In the nineteenth century, women were described as being reproductive rather than productive creatures. In other words, they not only were responsible for giving birth, but were incapable of creative, original contributions to society. Furthermore, people of the period believed in "separate spheres" and that a woman's responsibility was the domestic sphere, where she managed the household by cooking, cleaning, and caring for the children. Indeed, a poet from this period wrote that the woman was "queen of the hearth." Marriage was considered an important goal for women, and remaining single was considered a sign of failure. People objected to women's working because they believed that they were not biologically or mentally equipped to do the work, that they were sentimental, and that work might expose women to moral corruption. It was thought that after puberty women could not achieve on the level of men because they were disabled by their menstrual periods. In the 1870s, an Illinois judge argued that women were incapable of being lawyers because their brains were not equipped to cope with legal concepts.
To work outside the home was considered unladylike. Women worked only if they had to work because they were single or because their husbands were dead or disabled. The idea of a woman's working for self-fulfillment did not exist. Women who did work tended to take jobs akin to the ones they would do at home: laundress, governess, nurse. Of course, there were exceptions to the rule. In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell--an English woman who enrolled in a medical school in Geneva, New York, in 1845--became the first woman to graduate from an American college with a medical degree. Later, other women studied medicine--often at schools they founded--so that they could care for other women, particularly because women of the Victorian period were not comfortable allowing a man to treat them.