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Lives of Women

Loudoun's rural landscape and southern routes made for different experiences for county women.

Today, the women of Loudoun County hold public office, protect the county's communities, educate the county's children, run their own businesses and raise families. The history of Loudoun's women tracks closely with women across the United States. During the 1800s they supported their husbands and raised families. In the early 1900s, they fought for the right to vote and the rights of African-Americans.

The women of Loudoun, however, also broke from tradition. They worked beside their husbands in the fields of the farms that made Loudoun's agricultural industry thrive. They ran plantations during the Civil War and after their husbands died. They were first to step up as leaders in their communities, becoming some of the first lawyers and education reformists in Virginia.

<sh>The "Laws" of Antebellum Women

<bt>Society dictated that upper-class women living in Loudoun during the 1800s focus solely on the home and family. In her book, "Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South," Brenda E. Stevenson wrote that by the 1820s women were placed in the home, while the men were put out in the public domain to ensure the separation of the sexes.

"In their ideal scenario the 'home' was the natural 'sphere' of women where she provided her family with a 'haven' from the corrupt, competitive public sphere of men," Stevenson wrote.

Young women were trained only in certain parts of life, such as sewing, cooking and child care in order to prepare them for marriage and caring for a husband and children. As time passed, however, women were taught more life skills in order to please their future husbands.

"By the 1840s, elite parents, like their poorer neighbors and relations, also insisted that their single daughters know how to conduct themselves in the kitchen, garden, sewing room, nursery, and sick room before their marriages," Stevenson wrote.

Women's roles were different outside of the upper class, Stevenson said, since women in more rural setting could "ill afford the luxury of remaining at home."

There were several periodicals dedicated to telling Loudoun women how they should live their lives and conduct themselves, even political, agricultural and literary journals. Magazines such as the Southern Literary Messenger, The Southern Planter as well as local periodical Sarah Hale's Ladies Magazine and Literary Gazette would comment on the subject of a proper woman's role.

"Not surprisingly, the target audience was the elite-slaveholding women," Stevenson wrote in her book. "Most of the articles varied little thematically from other selections, but did focus on the issue of slavery and its impact on slave mistresses' unique domestic role."

<sh>African-American Women's Roles

<lst>While white women in Loudoun during the 1800s were being trained in domestic tasks and proper etiquette, female slaves were facing a different challenge. While most child slaves were part of matriarchal families, the female slave could not focus on the need of her own families and children.

"She never was able to give the needs of her husband and children great attention, much less first priority," Stevenson wrote in "Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South." "The slave woman's most important duty was the labor she performed for her master, not her family."

Even after becoming free, black women had a difficult time finding a place for themselves in Loudoun society. The only jobs black women performed outside of their own communities, Stevenson wrote, were as seamstresses, nurses or midwife when white women were not available. In the 1860 census where 88 African-American women were counted, there was only one skilled female laborer listed, as a seamstress. The rest were listed as day laborers, washerwomen or house servants. Most of the women earned less than $25 per year.

"Loudoun employers gave women employees virtually nothing except some food and clothing," Stevenson wrote.

In addition, a large number of African-American women were acting as head of the household during the 1800s. By 1860, 34 percent of families were headed by a woman. The large number, Stevenson said, was partially due to the economic times.

"Fewer [men] may have felt capable of sustaining a family, thereby contributing to the gradual increase in female-headed households," she wrote. "Other women and mothers undoubtedly had husbands and lovers who left the county as a consequence of mandatory removal laws, or relocated in order to find work."

<sh>Women and Farming

<bt>Loudoun has long been known for its farms, providing meat, dairy, fruits and vegetables to its residents and surrounding areas. During the years when the county's farm thrived, women were just as important as their husbands and fathers in ensuring the success of the family business. In her book, "It's Just a Way of Life: Remembrances about the Family Farm," Allison Weiss interviewed Loudoun residents about what life was like on a working farm.

"While their roles were not implied as being less important, the majority of men interviewed said that their wives cooked, cared for the chickens and the vegetable gardens, and canned foods, but did not work outdoors on the farm," Weiss wrote. "Among the women who were interviewed, they saw their primary roles as providing care for the house and the family."

The majority exception to rule, Weiss found, was dairy farmers, who saw their mothers or wives stepping in and milking the cows if the father or husband was tending to other chores or duties on the farms.

"I know my mother, at busy times, us kids and her, we'd milk the cows so my father could stay in the fields," Jimmy Spring told Weiss.

It was the first and second world wars that changed the roles of women on Loudoun's farms.

"During World War I, 591 men from Loudoun were drafted into the army," Weiss wrote. "Volunteers of the Women's Land Army were organized to pick fruit at local orchards that were in short supply of labor because of the draft."

In 1943, at the height of World War II, the county agricultural extension agent reported there was a 21 percent shortage in farm labor, forcing women to take up most of the heavier work. Women helped fill 3.5 million jobs in the farming industry and were encouraged to keep victory gardens.

"Among farm laborers," Weiss wrote, "experience indicated that women hired as farm hands may have been doing the same work as their male counterparts. Those who farmed during labor shortages or during the Depression also saw men and women doing the same jobs."

Working on the family farm also provided women with an income. Besides making profits from selling butter and eggs from cows they milked and the chicken they raised, women worked as bookkeepers and bill collectors for their husbands, Weiss wrote.