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Gender in The Market Revolution

Male Models

In the years following the Revolution, George Washington rose above all others as a general and statesman. To early Americans he was the quintessential man, the role model for American boys. But in sermons, speeches, toasts, and eulogies it was Washington's service to the nation, not his martial valor or political skill, that was most praised. More celebrated than his victory at Yorktown was his dutiful response to the call to military service. More frequently lauded than his presidential legacy was his willingness to serve, yet again, when his nation asked him to sit as president.

By 1840, Americans had discovered new and very different heroes. Real-life figures like Daniel Boone and fictional characters like Natty Bumppo were celebrated as archetypal American men—rugged, independent, and self-defined. While not altogether indifferent to public duty, they could be critical, even contemptuous, of human society. More comfortable alone than surrounded by people, indifferent to the standards set by civilized life, they offered American boys a very different model for masculine achievement.

We often think that certain things are constant—that certain values do not change over time. But history reminds us that the opposite is true—that even fundamental beliefs are responsive to broader transformations in the world. It should, therefore, not be a surprise that the market revolution had a dramatic impact on gender roles and beliefs. As the sweeping social and economic changes unleashed by the market revolution worked their way through society, both men and women re-conceived their places in the household economy, and men, in particular, were forced to reconstruct the meaning of manhood.

Manhood in Transition

In the years surrounding the Revolution, manhood was linked to citizenship and public service. Men were praised for their "usefulness" to God and country. The real man set aside his personal ambitions and submitted himself to the will of God and the demands of his country, community, and family. These standards for male behavior were linked to understandings of society, and really the entire universe, as rigidly hierarchical. All things were arranged on a vertical axis—God and man, superior and inferior, man and woman. Upon this axis, all beings held obligations to those above and below. Being a man meant accepting these obligations even when contrary to one's immediate, personal interests.

But within the more liberating context of the market revolution, manhood took on a less communal character. The extended market freed men from traditional patterns of work and exchange and allowed men to build new networks across extended distances. Consequently, the traditional praise for communal sacrifice gave way to a new celebration of the self. To a certain extent, the vertical axis of the universe was made flat, and society was re-defined as a community of equals. Men were encouraged to cultivate the talents that God gave them and commit themselves to a program of self-improvement. "Self-advancement" was no longer discouraged; it was praised. And the highest accolade was to be labeled a "self-made man."

Of course, self-cultivation did not mean self-indulgence. The residues of America's Puritan and republican traditions would never tolerate a too self-centered set of values. Instead, they demanded that self-advancement be linked to self-mastery, that is, the subordination of the more base elements in man's character to the dictates of prudence and reason. Men were told to discipline their characters, root out the influences of unproductive and wasteful urges. Real men aimed at success that was self-defined, but also dependent on self-mastery and self-control.

Yet, even this disciplined obsession with the self was antithetical to the values of previous generations. Eighteenth-century Calvinists would have viewed this self-preoccupation as the most arrogant of sins, a ghastly substitution of man's puny interests for the far more glorious work of God. Eighteenth-century statesmen, raised in the philosophical tradition of republicanism, would have similarly judged this elevation of personal interest as dangerous to the health of the body politic. But within the changing social and economic context of the market revolution, this refocusing on the self represented a necessary adaptation of cultural values to the new realities of work and commerce.

Alternatives for the Unsuccessful

Of course, not all men could excel in this new market economy. Not all men could realize their personal ambitions or become self-made men, and for these men, a different sort of adjustment was necessary. Working class men, in particular, found social and occupational advancement more difficult. Their likelihood of moving up the occupational ladder from apprentice to journeyman to master craftsman or independent shop owner was increasingly slim; their likelihood of becoming "self-made" men was small. They looked toward a future of wage labor in the factory or in a large shop owned by another. And consequently, their ability to measure up to the new standards of "manhood" through their work appeared impossible.

These men needed to construct an alternative conception of manhood, and a number of historians have argued that they did so by creating a "sporting male culture" that celebrated values attainable by men outside of the workplace.

Elliot Gorn, for example, has argued that the search for alternative routes to manly self-satisfaction explains the popularity of emerging working-class pastimes such as bare-knuckle prize fighting.20 For men with limited futures, men who could expect little success in the emerging economy, prize fighting offered a different set of cultural values and an alternative definition of male success. In contrast to the autonomy celebrated by the market, prize fighting revolved around an elaborate community spectacle filled with pageant and ritual. Local champions, representing neighborhood taverns and firehouses, would march into battle followed by crowds of supporters waving local colors. And not only did prize fighting rely on the reconstruction of the community around sport, it offered to the men within these communities a set of values contrary to those valorized in the market economy. While success in the new marketplace relied on calculation and discipline, masculinity was proven by violence on the ring. While the "man of the marketplace" engaged in minute calculations of profits and costs, while he learned to defer rewards and make decisions based on long-terms yields, the man of the ring risked all in a momentary contest of power and strength.

Not every man could prove his manhood in the ring. But the fan could demonstrate his expertise in other ways. Through prowess as a bettor and through analytical savvy, the fan could also assert an alternative version of manhood. He may not be able to rise up the ladder to become the self-made man of the market, and he might not be able to go a few rounds in the ring, but he could be a skilled and successful aficionado of the sport.

The emergence of the market economy thus challenged different men in different ways. For all, it forced a re-conceptualization of manhood. But while for some this meant a relaxing of communal obligations and an elevation of the autonomous self, for others it meant the re-construction of the community around working-class pastimes and the celebration of values largely antithetical to the self-mastering and self-regulating values of the market place.

Women and the Market Revolution

For women, the challenge represented by the new market economy was different. In fact, some historians have argued that the market revolution provided more of an opportunity than a challenge for many women. Jeanne Boydtson, for example, has suggested that women were among the earliest and most energetic participants in the market economy.21 While traditional patterns of production and exchange continued to guide their husbands, women developed cottage industries that could earn profits in the marketplace. Spinning and home crafts, milk, egg, and butter businesses all generated profits for women independent of the household's primary livelihood. It was these profits, moreover, that often enabled households to transition toward more full participation in the new market economy. Money earned by a woman's egg business, for example, could be used to purchase additional land on which to raise a cash crop.

Other women took on work as sewers and fitters in the new large-scale shoe and clothing operations owned by merchant capitalists. They became part of the decentralized manufacturing plants that replaced the small shops owned by master shoemakers and tailors. Previously barred from these occupations by traditional understandings of the craft, women found work within the fragmented production processes of the new "putting-out" systems. And as they filled these roles within the emerging industries, Boydston continues, women faced fewer psychic challenges than men. While working-class men bristled under the demoralizing demands of the new production processes, while they wrestled with the loss of status that accompanied their transformation into permanent wage earners, women faced fewer challenges to their sense of self. More accustomed to subordinate positions, they accepted the limitations inherent in the new economy more easily. In fact, unburdened by traditional conceptions of social mobility, they could embrace the new opportunities offered by the expanding market with less anxiety.

The market revolution had a different impact on middle-class women. In fact, to a large extent it created the stereotypic "middle-class woman." As small shops were replaced by large-scale manufacturing operations, as more men found work in sales, finance, and transportation—work that was less directly engaged in the production of goods—the workplace and the home grew increasingly distinct. Where people worked and where people lived became geographically and psychically separate spaces. For those of middling affluence, the separation of work and home also meant the creation of separate spheres for men and women. Men dominated the world of work and were assigned attributes better suited to that world—cunning and competitiveness, prudence and self-discipline. Women were designated custodians of the home and were assigned attributes best suited to that domestic sphere—maternal nurture, and moral and spiritual insight.

Historians disagree on the full character of the woman's sphere. Some argue that it radically reduced the power and influence of women. Whereas in the past they had shared more equally in the household economy, they now were reduced to auxiliaries—support staff for their husbands and children, filling the important, but less essential, tasks of domesticity. Others have argued that women turned their confinement to the home into a source of power. While their "female attributes" were deemed ill-suited to the world of business and commerce, they conferred on women increased power over family and child-rearing decisions, and a moral authority that could be applied to certain arenas, such as philanthropy and social reform, outside of the home.

There is probably a degree of truth in both arguments, and regardless of where we apply the interpretive emphasis, it is certainly true that the roles and perception of middle-class women changed as profoundly as did those of working-class women. Furthermore, both men and women saw their places in society reconceived and the definitions of manhood and womanhood reconsidered. The market revolution clearly did more than expand American commerce; it redefined gender and the relations between the genders in American society.

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