Propagating "American" Womanhood

Three samplers that demonstrate how the ideal of white womanhood was imposed on girls in minority communities.

Yellowed 1820 sampler entitled “Truth” by 15-year-old Rosena Disery from the New York African Free School. Text embroidered in black thread surrounded by faded flowers. Dimensions: 12” x 13.”
Rosena Disery, Sampler

Rosena Disery, Sampler, 1820. New-York Historical Society.

Yellow and very faded 1828 linen sampler by Nancy Graves of the Cherokee Mission School in Arkansas. Decorative border surrounds alphabet lettering and biblical text embroidered through silk crewels. Dimensions: 14”x14.”
Ku-To-Yi Nancy Graves, Sampler

Ku-To-Yi Nancy Graves, Sampler, 1828. Historic Arkansas Museum.

Yellowed 1823 alphabet lettering sampler with a short religious poem and a faded green vine border by Nancy Reece.
Nancy Reece, Sampler

Nancy Reece, Sampler, 1823. Tennessee State Museum.


In the early days of the new nation, upper-class white womanhood came to be the standard definition of the ideal “American” woman. Women of all races and social classes were expected to strive to live their lives as close to the example of elite white women. Women who did not fit this pattern were ridiculed.

Free Black parents wanted their daughters to master the skills taught to white girls to demonstrate their equality in a deeply racist society. Black educational institutions like the African Free School taught young Black girls needlework, academics, and social customs. Wealthy men, like Pierre Toussaint, hired private tutors to teach their daughters music, dancing, and drawing. Mastering the same skills as elite white girls demonstrated that Black girls had equal amounts of talent and intelligence.

In the western territories, white missionaries educated Native girls as they would white girls, but their intentions were not as noble. They taught Native girls to be like white girls to erase Indigenous culture and make it easier for white settlers to claim lands held by Indigenous communities.

About the Image

Rosena Disery made her sampler at the African Free School when she was 15 years old. The sampler demonstrated both her skill with a