Women and Children in the Time of The Door That Faced West
(In this post, I speak in general terms about women’s issues in the years 1799-1800. Exceptions to what I’ll note existed, but they were few and far between.)
The point-of-view character in my new novel, The Door That Faced West, (released in February by Lazy Fascist Press) is a sixteen-year-old woman named Sadie from North Carolina. She is escaping the abuse of her father. Since he has absolute authority over everything in her life and depends on her labor to get by, if she is to get away from him, she must go somewhere that he will not search for her. She must flee into the wilderness to the west, but she knows that to survive, she’ll need to be with people who know the territory and are tough enough to fight and defend against the dangers to be found there.
In the time in which the story takes place, children and unmarried women were frequently laborers. A child’s efforts could be employed by their parents or sold as a commodity to another master. Women had no legal identity as separate from that of their husbands or, if unmarried, the eldest male member of their families. A woman could not take part in a contract, own property, find her own job, own the wages she earned, or initiate any legal proceeding, such as a divorce or law suit. Many women lived their lives, working and bearing children under near-slavish conditions. If a woman was lucky, she received a primary education, but had no opportunities for schooling beyond that. She had no say in political or economic issues. If a woman was abused, she had little chance of redress unless some male person who had the leverage to do so took it upon himself to address the problem on her behalf. If she bore children, whether legitimate or illegitimate, the offspring belonged to the man considered to be the child’s father whether he was a fit parent or not.
These legally institutionalized attitudes toward children and women may be appalling to us now, but were a given in the eighteenth century and much of the nineteenth century, and had a destructive effect on countless lives. In The Door That Faced West, these issues play a major role in driving the plot and are demonstrated in the thinking and motivations of the characters of the novel.
—Alan M. Clark