Family Dynamics and a Woman’s Place in 
Mid-Nineteenth Century New York 
History of American Capitalism | April 2021
Because a woman’s place in the twenty-first century is constantly evolving, it is worth investigating the position that women are progressing from. In the mid-nineteenth century, a woman’s role was defined by their relationship to men. Despite what limited agency they might have had, women could not fully liberate themselves from the structural dependence on their husbands or fathers because of its symbolic importance to economic advancement. The following three works converge to tell this story of entrapment felt by women imposed on them by the family structure: The City of Women originally published by Christine Stansell in 1987 explores the relationship between sexual economy and class in New York from 1789 to 1860; in his book The Monied Metropolis, Sven Beckert outlines how kinship supported the consolidation of wealth and power among the blossoming American Bourgeoisie in New York from 1850 to 1896; and Amy Dru Stanley writes about the wage labor, marriage, and the market in the Age of Slave Emancipation in her book From Bondage to Contract. Though insubordinate to elite men, women were the lifeblood of capitalism during the mid-nineteenth century as they sustained men socially through the marriage and sexually through prostitution. 
To begin with, gender and class distinctions shaped and were shaped by the rapidly transforming urban landscape of mid-nineteenth century New York. In the words of Sven Beckert, New York became a ‘monied metropolis’ teeming with opportunity. The uncharted physical and economic territory was challenging but rewarding to navigate. For the winners, family quickly emerged as the cornerstone of their elite community. Beckert explains that against this backdrop, “Family held this rapidly growing and diverse group of people together, and it balanced powerful centrifugal economic forces, ethnic diversity, and mobility,”. In a rapidly changing urban jungle, family provided stability. The city’s social dynamics molded around this most basic unit, which fell under men’s jurisdiction. 
To further this point, Amy Dru Stanely maps out the role that gender relations in family structure played in discussions of free labor wages across the country. Central to the discussion of labor was the requirement that men needed to earn wages suitable to provide for their families and build a respectable home. Dru Stanley summarizes gender relations in the nineteenth century by citing Adam Smith, “...none disputed the tenet that a man’s wages, as John Stuart Mill wrote, must support ‘himself, a wife, and a number of children,’”. Men were the primary breadwinners, and economic dominance translated into domestic authority. Domestic life was beholden to a standard of respectability and gendered dependency. 
Dru Stanley also describes this gendered dependency as a right, something to be pursued by recently emancipated slaves. Though Dru Stanley claims that, “Victorian domestic ideology... portrayed the household as a sphere separate from the cash nexus,” Beckert shows how economy and domestic structures were tightly interwoven for the upper class. He writes, “While few begrudged the profits of the new metropolis, most merchants reacted to the disruption of their social world by shoring up their traditional kinship and social networks, by building institutions, and by articulating shared habits, manners, and values that helped create a sense of collectivity,”. In order to fraternize with the in-crowd, one had to publicly prove they embodied the same values. 
Moreover, elite families transmitted the technical knowledge and social capital necessary for success rather than attending university. Family was the institution that taught these habits, manners, and values. And who preserved this institution? None other than women. 
Women helped ensure the survival of fortune through marriage, bearing children, and building rapport. Accordingly, Beckert writes that, “Women, in effect, spun the threads that held these families together, both emotionally and economically, constituting what was one of the most important links of mid-nineteenth-century businesses,”. Marriages were wielded as financial alliances that continued to insulate and perpetuate New York’s aristocracy. To Bekcert, “Members of New York’s mercantile and financial elite frequently chose marriage partners for compatibility of status, wealth, and even the specific line of business. Though the concept of romantic love was important, the marriage market itself had developed social norms and institutions that practically guaranteed the ‘right; romantic choices,”. If marriage was a market, then women were goods that could be bought. Beckert even goes so far as to assert, “Marriage was first and foremost an economic venture; indeed, it was one of the most important business decisions of any career,”. Men were just as dependent on wives for their personal economic gain, not for sex. In order to understand the prostitute’s place in society, the economy of marriage needs to be divorced from the sexual economy.
Virtuous Victorian wives were to interpreted as asexual, which stoked the demand for prostitution. Christine Stansell notes this way in which men were reliant on women, “Certainly gentleman had money for such pleasures, and Victorian men could use sex with prostitutes to satisfy longings they could not express to their supposedly asexual wives,”. Consequently, prostitution was commonplace even among prominent figures, “As Walt Whitman noted, ‘the custom is to go among prostitutes as an ordinary thing’ among the ‘best classes of men,’”. Despite their demand, prostitutes were still seen as social lepers, even among their patrons. Stansell notes that, “By the 1850s, respectable New Yorkers were appalled at the eroticization of public space girls like these had brought about,”. The key words are respectable and public; one’s character was defined by their visible actions. Despite the normalization of prositution, the trade still operated in the shadows. Normalization was not valorization.
Prostitution among working class women provides insight into the gender dynamics of the sexual economy across different classes. Women, from varying socioeconomc backgrounds, actively chose prostitution as a means of independence as opposed to sheer desperation. Undoubtedly, a woman’s independence from her patriarchal family was threatening, “The urgency that discussions of prostitution took on in the 1850s indicates just how disturbing youthful female independence could be in a society structured culturally on women’s dependence on the household,”. Escape from ‘forced dependency on men’ was a motivating force for women to turn to the streets. It is curious to note that women felt so restricted at home that they turned to prostitution for cheap thrills.
Unfortunately, a prostitute could find transient luxury at best, and violence, adverse health outcomes, and criminalization at worst. Society vilified women for profiting from the sale of their services, despite the demand provided by gentlemen. A logical explanation for this phenomenon is that prostitutes corroded the sanctity of the household. Another rationalization would be that, as with other commodified humans (i.e. slaves, factory workers), personhood was deferred. Stansell opens by calling attention to prostitutes’ subhuman status,  “From the 1830s on, prostitutes flitted wraithlike across the pages of urban social commentary, a class of women rendered human only by the occasional penitent in their ranks,”. The effect of urban social commentary is not to be underestimated; as earlier explained, public perception could imprison someone economically. Stansell refers to prosititution as a trade, but the prostitutes were not granted the same social benefits that the mercantile elite were. 
All in all, these accounts concur that in the mid-nineteenth century, having a happy and respectable homelife was part and parcel of American capitalism. Anything or anyone that snagged at the threads of family life also risked unraveling the socioeconomic tapestry. Stakes were high in an era when marriage and social relations were the pillars of value propping American capitalism up. For women, this severely limited their economic agency. Today, women are still subject to condemnation from profiting off of the sexual exploitation of their bodies. Women still aren’t allowed to fully enjoy the fruits of their consensual sexual labor because of the stigma surrounding it. In many ways, a woman’s place in society is all the same confined by traditional notions of femininity. Men can use women to their utmost advantage both through sex and marriage, but women still can not honorably do the same. Women that engage in the sexual economy are predominantly viewed as immoral. Even women who opt out of being stay-at-home mothers are a minority population. To conclude, a woman’s place in the economy was tethered to their place in the household, which was ultimately controlled by man. 
Works Cited
Bekcert, Sven. “Chapter 1: Accumulating Capital.” The Monied Metropolis: New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850-1896, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993, pp. 17–45.
Dru Stanley, Amy. “Chapter 4: The Testing Ground of Home Life.” From Bondage to Contract: Wage Labor, Marriage, and the Market in the Age of Slave Emancipation, Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp 138–145.  
Friedman, Gillian. “Jobless, Selling Nudes Online and Still Struggling.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 13 Jan. 2021,
Stansell, Christine. “Chapter 9 Women on the Town: Sexual Exchange and Prostitution.” City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860, University of Illinois Press, 1987, pp. 171–192. 

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