The Best Parlor at the Blanchard House of the Andover Historical Society sets the stage for how strongly religion defined a woman’s life in the early 1800s. The parlor was a meeting place generations ago for women having discussions about their changing roles in society.
Several factors drew women to religious activities in the early 1800s, the first being a woman’s status. Just as the Industrial Revolution and the move of textile production to the factories diminished the economic significance of her work at home, in Massachusetts she couldn’t own property or vote. Public gatherings, such as church and school, were usually segregated by sex.
To women who wished to pursue a career outside the home, choices were few and predictable. In Andover, a woman could find a teaching position at the Punchard Free School. Others, among them Harriet Beecher Stowe, became writers and poets. Some became nurses. And quite a large number worked as shoe binders and seamstresses. Work at the large textile mills wasn’t an option until the 1820s.
Thus, the only way a woman could enlarge her scope was through religious and other voluntary organizations.
In the book "The Bonds of Womanhood,'' author Nancy Cott maintains that “within religion women could express literacy and a rising self-consciousness in a sanctioned mode.” Religion didn’t take a woman away from her proper sphere and it did not make her any less domestic.
Encouraging women in this vein were the ministers in the local churches. They decided that pious women could have a strong influence in the community and this influence became crucial in guiding their children. Their influence was also meant to insure that their husbands and other men acted with morality and self-restraint in the economic marketplace.
Most significantly, religious-based organizations provided for the women much needed friendship with other women. That, perhaps, was more important than the stated goals of any one group. Religion allowed women to assert themselves in acceptable public and private ways.
West Parish women, for instance, became involved as young girls through membership in the Juvenile Missionary Society. A Ladies Seaman’s Friend group was established to lend financial and spiritual support to sailors of this nation. West Parish women also supported a Maternal Association. During meetings, women read advice books and discussed how that information applied to them.
As early as 1818 in Andover, the Samaritan Female Society of Andover was formed to provide for the needs of indigent and sick students at Phillips Academy and the Theological Seminary. And Mrs. Pachal Abbot began a Sabbath School for children of immigrant workers in her husband’s mill.
A note should be made, however, that the time women were able to spend on these activities did depend on their personal situation. A trend toward smaller family size opened up some time. Single and childless women often took up the charge. Women of some wealth had both the time and money to contribute to charitable works. Meetings of such groups as the Female Charitable Society and book discussions, which would have been held in the Best Parlor of the Blanchard House, were presumably well-attended.
What memberships in these religious associations and voluntary groups have shown is how women began to move toward establishing their own identity. Historically the concept of a “woman’s place” portrays women as victims. The concepts of “purity, piety, domesticity and subservience” certainly didn’t apply to men. Even the ministers who were happy to have the help of women preached that women should be subordinate to their husbands.
The reality, however, might have been that many women made use of this “domesticity” for their own purposes. This “women’s sphere” became a basis for a type of subculture among women, and authors began to evaluate their activities in more positive ways. A sisterhood was created and the concept of women’s rights was born.