This essay contextualizes Herman Melville’s “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” alongside antebellum portrayals of the female wage earner. Melville’s decision to measure the costs of economic change by sexualizing female wage earners typifies antebellum conversations in which men interpreted women’s labor in relation to an increasingly outdated framework for their activities, here termed the patriarchal shelter. This trope presumes that women’s activities ought to take place under conditions found in the preindustrial household and helps to explain why male authors interpreted factory operatives as women of suspect virtue. I argue that male authors who sexualized female wage earners alleviated their own anxieties about their compromised independence in the industrial marketplace. Male authors fixated on factory women’s sexual identity in an attempt to control their activities rhetorically, but in the process they symptomatized the many ways women’s labor no longer clearly evidenced male dominion.

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