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10 March 2014

The 19th Century Women Responsible for Questions about Womanhood

by Adrienne Morris - My Tuesday Talk Guest
please welcome Adrienne - her novel The House on Tenafly Road was selected as an Historical Novel Society Indie Review Editor's Choice :

A self-righteous and misguided 19th century missionary woman in the American West helps to destroy the Native American culture only to have her son die of lockjaw after stepping on a rusty nail while crossing the Mississippi on a barge to visit her—that was the first idea for my novel, The House on Tenafly Road.

I’m not sure who would have wanted to read such a cynical story and I can tell you that after the first ten pages I discovered I didn’t want to write it either. I knew many modern women are obsessed with the word “tough” but as I researched the post US Civil War period I discovered that it wasn’t a trait aspired to by many 19th century women.

Writing about an anomaly, a kick-boxing, wise-talking woman who didn’t need a man failed to interest me in the way the real women I began to read about did. Some were missionaries—though hardly misguided. They knew that without assimilation many tribes would be exterminated (we underestimate the impact Darwin’s theories had on people). Some women went West as officers’ wives.

The word STRENGTH interests me. It’s a word most often used now in modern idealized pictures of womanhood—so much so that I’d never questioned it. But different words were used in Gilded Age America. Words that are sneered at today. Words like “lady.” This is not to say that every woman could have claimed to be one, but as a society the notion of lady as keeper of culture, values and civilization wasn’t the pathetic and small thing we imagine it to be through our jaundiced eyes today. Did some women feel constricted by the societal demands of motherhood? Of course, but we often make an unfair comparison. All men are shown living lives of great fulfilment, sexual freedom and health. A private soldier in the army fighting Indians in the late 19th century lived on about $13 dollars a month at posts so remote that even whores were hard to come by. Sexual freedom came with the price of incurable venereal disease—and the guilt of passing them on to their wives (if they ever found one).

In an era of great change many women were frightened by the competing ideals of woman as helpmeet and keeper of the home and the outward looking and acting New Woman demanding entry into the professions. Many American women actually didn’t want the vote. They enjoyed the supposed moral elevation it gave them to stay above the dirty political fray. Some women became “hysterics” not because they were unhappy in their corsets and their wallpapered homes designed to enhance the attractiveness of family and tout the husband’s success, but because negotiating the fast new world threatened them. Imagine that since the beginning of recorded time most women kept house, reared children and expected men to care for their physical needs. We look down on this attitude but civilizations were built on these roles. Not everyone wanted to be a New Woman.

But these are the big ideas, the big debates we still face today. The women I really got to know and love were the women who despite their fears, packed up their trousseaux, waved goodbye to the civilized Eastern seaboard of the US and followed their officer husbands into a dangerous territory full of unhappy Indians. These women fretted over their waistlines and how they compared to the other officers’ wives, they scrounged up scant meals for their husbands and worried when their men went off to fight the Apache Indians. They showed the kind of quiet strength that women have illustrated since the beginning of recorded history.

No kick-boxing here, but a will to survive and make do on little to nothing. Loving a man and remaining devoted to him, no matter how great he looks in a uniform, takes a strength of character that many moderns don’t possess. It was amazing to me how many officers' wives wrote adoring memoirs about their husbands in the Indian fighting army. Of course all people tend to romanticize their past, but when reading these forgotten books, one comes away with a profound respect for the women who possessed such good-humored fortitude in the face of poverty (the army was and is notoriously negligent when it comes to paying its soldiers), isolation and devastating infant mortality rates.

Women held elevated and prominent roles as ladies—not as equally tough in the pistol-packing-mama way—but as stand-ins for the real families of young officers, many of whom were single and lonely. Officers’ wives were arbiters of taste, bitter rivals at times and even matchmakers. They were idolized by the men who often saw themselves as modern-day knights re-enacting a chivalry that outside of the army was already vanishing (if it had ever really existed). One might think women found all of this offensive and stultifying, but not so. Women bristle at the idea of playing supporting roles in life today, but for many women raised in the predominantly Christian society of the late 19th century US military, the adventure of following their officers into the field was the height of a well-lived life and the essence of strong womanhood.

The House on Tenafly Road is about a morphine-addicted  Civil War veteran officer seeking redemption and the family who loves him. The novel was featured as an EDITORS CHOICE by The Historical Novel Society.

You can read more about the book at 

And more about Gilded Age America and writing at

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read the HNS Indie Review here: 

If you would like to write a guest post or article 
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  1. Interesting post, especially as one who would I think have empathised with these women had I been there.

    1. Thank you Margaret for dropping by. I admire these women - tough ladies!


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