History 246 Reading Guide

The World of Urban, White, Native-Born, Middle-Class Women:  Domestic roles and fashionable expectations


  • Catharine Beecher, “The Peculiar Responsibilities of American Women” (1841); T.S. Arthur, “Sweethearts and Wives” (1841), in Nancy F. Cott, et al., eds.,Root of Bitterness: Documents of the Social History of American Women 2nd ed. (1996), 132-147.  (e-reserve title:  Catharine Beecher, Peculiar Responsibilities ...)
  • Charlotte Perkins [Stetson] Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” New England Magazine 11, issue 5 (January, 1892), 647-656, online at Cornell University Library, Making of America.  LINKNote:  at the page for the Jan. 1892 issue of New England Magazine, scroll down the table of contents to the link for "The Yellow Wallpaper.  A Story," Charlotte Perkins Stetson, pp. 647-657.

Further reading:

  • Nancy F. Cott, et al., eds., “Health, Medicine and Sexuality in the Nineteenth Century,” Root of Bitterness: Documents of the Social History of American Women 2nd ed. (1996), 293-337.  


Catherine Beecher, “The Peculiar Responsibilities of American Women“ from Treatise on Domestic Economy (1847):

  • Why did Beecher argue that “women should feel an interest in the support of democratic institutions” and an “equal interest in all social and civil concerns” but, “it is decided that, in the domestic relation, she take a subordinate station, and that, in civil and political concerns, her interests be intrusted to the other sex”? Why did she give women equal (and sometimes superior) interests and their work equal value, but a subordinate position? Why couldn’t she envision a world without superior and subordinate relations?
  • What compensations did she offer women?
  • Toward what end did her discussion lead? For what roles and responsibilities was she preparing women?

T.S. Arthur, “Sweethearts and Wives” Godey’s Lady’s Book (1841):

  • What kind of guide did this story offer to young women as they began to anticipate love and marriage? Is the author female or male?
  • What role does Aunt Mildred play in the story? Why does the story begin and end with her? What messages does she give Agnes? What is her marital status? Does this matter?
  • What did the author assume about the characteristics that young women should seek in a husband? What would husbands expect in return?

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892):

  • How did Gilman characterize marriage in this story? What did marriage offer women? What would the narrator be doing if she were well? Why was the husband also the doctor?
  • To what extent was this account a “subversion of the sick role”? What kinds of choices did women have for responding to the limits and boundaries that they faced in marriage and in society?
  • What was Gilman’s goal in this semi-autobiographical account?