutes.

The presence or absence of prostitutes was key to theatrical developments too. Playhouses wanted to draw more respectable women. They courted such ladies by installing special lobbies in which they could promenade between acts and by keeping lights on halfway during performances so they could take one another’s measure. But the third tier remained a galling obstacle, and many women boycotted theaters that retained one. Instead they flocked to musical venues like the Astor Opera House, the Academy of Music, and the New York Philharmonic Society, where, as Lydia Maria Child noted, “no degraded corner is reserved for unveiled vice.” Seeking respectable patronage, the Park Theater substituted a “family circle” for its third tier in 1848. Most theaters refused to follow suit. Convinced that the presence of prostitutes was crucial to profitability, many handed out free tickets in the brothels.

It was left to the shrewdest impresario of them all to demonstrate the lucrative possibilities in marketing respectability. P. T. Barnum had observed that women patrons considered content as crucial as audience. When Lola Montez came to town, her reputation as mistress of the king of Bavaria preceded her, and when she appeared onstage as dancer or actress, New York’s ladies were as one in boycotting her scandalous person. So, in the late 1840s, Barnum sanitized his American Museum. He banned prostitutes, prohibited liquor, cracked down on raucous audiences, and cleaned up his acts. He introduced matinees and continuous performances and pointedly featured “moral” presentations: scriptural dramas, the occasional Shakespeare play “shorn of its objectionable features,” and temperance melodramas like The Drunkard (1850), which ran without interruption for over a hundred performances, breaking all New York records. Women and entire families streamed in, proving to Barnum’s satisfaction that he was tapping new portions of the populace.

The readiness of ladies to attend recitals of European concert artists suggested that still fatter profits lay in finer art. In 1849 Barnum began preparations to bring over Jenny Lind, a Swedish singer. Since her 1844 debut in the Berlin Opera House, Lind had gone from triumph to musical triumph while establishing a reputation for piety, modesty, charitable good works, and a spotless private life. Barnum enticed her across the Atlantic with a guarantee of $150,000 (plus very considerable expenses) for 150 concerts, which Lind, herself no mean bargainer, required him to bank in advance. Barnum mortgaged all he owned and borrowed more. Then he set out to guarantee success.

Barnum launched an unprecedented press campaign to acquaint Americans with Lind’s voice—and, more important, her virtues—concentrating on winning over homemakers and charity ladies and writers of sentimental fiction. Biographies from N. P. Willis and George Foster emphasized Lind’s morals rather than her musicianship, stressing “her intrinsic worth of heart and delicacy of mind.”

Next Barnum orchestrated her arrival. In September 1850 he arranged one of the most tremendous welcomes in the history of New York City. Thousands swarmed to the Canal Street dock from which Lind, pelted with flowers and accompanied by twenty companies of firemen, was conveyed under triumphal arches to the Irving House Hotel opposite A. T. Stewart’s store; there 150 musicians serenaded her into the wee hours. In the next days, Barnum had Lind visit Brady’s gallery, meet Archbishop Hughes, and stop in at the Herald to see its Hoe presses at work. “Reputation was manufactured for her, by wholesale,” a rival impresario grumped, and Barnum gleefully agreed: Lind “would have been adored if she had had the voice of a crow.”

The first concert was held September 11 at Castle Garden. The huge event—five thousand turned up—was handled with perfect decorum. A hundred hired policemen kept order; color-coded tickets matched color-coded seats. Willis rhapsodized at “the clockwork precision” with which people were seated and the “quiet dignity of their egress.” When Lind gave local New York charities her share of the evening’s profits—ten times what she’d made in any single European appearance—Hone declared that “New York is conquered; a hostile army or fleet could not effect a conquest so complete.”

As Lind moved out into the country, to continued adulation, some commentators expressed concern at the rampant “Lindomania.” Barnum’s ability to whip up publicity was a wholly new order of event. He had made use of an assortment of New York institutions—press, photography, hotels—to transform reputation into commodity, to package the first superproduct in the emerging marketplace of popular commercial culture. “Jenny Lind is a celebrity,” said one magazine, using a noun of relatively recent coinage, and there were those who worried that the business of celebrity creation might prove to have its downsides.

Barnum had demonstrated something else. Lind’s earnings were unprecedented in the history of American entertainment. Her New York concerts alone grossed nearly $290,000. Barnum personally cleared half a million on her tour and became a rich man. Clearly, conventional androcentrism had been proved wrong. Big bonanzas awaited those who tailored their entertainments to the precepts of bourgeois morality, and particularly to the hitherto underestimated audience of respectable females.

The entertainment marketplace also welcomed working-class women. German immigrant men and women piled together into immense beer halls like the Deutscher Volksgarten, the Atlantic Gardens, and Lindenmuller’s Odeon where, at rough tables and wooden benches, surrounded by gaudily painted frescos, they drank, sang, and watched amateur theatricals. Women were also present at melodrama, burlesque, and blackface performances, dime museums, ice cream parlors, oyster shops, and lecture halls. But they were most in evidence (as was true for the bourgeoisie) in venues devoted to music, especially dance halls.

Dancing in the past had usually been held under organizational auspices—the annual balls of fire companies, militia units, and political clubs. Now it became a commercial proposition. Girls were admitted free; men paid twenty-five cents. Seamstresses and servants threw themselves into dances that were as acrobatic as they were graceful. George Foster noted that the “high-flyer stampedes” drew the East Side’s “unmarried womanhood” in all their finest clothes and declared that “New York is undoubtedly the greatest place for dancing in all Anglo Saxdom.”

On the Bowery, g’hals could enjoy a pleasurable evening away from the prying eyes of neighbors or keep an eye out for a permanent partner, amid a far wider constituency of eligible men than was accessible through family and community networks. Such independence could be risky. The crowds that shielded her from neighborhood scrutiny also left her exposed to seduction-bent males. Some of the b’hoys extended a rough courtesy to women and adopted a protective stance, particularly against “aristos”—gentleman rakes looking to pick up working girls. But there were plenty of workingclass sporting men, for whom conquest remained a source of self-esteem. Many still considered women in public a scant step from prostitution. They were quick to assume that women in dance halls were “rowdy girls,” willing to trade sexual favors for the provision of beer and oysters. Ruffians often hung around fire stations and rumshops, insulting and abusing women passing by. “Bloods” camped out on street corners, shouting out: “An Angel, by H———s!” “Dam’d fine girl, by g—d!” “Where do you lodge, my dear?” Predatory tavern rowdies and waterfront gangs dragged off lone women, especially those who appeared both vulnerable and independent, and subjected them to bru­tal group rapes, a male prerogative known as “getting our hide.” Such belligerence served as a stark reminder that women’s newfound access to public space remained subject to masculine veto.


When Lydia Maria Child asserted that women’s legal status was akin to that of slaves, the analogy seemed more compelling than when white working-class men used it. Female subordination, after all, was deeply inscribed in the law, and had been since the British Empire overrode Holland’s more tolerant approach to gender issues. Quite apart from not being allowed to vote, the doctrine of feme covert meant that a married woman could not sign contracts, control her own earnings or inherited property, or be the legal guardian of her children. Her legal identity was subsumed in her husband’s. Under the law, as a later judicial summary recalled, “the husband and wife were one and the husband was the one.”

In the 1840s feminist New Yorkers began to protest this state of affairs, starting with the laws blocking women from owning property. The premise underlying such statutes, the Advocate said in 1846, was that “women do not know enough to take care of [property], and therefore the laws and customs of society virtually say they shall have none to protect.” Radical feminists argued that “free Christian enlightened women” needed their property and earnings if they were not to be forced into economic subservience. More conservative women emphasized that such a right would protect wives against drunks and gamblers who would squander their property.

Initially, legislators resisted, leery of undermining the sexual order, but it was increasingly clear that the vicissitudes of contemporary capitalism dictated some gender adjustments. The first convincing arguments for a married women’s property bill were made during the Panic of 1837, in the context of debtor relief. Too many respectable families had been wiped out after husbands sank their wives’ money into illchosen investments. Given the growing centrality of stocks and credit to New York’s economy, was it really wise for a wife’s property to be subject to her husband’s debts?

This was part of a larger problem: feme covert was hampering development of new kinds of capitalist industry. Life insurance companies had been stymied because wives were not allowed to own life insurance in their own names or to hold any benefits they received free from claims by their husbands’ creditors. In 1840 New York State had solved both problems with a stroke of the legislative pen, simultaneously giving the life insurance business a boost and feminists their first triumph.

Another powerful group of males—scions of old and propertied families—had a different problem, keeping the family fortune from falling into the hands of predators. Since the seventeenth century, when the English gentry had first grappled with this problem, wealthy New York clans had been insulating a wife’s property by conveying it to a trustee, reserving to the wife powers that ranged from full authority over her property to complete dependence on the designated trustee. In 1844 Philip Hone’s daughter Emily married Frederic G. Foster, but Hone made Frederic De Peyster the trustee over the dowry she brought, and her husband was forbidden to touch the principal.

New York’s equity judges had been going along with this modification of femecovert, but obtaining their approval on a case-by-case basis was a costly and cumbersome business, and even wealthy gentlemen preferred to have such rights guaranteed across the board. It was an era, moreover, when republican-minded citizens and lawyers sought to scrap equity courts as feudal and colonial remnants and to replace arbitrary judge-made law with a uniform statutory code. They succeeded in 1846, when the state constitutional convention abolished the office of chancellor and put equity under jurisdiction of the common-law courts.

It was in this context that a small but aggressive group of feminist campaigners, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Ernestine Rose, a recently arrived Polish-Jewish immigrant, struck up an alliance with patrician and propertied men and pushed for a married women’s property statute. Women had long been aware that prenuptial contracts held great potential for them, in that a woman with assets (and the permission of her intended husband) could create a trust that she herself controlled. When Sarah Willis (“Fanny Fern”) took James Parton as her third husband, he signed an agreement stipulating that her property and the proceeds of her writing would belong solely to her and her children. However, few women had the assets or legal sophistication to negotiate such a bargain, and feminists wanted the same rights granted to all.

Resistance to such legislation came from those who feared the gender consequences might outweigh economic benefits. Might not husband and wife come to see their interests as antithetical? Might not a wife compete with her husband in trade? Become the partner of his business rival? Might not such a law incite women to invade bench, bar, pulpit, and dissecting room? Supporters of the law countered that it was not an attack on the economic foundations of patriarchy but rather a way to extend men’s ability to protect dependent women. Their arguments carried the day, and in 1848 the state legislature made a wife’s possessions her own and not subject to her husband’s debts.

The women’s rights advocates who gathered that summer in the upstate New York town of Seneca Falls hailed the law but recognized its limitations. Wives might control their property, but husbands continued to command their earnings. Besides, taken as a whole, marriage still entailed the surrender of a woman’s legal personality. They pressed on.

Further successes came in areas where women’s desires dovetailed with the needs of powerful businessmen. In 1850 a new law allowed married women to control their bank deposits. The act was primarily designed to protect the banks and keep a wife’s deposits out of reach of her husband’s creditors, but it further enhanced women’s financial standing. Next year the legislature decreed that a married woman who owned stock could vote it herself, making all stockholders equal regardless of sex or marital status. Again, this pleased wealthy fathers, who were bequeathing stocks to their daughters.

What did not please them, or nearly any males, was the next proposition women advanced: that all people capable of owning property should be allowed to vote. In 1848 a bare majority of the delegates at Seneca Falls had agreed to include Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s call for the suffrage in their Declaration of Sentiments. Over the next decade, as it became ever clearer that moral suasion had failed to transform men or society and that electoral politics were becoming the crucial instruments for resolving national and local issues, more and more feminists began demanding access to the ballot. Such claims were greeted with tremendous hostility, and nowhere more so than in New York City.

Since 1850, inspired by the Seneca Falls meeting, feminists had begun holding annual Women’s Rights Conventions. The first three met upstate or outside New York altogether, but in 1853, attracted by the opening of the Crystal Palace and the simultaneous gatherings of the Anti-Slavery Society and the World’s Temperance Convention (whose clergyman organizers excluded women), organized feminism ventured into the metropolis for the first time.

On September 6 three thousand delegates from eleven states as well as England and Germany packed into the Broadway Tabernacle on Worth Street. Female speakers shared the platform with male abolitionist luminaries in town for their own meeting. Together they advocated women’s right to enter public life, to engage in any profession, to wear what they chose (Lucy Stone donned “bloomers”), and to vote. Men, they declared, must be forced to abandon their privileges by an aroused public sentiment.

But “public” sentiment—if one was to judge by the crowds that jammed their way into the galleries—was cholerically against them. The audience interrupted each speaker with shouts, hisses, stomping, cheering, rude remarks, and free-for-all fights. Sojourner Truth, back in town for the event, handled the rowdies pretty well: “We’ll have our rights,” she warned. “You may hiss as much as you like, but it is comin’.” Soon, however, cacophony reigned again, and amidst a yelling, laughing uproar, the meeting was forced to adjourn.

Greeley and Bryant condemned the crowds, but the Times, the Herald, and the Courier applauded them. James Watson Webb of the Courier jeered at the “antiquated and very homely females” who “made themselves ridiculous by parading the streets in company with hen-pecked husbands, attenuated vegetarians, intemperate Abolitionists and sucking clergymen, who are afraid to say ‘no’ to a strong-minded woman for fear of infringing upon her rights.” Even men as sympathetic as Whitman found feminism unnerving. “What a queer medley of women’s rights meetings at present!” he wrote in 1858 in the Daily Times. “Women in breeches and men in petticoats—white, black, and cream-colored—atheists and free-lovers, vegetarians and Heaven knows what—all mixed together, ‘thick and slav,’ until the mixture gets a little too strong, we should think, even for metropolitan stomachs.”

Many women also remained unconvinced or in active opposition. Some traditionalists simply denounced women’s rights as contrary to divine law, but others argued that deep-rooted social inequalities made it extremely difficult to survive without a man. Where male antifeminists balked at sharing their prerogatives, females feared losing the few they had. “Women never aim so suicidal a blow against their own interest,” wrote one women’s magazine, “as when they try to do away with or revolt against. .. [the] doctrine of their inferiority,” for in so doing, they “absolve the lords of creation from that protection which they are so willing to afford.”

Working-class women were not so much opposed as indifferent to the feminist project. Upper- and middle-class calls for feminine solidarity meant little to tenement mothers and factory girls, especially given the condescension and religious bullying many feminists displayed in the autonomous women’s institutions they established, and for the moment these sets of sisters would remain unaligned. Indeed some feminists resorted to anti-immigrant rationales, hoping to win over wealthy men and women. Stanton and Susan B. Anthony toured the summertime spas at Saratoga and Ballston, arguing that female suffrage would bolster Anglo-Saxon civilization and win passage of temperance laws. Stanton complained to the state legislature that the current suffrage arrangements exalted “the ignorant and vulgar above the educated and refined—the alien and the ditch-digger above the authors and poets of the day.” But legislators held the line. The inferiority of women (and the necessity of maintaining their public subordination) was one thing on which men of different classes could agree.

Progress came only when feminists trimmed their demands to seek, as the New York Times delicately put it, the “legal protection and fair play to which women are justly entitled” while abandoning “the claims to a share of political power which the extreme advocates of Women’s Rights are fond of advancing.” Finally, in May 1860, the legislature accepted a bill drafted by Susan B. Anthony that permitted a wife to own property acquired by “trade, business, labor, or services,” to be the joint guardian of her children, and to bring legal actions in her own name (and to be sued as well). Every provision of this act had been a specific goal of the women’s movement.

At the Tenth National Women’s Rights Convention, held on May 10 and 11, 1860, at New York’s new Cooper Institute (with historian Mary Louise Booth serving as secretary), feminists were jubilant about this triumph. They would soon find that its effects were limited, as judges undid in the courts gains won in the public arena. Feme covert was buried deep within the Anglo-American legal tradition and would prove hard to root out.

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