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CITY OF WOMEN: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860 by Christine Stansell

CITY OF WOMEN: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860


Pub Date: Nov. 7th, 1986
ISBN: 0252014812
Publisher: Knopf

A study of working-class women in New York City from the late 1700's to the mid 1800's. Stansell sets out to ""examine how and why a community of women workers came into existence in America's first great city"" and to analyze the ""social conflicts in which laboring women were involved and the social pressures they brought to bear on others."" This was a society of women with ""its own economic relations and cultural forms, a female city within the larger metropolis of New York."" All of which is an academic historian's way of saying that the miserable conditions of working-class women have not been given enough attention by those who have studied the city of that era. Fortunately, Stansell has packed some fascinating stories into her account. Unfortunately, a lot of fairly dry prose surrounds them. Stansell has put together a well-documented work that explains how women, being subjected to the whims of men who worked only sometimes, were more often far poorer than those men; how the misogynist writings of Lord Chesterfield reigned in the popular imagination; how it could be disastrous for a woman alone to ask for simple directions on the street--so closely linked in men's minds were prostitutes on the prowl and unescorted women. The plight of these women is summed up in a chapter on prostitution. It was an ""economic and social option."" It was a ""means of self-support and a way to barter with men in a situation where a living wage was hard to come by and holding one's own in heterosexual relations was difficult.