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Turns of the Centuries Exhibit > Family Life 1780-1820 > Gender Roles
This theme in other eras: 1680-1720 | 1780-1820 | 1880-1920

(c) Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Deerfield MA. All rights reserved.

Gender Roles : A New American Woman


Cultural stereotypes of women in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries remained largely negative. The Biblical story of Adam and Eve endowed Eve with a feeble moral foundation and made her "the weaker vessel," both physically and spiritually.

This older worldview began to erode in the decades following the American Revolution. A new view of the role and nature of women generated a "cult of domesticity" that placed women in a sphere distinct from the public arena occupied by American men. Americans attached increasing importance to the role of virtuous and educated women in sustaining a free and prosperous republic.

The popularity of the play "The Shepherdess of the Alps" among Americans in the early 1800s is puzzling on the surface. After all, the play is set in eighteenth-century France and its main characters are aristocrats. In fact, these elements appealed to many Americans. The Alpine setting proved irresistible to readers already attracted to the romantic poems and novels of Sir Walter Scott. The heroine's natural refinement, virtue, and nurturing behavior were all traits Americans assigned to and esteemed in women.

It clearly captivated Emily Trowbridge of Deerfield, Massachusetts. Emily illustrated this scene from The Shepherdess of the Alps when she was about seventeen years old. She depicted the young aristocrat Fonrose gazing adoringly at the shepherdess Adelaide (the Countess D'Orestan) from afar as she tends her flock and sings of her secret sorrow. Emily displayed desirable qualities in a wife and mother by illustrating this 'virtuous' love story. Female academies typically offered instruction in embroidery, painting, music and map drawing as well as grammar, arithmetic, history and geography. Emily's work was an appropriate domestic "accomplishment" for a young woman in this period. Her embroidery exhibited impressive needlework skills and a strong moral sensibility. The purity, faithfulness and resolution Adelaide exercised in the aftermath of her husband's suicide appealed greatly to a society busily constructing a domestic sphere in which virtuous and educated women exerted their innate moral sensibility over their families.


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"The Shepherdess of the Alps" embroidery

creator   Emily Trowbridge (1793-1872)
date   c. 1810
location   New England
height   16.0"
width   14.25"
process/materials   embroidered silk on silk
item type   Art/Decorative Arts - Textiles
accession #   #1899.06.02

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See Also...

"A Moral Tale"

"The Shepherdess of the Alps" embroidery

"Young Ladies Literary Society 1813"

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