In the antebellum period, American women’s participation in the public sphere was limited, often constraining women to roles as pious, devoted mothers and wives. However, some women stepped outside propriety: adulteresses, wives suing for divorce, unwed mothers, and prostitutes all tested the bounds of female propriety. Publishers capitalized on the fascination with stories of these women gone astray, producing narratives, often fictionalized, that addressed issues of class, gender, and morality. Worldly courtesans and poor factory girls alike won public notoriety in these captivating yet appalling stories that alternated between sympathizing with the fallen women and demonizing them. The subject of women and morality became a fixture of public debate, as these accounts both subverted traditional women’s roles, and cautioned readers against such acts of subversion. This exhibit features societal responses to women’s deviance and the stories of five women, both villains and victims, who treaded on the margins of morality and challenged notions of appropriate moral behavior for women.
By Madeline Kreider Carlson, intern from Haverford College’s John B. Hurford ’60 Humanities Center in summer 2009.