07 Apr

Ann Douglass, The Feminization of American Culture (1977)

The Feminization of American Culture examines how American religion transformed in the nineteenth-century from New England Calvinism to Protestant sentimentalism. Douglas argues that American religion was feminized by sentimentalism. This feminization was detrimental to American culture because it did not aid in the progress of America or promote feminism.

Summary

Douglas traces the emergence of sentimental Protestantism to the decline of Calvinism and disestablishment. Ministers experienced disestablishment as states stopped supporting official religions. Evangelicalism rose to popularity and supported less-well trained and less theologically focused clergy. Calvinist ministers experienced a decline in their social, economic, and religious statuses. At the same time, women experienced disestablishment as production and labor were increasingly moved from the home to the marketplace. Women lost control of their homes, families, and American culture. They experiences a loss of social status. They attempted “to gain power through the exploitation of the feminine identity as the society defined it” (8). Ministers in turn gave into this female audience to gain support and authority.

The printing press united these ministers and women in their efforts to gain power. They shared a “preoccupation with the lighter productions of the press; they wrote poetry, fiction, memoirs, sermons, and magazines pieces” (8). Through the press ministers and women wished to exert their influence, which they claimed as a religious force, on society. But this influence was haphazard, according to Douglas, because they “confused theology with religiosity, religiosity with literature, and literature with self-justification” (9). Douglas admits that their intentions were not bad: “Under the sanctions of sentimentalism, lady and clergyman were able to cross the cruel lines laid down by sexual stereotyping in ways that were clearly historically important and undoubtedly personally fulfilling” (10). Nevertheless, the effects were bad. “Nineteenth-century American women were oppressed, and damaged; inevitably the influence they exerted in turn on society was not altogether beneficial” (11).

The influence of sentimentalism and feminization were detrimental to American culture, religion, and history. According to Douglas, “The tragedy of nineteenth-century northeastern society is not the demise of Calvinist patriarchal structures, but rather the failure of a viable, sexually diversified culture to replace them” (13). Sentimentalism also created a feminine form of religion that was not concerned with feminism, education, or theology. “’Feminization’ inevitably guaranteed, not simply the loss of the fines values contained in Calvinism, but the continuation of male hegemony in different guises” (13).  It also created a static holding pattern. “The triumph of the ‘feminizing,’ sentimental forces that would generate mass culture redefined and perhaps limited the possibilities for change in American society” (13). The feminization of American culture was too sentimental, too emotional, non-theological, anti-intellectual, and anti-feminist. Douglas could not overcome her infatuation with male dominated forms of Calvinism to give women a chance to speak in nineteenth-century American culture.

Historiography

The Feminization of American Culture, despite some historians’ continued criticisms, remains central to the narrative of religion in American history. This narrative continues to perpetuate the feminization of American religion. To be sure, most historians do not accept the negative aspect of this feminization. However, they do still accept Douglas’s idea that feminization of American religion segregated men and women into separate spheres. Douglas argued that women were “by and large in the home…” Historians, like Colleen McDannell, have worked to rescue the private, or domestic, sphere from Douglas’s indictments of its failures and hypocrisies. McDannell argues that the private sphere wielded positive and considerable influence in the nineteenth-century on the family through material displays of religion.

Douglas’s argument continues to impact how scholars of women’s history narrate the emergence of feminism in America. Douglas suggested that Sarah J. Hale was a complacent, anti-feminist:

“Nothing is more distressing to the feminist historian than the atmosphere of flushtide self-congratualtion that pervades the work of a woman like Sarah Hale; it is understandable, but nonetheless painful that, to groups whose potentialities are largely suppressed, any enlarged exercise of faculty seems, and probably is, at least in the short range an almost unmitigated good, whenever inner conflicts it creates, whatever limitations or long-term consequences it carries. It is pointless to condemn the anticipatory complacency of women like Hale as to condescend to members of ethnic or racial minority groups who ‘waste’ their money today on big cars and fancy clothes. The self-conscious if devious sense of social mobility felt by Hale and others was natural, yet it was delusive. Inevitably the uneasy alliance of ministers and women depended on their mutual entanglement in intricate and unperceived forms of dishonesty.”

Douglas threw Hale and other Christian feminists, like Catherin Beecher, under the bus. Their work did not matter. It was dishonest and it was not progressive. Their work was not feminist work. Nina Baym tried to rescue Hale from Douglas’s attack. In “Onward Christian Women,” Baym argues that Hale was a Christian feminist who supported women’s rights and women’s history in Christian terms. Nevertheless, historians continue to read Hale, Beecher, and other nineteenth-century women who supported similar notions as backwards, complacent, anti-feminists. Douglas’s work, although it promoted feminism, has greatly harmed women’s history in America. Historians are slowly recuperating from Douglas’s attacks on nineteenth-century women and their work for women and women’s rights.

Despite Douglas’s attack on nineteenth-century women, her work is important for women’s history. Douglas recognized that women were a prime consumer audience and prime produces in nineteenth-century America. Douglas suggested that most women were “By and large in the home.” But, Douglas did not separate women completely into the private, domestic sphere. Women were produces of American print culture. In fact, women led the clergy into the popular press. While Douglas condemned the content of these women’s writings, her insights are significant. Woman wrote for and shaped nineteenth-century print culture. Women were integral to the “public sphere.” Historians have not taken Douglas’s insights to their logical conclusion: women controlled American culture through print. Douglas also suggests that women controlled the marketplace as consumers. “In certain ways, middle-class women were freed as well as enfeebled by the shift in their economic status; they were to have greater, if more questionable, powers as consumers than that had enjoyed as producers [in the home]…they were women advocating the womanly, even if in aggressive ways…the home could sanction rather than limit traditionally undomestic activities” (78). Douglas recognizes the links between gender, the home, and the marketplace like no other historian has.

Douglas’s work is also important because it recognizes the importance of women in death and mourning in nineteenth-century America. However, like the women and ministers who support these practices, death and mourning were insincere forms of sentimentalism and feminization. Douglas argues that ministers and women “inflated the importance of dying and the dead by every possible means” (201). Like women’s other endeavors, these were negative. The proliferation of literature about death and dying did not reflect any increase in actual deaths. Neither did it reflect Americans’ concerns about death and the afterlife. Rather, it reflected women and ministers’ power struggles. “If the insignificant [the dead] could be proved to be significant, if the dead could live, ministers and women could establish a new balance of power in the free-for-all, intensely competitive democracy of American culture” (202). Women and minister feminized death and mourning to gain power in American culture.

The Feminization of American Culture is important for what is can tell us about women in American religion and history. Women were producers and consumers in the home and burgeoning marketplace. This comes out most clearly in the epilogue: “The forces of feminization were significant enough—they had tapped the increasingly formidable processes of industrialization, commercialization, and mass culture deeply enough—so that any opposition, even waged by a Harvard graduate like T.R., had to be conducted on their own terms” (328). Women were the arbiters of religion, culture, and the marketplace. Historians have not taken these claims seriously as they have examined women’s history in America. Ironically enough, Douglas’s work may help historians recognize the importance of women in American history. It may help scholars overcome their dependence on the separate spheres.

07 Apr

Colleen McDannell, The Christian Home in Victorian America, 1840-1900 (1986)

The Christian Home in Victorian America examines the affect Victorian Christianity had on attitudes towards domesticity, or the private aspect of American culture. McDannell argues that for nineteenth-century Christians “the connection between religion and the home was natural and inseparable” (xiii). Christians, Protestants and Catholics, believed in the divine nature of the home and created an American domestic religion.

Summary

McDannell traces the development of American domestic religion and its dependence on notions of the family to Puritans who settled in America. Puritans, like later evangelical Protestants, structured domestic religion in similar ways. “They met in the morning and evening [in the home] to recite prayers, sing psalms, and read from the Bible” (5). Religion, and, in turn, domestic piety witnessed a decline in the mid- to late-1700s as colonial and early republic Americans focused more in “individualism, deism, rationalism, and concern for the new nation” (5). American domestic religion matured in the 1820s as the social world of the Victorians witnessed the advent of industrialization and advances in transportation, the textile industry, mass production, and the marketplace. By the 1840s, these developments supported a marketplace filled with affordable Christian goods. Middle-class Protestants decorated their parlors with these Christian goods. Women oversaw decoration as notions of “true womanhood” equated womanhood with motherhood purity, piety, and domesticity. This domestic, feminine Protestantism coalesced with consumerism to foster a culture that prized visual and material displays of religion in the home. By the 1870s, Protestants recognized homes as sanctuaries populated with sacred furnishings that formed and expressed their salvation. Irish Catholic domestic piety developed from the mid-century and was entrenched by the 1880s. Protestant and Catholic domestic piety supported a middle-class Christian culture. Domestic religion also supported fathers and mothers as leaders at the domestic altar. The attention to fathers waxed and waned throughout the nineteenth century.

Historiography

The Christian Home in Victorian America is one of the first books to examine the material culture of American Christianity. McDannell shows us how religion was practiced in the home with things. This is a significant methodological move because it demonstrates that Victorians in America did not shut their homes off from the world and the marketplace. Rather, the marketplace and mass produced goods were essential to Protestant and Catholics’ practice of religion and notions of salvation. Things and the marketplace mattered for American Christianity. This is also important for nineteenth-century gender studies because it suggests that Americans did not understand the separation of the spheres. The marketplace as man’s sphere was not separated from the home as woman’s sphere. Christians displayed prized goods from the marketplace in their homes.

Despite showing how the home and marketplace worked together to maintain Christianity in America, McDannell recognizes the separation of the spheres. “The home was not only a private sphere unconnected to society but the starting point for shaping the public world” (xiv). For McDannell, the home was a private sphere that influenced the public sphere. This notion comes from McDannell’s use of Barbara Welter’s “the cult of true womanhood.” Welter argued that “true womanhood” in the nineteenth century defined womanhood as motherhood purity, piety, and domesticity. Domesticity, or the woman’s sphere, was central to “true womanhood.” Welter reasoned that religion and domesticity went in hand: “One reason religion was valued was that it did not take a woman away from her ‘proper sphere,” her home.” Thus, Welter separated religion and women from the public sphere and wider world. McDannell maintained this separation for a reason. She wanted to show the importance of the private sphere in light of recent work on the private sphere in civil religion and the feminization of American culture.

McDannell recognized her work as contributing to the debate about American civil religion. In 1968, Robert Bellah argues that American civil religion as a set of “public symbols that define what is sacred in this country” (150). Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann modified Bellah’s Durkheimian perspective. According to McDannell they suggested that “modern society forced individuals to retreat into the private sphere where they cultivated autonomy, self-expression, and self-reliance” (150). This retreat segregated religion within the private sphere. This move for Luckmann and Berger was “functional,” but upsetting since the public sphere (not families and individuals) was supposed to mold individuals. The private sphere took on the role of the public sphere, but this role was mediocre and unnatural.

Other scholars also lamented the role and function of the private sphere. In the Feminization of American Culture, Ann Douglas argued that ministers and women intentionally feminized religion in their support of the private sphere. Douglas interpreted this feminization as a detriment to American culture because it did not create a progressive women’s movement. This feminization was negative because it focused on domestic culture as sentimental and undesirable. Douglas pointed the finger at nineteenth-century American women who supported this familial, feminine, sentimental culture. She did not recognize these women as feminists. The private sphere was a burden to American progress. Other historians like, Barbara Welter and Nina Baym, argued that the private sphere supported the public sphere. They suggested that sentimental, feminine culture elevated women. They approved of domestic novels because they “were ‘vehicles of protest’ which commented on ‘temperance, women’s right, prolabor and antilabor, slavery and abolition.’”

According to McDannell, this work on civil religion and feminization minimized the importance of and influence of the private sphere. McDannell argued “only when the private sphere (dominated by women) attempted to control the public sphere (dominated by men) was the private sphere worth noting.” McDannell saw her work as opening the private sphere to show how men and women practiced religion in the home. The private sphere was important on its own right. It did not need the public sphere to be important. This became especially clear in light of civil religion.

McDannell argued that American domestic religion existed alongside of denominational religion and American civil religion. “By combining traditional religious symbols with a set of middle-class domestic values the Victorians rooted their home virtues in the eternal and allowed the more abstract traditional symbols to assume a real presence in everyday life. Domestic religion, in its uniquely religious and generally cultural forms, bound together what was truly meaningful in Victorian society….To understand Christianity of this period we must look not only at public symbols of civil religion, or particular theologies, but at the sacramental character of the home” (151). McDannell evaluates the private sphere to show how domestic religion functioned positively as its own set of private symbols in Victorian culture. To show the importance of the private sphere, McDannell reinforces the separation between the public and private spheres.

Despite McDannell’s reinforcement of the separation of the spheres, her work is important because it shows the opposite. Domestic religion fused the public and private spheres. Women and religion were not separated from the public sphere, they moved in and around the public sphere and brought it into their homes in the forms of goods and commodities. Likewise, women took religion into the public sphere and shaped it. The spheres were not separate. In fact, there seem to be no public and private spheres. McDannell’s works recognizes this in her discussion about fathers and mothers as leaders of the domestic altar in Protestant and Catholic models of domestic religion. Men also lead worship, prayer, and Bible reading in the home. The home and religion were not conceived of as completely the realms of women. The home was not woman’s sphere. Men also has an importance place in the home. This is an important insight which has been lost in the literature on spheres. Despite, McDannell’s evidence to the contrary, The Christian Home in Victorian America perpetuates the separation of the spheres as a metaphor and reality in order to promote domestic religion as a category unto itself. Historians must rethink the ideology of separate spheres in order to understand how parlor culture and religion were a part of the wider Victorian culture of men, women, and children.

 

 

04 Apr

Anne M. Boylan, Sunday School: The Formation of an American Institution, 1790-1880 (1988)

Anne Boylan traces the formation of the Sunday School as an American institution from 1790 to 1880. Sunday School examines “the creation and evolution of Sunday schools in five evangelical Protestant denominations…and through the interdenominational American Sunday School Union [ASSU]” (1). Boylan argues that “Although now primarily an instrument of denominational education, the Sunday school became an American institution because it promised to fulfill the broad millennial expectations of evangelical reformers” (4). Sunday schools emerged as an institution in the 1820s as workers helped “transform the schools from a temporary expedient for teaching the poor reading and religion to a permanent means of religious training for all Protestant children” (21). This transformation enabled Sunday schools to prosper by “taking them out of competition with their weekday counterparts,” the common schools (59). Antebellum Sunday schools formed institutional networks, like the American Sunday School Union, to “remake society along evangelical lines” (60). By the 1880s, Sunday school convention leaders systematized the institutional networks along denominational lines. As an American institution, Sunday schools “represented effective ways of ordering indivual lives in an increasingly disorderly society.” Sunday schools “offered protection from individual and national chaos” and “were to play a crucial role by introducing children to evangelical Protestantism, training them in proper habits and values, and guiding them through the treacherous waters of adolescence” (169-170).

Sunday School is an important contribution to the study of voluntary associations and institutions in nineteenth-century America. Boylan suggests that “The importance of institutions in American history has long been the subject of scholarly contention” (1). Scholars have debated whether Americans are “rugged individualists” descended from Enlightenment ideology, or “a nation of joiners” committed to the Benevolent Empire (1-2). Boylan argues that scholars should understand the Sunday school movement as one of many institutions that “united disparate people in a shared Amerricanness” (3). Moreover, Sunday schools were a part of the emerging American middle-class vision “committed to an expanding free labor economy and a democratic state” that had close ties to “the urban mercantile and manufacturing economy” (3). Sunday schools endorsed “social control” in the sense that they transmitted to others the personal qualities that reformers “believed essential to individual and national progress” (3).

Boylan’s book shares similarities with others works about Sunday schools as institutions for social control and education. In The Shaping of Protestant Education (1966), William B. Kennedy examines how American Protestantism adopted “a general strategy of education that depended heavily upon the public school and alongside it utilized the Sunday school as the major church-related instrument for Christian education” (11). Similarly, in “In Every Destitute Place” (1973), Ralph Ruggles Smith examines how the ASSU developed the domestic Missionary program “whereby Sunday schools were brought to the American West and South” in an attempt to Protestantize and socialize American children.

Smith’s scholarship departs from Boylan’ work in its emphasis on the domestic Mission Program of the ASSU. Smith foregrounds the work of the ASSU in the West and South to highlight the rural nature and development of Sunday schools, and their relation to Westward expansion and slavery. Thus, Smith’s works focuses less on the urban, mercantile, and capitalistic nature of Sunday schools. It questions the capitalistic narrative of progress that is associated with industrialization and urbanization in the nineteenth century. Sunday schools were an important part of Northern urban life, the marketplace, and the free labor economy. But, they were as equally important in “civilizing” white children of the West and South, who were a part of agrarian and slave wage economies. By emphasizing the urban nature of Sunday schools, Boylan simplifies the nature of Sunday schools and the complex relationship created between Sunday schools, children, adults, race, class, and economy in different regions of the U.S.

Boylan and Smith also disagree over the extent to which Sunday schools taught American children how to read. Smith argues that “Thousands of children learned to read as a result of the American Union’s efforts, and thousands more could not escape from the religious beliefs inculcated by the Sunday School” (5). However, Boylan suggests that “By the late 1830s the various Sunday school unions had virtually ceased discussing the teaching of reading in the annual reports” (24). Boylan concludes, “Thus, although many rural and frontier schools continued to teach reading–and even writing and spelling–after the 1830s, these were seen as incidental, not essential, aspects of their mission” (25). Boylan dismisses the importance of reading in Sunday school, perhaps, because she privileges Northern, urban Sunday schools over rural schools. Moreover, Boylan ignores the Union Spelling Books and other books published by the ASSU that were intended to teach children to read. Perhaps, Boylan deemphasizes the importance of reading in Sunday schools in order to emphasize the shift in American Sunday school curriculum from a focus on reading and arithmetic to religion, morality, and social order.

Nevertheless, Boylan’s work is significant in that it considers the agency of individuals, particularly women and children, in Sunday schools. Boylan notes, “Not surprisingly, women responded with greater alacrity than men to this calling [as Sunday school teachers], a fact which reflects both their narrower social opportunities and their acceptance of the evangelical conception of womanhood” (101). Women as the arbiters of religion and society fulfilled their duties in educating American children. Thus, Boylan recognizes the agency of women in the Sunday school movement. However, in a strange twist, Boylan also dismisses women’s agency and the importance of women’s work in the Sunday schools. Boylan suggests “It comes as no surprise to find that women who dedicated themselves to Sunday school teaching did not join the ranks of reformers or feminist” (123). Women only played the roles that society allowed them as mothers, wives, and females in the education of children in Sunday schools. Boylan treats women as cogs in the machine of the Sunday school institution. The institution was intended to reform society and women played a role, but were not agents, in this process of reformation.

Sunday Schools is also noteworthy in that it recognizes children’s participation in Sunday schools. Boylan notes “For despite their numerical preponderance in the Sunday school and its existence for their benefit, children are often entirely missing from the institution’s chronicles” (156). Children influenced the institution as they demanded the preservation of rewards programs, and the continuation of special events and performances. The recognition of children’s agency in Sunday schools and mission programs is an important insight. Evens so, Boylan only discusses the agency of children and their participation in Sunday schools in a few paragraphs.

Boylan’s work is significant in that it urges scholars to examine the agency of women and children in Sunday schools. It is also important for its suggestions that Sunday schools were a part of a larger American institution designed to reform children for the progress of America as a Protestant and capitalist nation.

03 Apr

Kathryn K. Sklar, Catherine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity (1973)

Kathryn K. Sklar traces the relationship between women and nineteenth-century American society through the life, work, and writings of Catharine Beecher (1800-1878). Catherine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity examines women’s religious, political, and domestic roles during the transition from Calvinist to Victorian society in New England and the emerging West. Sklar argues that Catharine Beecher redefined the American domestic environment in her published debates with the Grimké sisters on women’s rights, and in her Treatise on Domestic Economy first published in 1841. Beecher “politicized the traditional female sphere of the home” by recognizing gendered roles in the “Divine economy” (134-135). Beecher argued that women were subordinate to men in public society, but morally superior to men in the domestic and social circle. As teachers, mothers, and domestics, women were to, according to Sklar, “conform to the needs of their nation…and to disregard their secondary identities of class and locale” (160). Sklar also suggests that “Catharine saw the home as an integral part of a national system, reflecting and promoting mainstream American values” (163). Beecher urged women to be the arbiters between “the expanding thrust of Jacksonian Democracy and the continuing social need for coherence and stability” (xiv).

This biography is an important contribution to the study of women’s roles and agency in nineteenth-century American society. Sklar’s book and Linda K. Kerber’s Women of the Republic highlight similar themes. American women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries adopted notions of domesticity that aligned women’s roles as virtuous wives, mothers, and teachers with the education of the public and the moral progress of the nation. While Republican Motherhood and Beecher’s American domesticity bridged the gap between the home and nation, women remained, in many ways, on the periphery of the political community. Women did not enjoy the same political and legal privileges as did white males.

Sklar, however, complicates the notion that nineteenth-century women remained on the periphery by emphasizing the tensions and contradictions that women faced in their everyday lives. Women, like Beecher, actively carved positions for themselves in male hierarchies even when these positions seemed to contradict American domesticity. Beecher urged women to participate in a submissive American domesticity based on patriarchal hierarchy. However, Beecher fervently fought this hierarchy her entire life. Beecher never married and was not a mother. She did not own a home and she did not participate in American domesticity. Beecher was a competent and published religious writer. Yet, Beecher was not allowed to participate in official, male church life. These contradictions are important because they highlight the ways some women actively worked around and within these male dominated political, legal, social, and religious communities. Women did not always remain on the periphery of these communities. They engaged in these hierarchies by debating (in private and public writings, at schools and public meetings, and on speaking tours) with their fathers, brothers, ministers, and other men.

Sklar’s work is also important for its insight into women’s labor in nineteenth-century America. Sklar suggests that Beecher’s “ideology of domesticity was an effort to overcome the relative deterioration in the status of women that occurred when economic production was transferred from the household to the factory” (193). Although underexplored in Sklar’s analysis, this insight is significant as it challenges other narratives about capitalism. Friedrich Engels notes in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State: “The emancipation of woman will only be possible when woman can take part in production on a large, social scale, and domestic work no longer claims anything but an insignificant amount of her time” (199). Similarly, Alan Kulikoff notes in The Agrarian Origins of Capitalism that women’s participation in industrialization, wages, and exchange challenged nineteenth-century American patriarchy (20, 23). Sklar suggests that for Beecher, and perhaps other nineteenth-century American women, domesticity liberated women who faced harsh industrial workplaces and elevated their social statuses.

Sklar also complicates notions about the transformation of the family and women’s roles in relation to the state and capitalism. Marxist historians often see capitalism and industrial labor as driving forces that compel and manipulate familial organization and gender roles. Particularly, Friedrich Engels recognizes capitalism as a patriarchal system that encourages women to become prostitutes. To be sure, contemporary scholars have challenged Engels. Yet, Sklar reminds historians that religious ideas and practices played equally important roles in developments of the family and domesticity. Beecher’s notions about gender and submissiveness were deeply grounded in Calvinist thought and traditions about marriage and gender. To understand how Beecher challenged and participated in American patriarchal society, historians must recognize her economic as well as religious influences.

Sklar also extends notions about the “woman’s sphere” as it relates to domesticity. Sklar situates Beecher in her time and place, and reads Beecher’s work in light of her political, religious, and social goals for women and America. Sklar argues that with her Treatise, Beecher “tried to reconcile the inequality of women with an egalitarian democracy by emphasizing the importance of the woman’s sphere of domesticity…Beecher explained to her readers that women were restricted to the domestic sphere as a political expedient necessary to the maintenance of democracy in America” (156). Sklar recognizes that Beecher politicized the woman’s sphere in ways that historians have barely recognized.

Nevertheless, Sklar’s reading of the woman’s sphere needs some revision. Sklar argued that the woman’s sphere was the domestic sphere. This notion of the separate sphere has been challenged by Linda K. Kerber (See “Separate Spheres” in 1988) and rightly so. Women, especially Beecher, were not relegated to the domestic sphere in terms of the physical space of and surrounding the home. However, Beecher and other women did have something particular in mind when they mentioned woman’s sphere. Beecher talked about woman’s sphere as “the domestic and social circle.” Scholars have paid too little attention to the meaning of the social circle in their debates about the woman’s sphere. The social circle was not a metaphorical influence on society through the domestic circle. The social circle was women’s action and activity outside of the home. For Beecher, the social circle was her teaching, lecturing, participating in social clubs, and religious activities outside of the home in public. Beecher did not define the woman’s sphere as the home. Horace Bushnell’s Christian Nurture did.

While Sklar’s work provides many insights into Beecher’s notions of American domesticity, the notion of domesticity could have been complicated and further analyzed. Sklar notes that the parlor was the “cultural podium…the base from which their [women’s] influence on the rest of the culture was launched” (137). Elsewhere Sklar notes, that the home was “a new kind of space within which they forged their [families] identities and around which they organized their social and political interaction” (xi). The nineteenth-century New England home, especially the parlor, was a domestic space. But, the parlor was a domestic, public space where guests were entertained, items displayed, people slept, and politics were discussed. The parlor was not a private or individual space. Recognizing the politics of the parlor in ideas about domesticity may challenge contemporary historians’ notions of private and public spaces, and the role of women and families in these spaces. Nineteenth-century American domesticity may not be as private and secluded a sphere as historians have suggested. These spaces and their uses contributed to notions of domesticity that scholars have not fully explored in the history of women and gender. Nevertheless, Sklar’s biography of Catharine Beecher provides essential insights into the social, political, and religious culture of nineteenth-century American gender and domesticity.

 

03 Apr

Robert N. Bellah, “Civil Religion in America” (1967)

“Civil Religion in America” examines Presidential addresses from Lincoln and Kennedy. Bellah argues that American civil religion is distinct from American religions and that it exhibits the defining characteristics and features of religion.

Summary

The phrase “civil religion” comes from Rousseau’s The Social Contract. There Rousseau argued that civil religion recognized: 1) the existence of God; 2) the life to come; 3) the reward of virtue and the punishment of vice; and 4) and the exclusion of religious intolerance. Civil religion for Rousseau was meant to unify the state, give authority to the state, and act as a binding force for members of society who practiced individual religions. America’s Founding Fathers did not rely on Rousseau’s phrase, but the ideas circulated among them. At the center of American civil religion is “a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity” (8). While Bellah does not examine the emergence of American civil religion in the early Republic, he does look to the Founding Fathers and Presidential addresses to tease out its characteristics. 1) God is central. He is uitarian (yes, little “u”). He is austere and focuses on order, laws, and rights of human. He is not defined in terms of love and salvation. This God is not a deist. The founding documents recognized God as active in American history. 2) America is central because America is the new Israel, which can be rewarded or punished. 3) American Civil Religion centers on sacred, historical events like the American Revolution and the Civil War. 4) It has sacred scriptures like the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence. 5) It has sacred heroes and martyrs like Washington and Lincoln. 6) It focuses on the sacred theme of sacrifice. 7) It has sacred places like the Capital, battlefields, and cemeteries. 8) It has rituals practiced on sacred days, like Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, Veterans Day, and the Fourth of July. Bellah does not talks so much about the afterlife in American civil religion. But, one could argues that it is there.

Civil religion, Bellah argues, “at its best is a genuine apprehension of universal and transcendent religious reality as seen in or, one could almost say, as revealed through the experiences of the American people” (12). American civil religion is not anti-clerical or militantly secular. It borrows from the traditions of American religions and most Americans see no difference between them. Sometimes Americans disagree with American civil religion. Sometimes American civil religion upholds equality in the face of oppression. “The civil religion has exercised long-term pressure for the humane solution of our greatest domestic problem, the treatment of the Negro American” (15).

Civil religion changes and in the 1960s was involved in theoretical and theological redefinitions of which it was not aware. Americans challenged the centrality of God in America. Bellah argued that this would impact American civil religion: “If the whole God symbolism requires reformulation, there will be obvious consequences for the civil religion, consequences perhaps of liberal alienation and of fundamentalist ossification that have not so far been prominent in this realm” (15). Civil religion has helped America think and act through its most serious situations, including independence and slavery. The next issue to consider is what American civil religion will mean for the United States in the world. If America seeks after unlimited power and empire then, Americans must think about how American civil religion with affect the world. Americans would have to incorporate new international symbolism in civil religion. Bellah thinks this can be done: “Fortunately, since the American civil religion is not the worship of the American nation but an understanding of the American experience in the light of ultimate and universal reality, the reorganization entailed by such a new situation need not disrupt the American civil religion’s continuity” (18). Bellah is confident that civil religion can transform as America becomes a world power. However, he is less sure how atheism will impact American civil religion’s reliance on God.

Historiography

Bellah argues that civil religion is not the notion that Christianity is the national faith. Civil religion is also not Herberg’s “American Way of Life,” which suggests that civic religion in American is faith in faith. Herberg suggested that the increase in religiosity and church practice in 1950s America did not really reflect an increase in Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish religiosity or practice. Rather, it reflected Americans’ recognition that religion in general, or faith in faith, was important to American life. Going to a Protestant church was merely a ritual in the American Way of Life. It did not necessarily reflect one’s going to church to practice Protestantism in any particular ritual or creedal form. For Herberg, the American Way of Life was the secularization of American religions. One went to church or synagogues because that was what Americans did as part of the American Way of Life.

Bellah, on the other hand, argues that “there actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America.” Civil religion and American religions flourish alongside one another. Americans are not able to see civil religion, Bella argued, because they do not recognize Durkheim’s notion of “religious dimension.” Durkheim argued that every group had a religious dimension which defined its overall identity. Bellah suggests that this dimension can be easily examined in southern or eastern Asia. American civil religion has not been recognized because of the way the West defines “religion.” Religion “denotes a single type of collectivity of which an individual can be a member of one and only one at a time” (19, n. 19). Durkheim argued that religion united clans of clan-based societies in its creation of a collective consciousness. Bellah argued that American civil religion united individual Americans in similar ways.

03 Apr

Elizabeth Reis, “Immortal Messengers: Angels, Gender, and Power in Early America” (2003)

“Immortal Messengers” examines how American Christians have seen visions of angels and written about angels, and how these visions were authorized (or not) through gender. Puritans had visions of angels. Cotton Mather wrote about his visions as signs from God and argued that angels guided his hand in writing. Mather, however, warned women to ignore the angels who came to them. Angelic visitations bordered on revelations from God. Authorizing women’s visions would authorize their religious authority and ability to commune with God. Mather told women the angels they saw were devils. By the early 1700s, colonial Americans saw visions of angels before their deaths or on their deathbeds. They worked as signs and confirmations of one’s salvation. Shakers had visions of angels as conformation of Mother Ann Lee’s authority. Most of these visions were of male angels. Angelic visions became more popular in the 1800s. Ministers wrote about angels and Americans republished Swedenborg’s writings about angels. Spiritualism focused on angels as loved ones in heaven. Reis suggests that during the 1800s angels in writing were mostly men, while angels in images were female. By the 1850s female angels appeared on greeting cards, stereocards, and in ladies’ magazines. Reis argues that “Angels had become metaphors for feminine sensibility, and the angels themselves were by now primarily female….The feminization of angles was a piecemeal process, and by no means completely consistent, through it had developed in unison with a kinder and gentler religious sensibility” (175).

Thoughts

  • Were angels only metaphors by the 1850s?
  • How did angels work in 19th century evangelicalism?
  • What did (or did not) angels authorize in the 1800s?
  • What more can we say about angels, religion, and gender?
03 Apr

Matthew Dennis, “Patriotic Remains: Bones of Contention in the Early Republic” (2003)

“Patriotic Remains” explores how early Americans treated the bones of Native Americans, patriots from the American Revolution, and George Washington. These bones were wrapped in political and cultural meaning and used to construct and practice nationalism in the early American Republic.

Summary

Americans, like Thomas Jefferson, dug up the bones of Native Americans that rested in mounds. Disposing of these bones cleared the way for an American heritage and claim to the land. The Tammany Society worked in New York to have the bones of soldiers from the American Revolution entombed. These bones haunted New Yorkers because they belonged to soldiers who had been held prisoner and died aboard British ships anchored off the coast. After the war, the ships were abandoned along with the dead and their bones. The ships eventually sank and the bones washed ashore. The bones remained on shore until the early 1800s. The Tammany Society argued that if the remains of Washington could be entombed then so could ordinary war heroes. According to Dennis, “These remains became holy objects, which served to promote patriotic memory and and national feeling.” The bones were interred, but their importance and memory waxed and waned through American history. The burial and interment of Washington’s bones were no less controversial. The nation went into mourning at the death of Washington. Americans held mock funerals, elegies, and processions to honor Washington. Congress called for his entombment at the Capital. Some Democratic-Republicans, however, argued that such ostentatious display of mourning and memorializing were unsuited to a republican form of government. Republicans and Federalists argued over whither public funds should pay for memorials to Washington. Washington was eventually buried at Mount Vernon, not the Capital. Dennis concludes that “Bones and the nation are linked symbolically: graves of ancestors stake claims to the national landscape and its history. They are political relics, deployed (though not always self-consciously) to gain control of the nation’s collective memory, and in support of particular cultural and political agendas” (148).

Things to Think About

  • John Adams criticized the emerging cult of Washington. He wrote to Benjamin Rush: “When my parson says, ‘Let us sing to the praise and glory of G.W.,’ your church will adopt a new collect in its liturgy and say ‘Sancte Washington, ora pro noobis.” Adams added that if Congress had agreed to fund the Washington mausoleum, he would have been “obliged to do the most unpopular act of my whole unpopular life by sending it back with a negative and reasons.” See Dennis, “Patriotic Remains,” 143.
  • Given the controversies over memorializing Washington with federal funds, Congress rejected the Tammany Society’s request for money to bury the New York patriots. A congressman wrote to the Tammany Society, “some are of the opinion that Congress ought not to appropriate public money for such purposes,” and others believed the art of printing “has superseded the use and intention of monuments.” See Dennis, “Patriotic Remains,” 144.
02 Apr

Tracy Fessenden, “The Other Woman’s Sphere” (2001)

“The Other Woman’s Sphere” examines how nuns and prostitutes stood “well outside of the nineteenth-century Protestant woman’s sphere” (169). According to Fessenden, “the creation and maintenance of a Protestant woman’s sphere in the nineteenth century emerges as part of the larger project of asserting a unified Protestant America in the face of social fragmentation along multiple axes, and then of managing that fragmentation by processing difference through a binary logic.” In other words, non-Protestant women like nuns and prostitutes, were coded as outside the woman’s sphere. Nonetheless, some Protestant women “resisted this homogenization of ‘woman’ and put it to work to serve their own interests” (172). Fessenden argues that the constructed discourse of woman’s sphere allowed “white middle-class Protestant women to extend their power over other women while allowing men to maintain their dominance over women as a class” (184). It allowed white Protestant men and women to protect and frame their hegemony over religious, racial, and class formations. Men, particularly those in the emerging medical field, biologized the woman’s sphere so that working outside the home was considered a criminal act. Protestant women working in factories, sales, or other jobs were considered dangerous like nuns and prostitutes who worked outside the home. One medical publication stated “A woman who works outside the home commits a biological crime against herself and her community.” Men deployed the ideology of biologized spheres to keep women out of public occupations.  The woman’s sphere came to be seen as separate from the marketplace.

Historiography

Fessenden’s work is significant because she recognizes the woman’s sphere as an ideological construction by Protestants. Few scholars have recognized this religious aspect of the woman’s sphere. Fessdenden notes, “The widespread critical unwillingness to engage religion as a category of identity alongside or encoded within race or class also elide the ways that female power, whether represented as belonging to or transcending woman’s sphere, has frequently been organized as power over (and at the expense of) women whose racial, class, and religious identities set them in ambiguous relation to dominant and implicitly white, middle-class, and Protestant ideologies of womanhood.” Recognizing the woman’s sphere as a particularly Protestant construction allows scholars to recognize the relationships between religion, class, and race in the nineteenth century. It allows scholars to analyze the ways that Protestants deployed the woman’s sphere against non-Protestants, non-whites, and the lower classes.

Despite these insights, Fessenden’s work lacks a historiography of the ideology of woman’s sphere. It is not clear which historians Fessenden draws on to evoke and elaborate the definition and ideology of the woman’s sphere and the separate spheres. This is problematic because Fessenden invokes both phrases in ways that historians have already elaborated and/or cautioned against. For example, Fessenden suggests “As sites for probing the boundaries of private and public spaces, behaviors and roles, the figures of nun and prostitute both vex and bolster nineteenth-century constructions of legitimate femininity as domestic, maternal, pious, and separate from the workings of the market.” The idea that separate sphere ideology was metaphorical, or a construction, was supported by Linda K. Kerber in “Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman’s Place.” Moreover, the argument that this ideological construction separated women’s domestic life from public or industrial life has been argued by Jeanne Boydston in Home & Work. Neither of these scholars’ work appear in Fessenden’s notes. This makes it hard to trace what exactly is new and important about Fessenden’s elaboration of the woman’s sphere and the separate spheres. I suggest that the importance of this work emerges in its suggestion that men and women used the ideology of the woman’s sphere to talk about “the other,” or nuns and prostitutes. This work is also important because it argues that the emerging medical field, not just industrialization (See Boydston) worked to create the ideology of separate spheres. More importantly, this article suggests that the woman’s sphere promoted Protestant ways of understanding women, as well as Protestant women’s actions in society and their construction of “the other.” Few historians have recognized the religious dimension of the ideology of the woman’s sphere and how Protestant women  and men deployed this phrase to and against women.

02 Apr

Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, The American Woman’s Home (1869)

The Beecher sisters published The American Woman’s Home in 1869. Catherine lived with Harriet and her family while they worked on the advice book. The American Woman’s Home extended Catherine’s previously published Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841). Catherine’s Treatise was widely popular and entered its fourth edition just two years after its initial publication. Treatise was published almost every year from 1841 to 1856. According to Kathryn K. Sklar, Beecher’s Treatise established her “as a national authority on the psychological state and the physical well-being of the American home” (Catherine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity, 151).

Summary

The American Woman’s Home was a sequel to Catherine’s Treatise. It contained much of the same information from the previous book. However, there was new information. The sisters added to and updated the blue prints for American homes. These blueprints still included parlors. But by 1865, Catherine and Harriett equated an American woman’s home with a church. The architectural blueprints included houses with steeples and naves, and parlors that doubled as schoolrooms and pulpits. The sisters argued that mothers were the ministers, indeed the heads, of the home. The sisters recognized parlors as sanctuaries populated with sacred furnishings that formed and expressed a family’s salvation. The American Woman’s Home included chapters on decorating parlors in ways that would enhance religious formation. They suggested that “A small church, a schoolhouse, and a comfortable family dwelling may be united in one building, and for a very moderate sum” (The American Woman’s Home, 455). The home was the church and school.

These church-home-schools were not just for single families. The sisters suggested that any woman could run this type of home: “Christian women in unhealthful factories, offices, and shops; and many, also, living in refined leisure who yet are pinning for an opportunity to aid in carrying the Gospel to the destitute” (The American Woman’s Home, 458) could operate such an establishment. These “homes” could be run as benevolent organizations headed by women. These homes served as a means of employment outside the home. The Beechers urged women to “earn an independent livelihood, especially in employments that can be pursued in sunlight and open air” (The American Woman’s Home, 470). They also encouraged women to support the American Woman’s Educational Association founded by Beecher in 1850. The association was meant to train female teachers who would be sent West to run and operate their own schools.

The family and home were models for how society should work and function. The stronger and wiser members should raise the weak and ignorant members. Moreover, “When any are sick, those who are well become self-sacrificing ministers” (The American Woman’s Home, 18). The family served as the model of moral and social reform in heaven and on earth. “The family state then, is the aptest earthly illustration of the heavenly kingdom, and in it woman is its chief minister” (The American Woman’s Home, 19). Modeling social life on family would usher in the Kingdom of God. Women were the ministers to children and the socially destitute. Women would reform the world and bring about the millennium through their benevolent actions in homes and in the world. The American woman’s home was home, church, and school. But, it was more than the domestic sphere. The American woman’s home was anywhere in society where women’s religious instruction could act on and transform society.

See the full text of The American Woman’s Home (1869) here.

01 Apr

John G. Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks (1932)

Black Elk (1863-1950) was an Oglala Lakota known for his visions and curative powers. When Black Elk was 19, he cured a sick boy and became a medicine man among his people. Black Elk worked in a store for the Wasichus (non-red people) and as a performer in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. He was a part of the Ghost Dance movement. Black Elk also participated in the Battle of the Greasy Grass (i.e., the Battle of Little Big Horn) in 1876 and the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. Shortly after the massacre, Black Elk was baptized as a Catholic.

John G. Neihardt interviewed the Sioux about their history in 1930 and published Black Elk Speaks in 1932. The book remains controversial because it is a white man’s re-telling of Black Elk and the Oglala Lakota’s history. Neihardt interviewed Black Elk, but Black Elk did not speak English. A translator relayed Black Elk’s story to Neihardt who took notes of the accounts and later reconstructed the notes into a narrative. Scholars have recognized inconsistencies in Neihardt’s retelling and in the history of the Oglala Lakota. Others have suggested that Neihardt embellished the narrative to make it more appealing to white audiences in the 1930s.

Summary

Black Elk Speaks tells the story of Black Elk’s life as a medicine mane. According to Neihardt, Black Elk received visions from the spirit world—the first at the age of 9 and the second when he was “lamenting on a hill.” The visions were of an herb with curative powers. Black Elk and One Side found the herb. Soon after, Black Elk used the herb and the power of the spirits in a ceremony to cure a sick boy. The narrative relays Black Elk’s doubts about being able to cure the boy, but his eventual success. Black Elk was 19 at the time he cured the boy. Thereafter, many came to him for help and Black Elk became a medicine man.

Black Elk Speaks also recounts the relations between the Oglala Lakota and the Wasichus (non-red people). Neihardt relates Black Elk’s account of the failed treaties and promises with the white men. Black Elk’s people suffered starvation and disease. Land was stolen from them by the Wasichus. According to the narrative, the Oglala Lakota awaited for the appearance of a sacred man, a messiah-like figure, who would save them from death and destruction by the white men. Black Elk was unsure of this figure, but thought hard about this man and his own visions. In anticipation of this sacred man and the coming world of peace, the Lakota held ghost dances as a way of contacting and seeking advice from the spirit world and their ancestors. Black Elk joined in the ghost dances. People linked arm in arm to dance and sing. During the dances, Black Elk had visions and out of body experiences. Once he saw a vision of two men wearing holy shirts. Black Elk made holy shirts like the ones he saw in his visions. He told people about his visions through songs.

For an excerpt of this text see: John G. Niehardt, Black Elk Speaks. In American Religions: A Documentary History, 341-351. Edited by R. Marie Griffith. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

The Ghost Dance Movement in History

Historians have attributed Oglala Lakota resistance to assimilation into white culture to the Ghost Dance Movement. The Ghost Dance Movement connected the earthly and spiritual worlds. It focused on the power of the circle and anticipated an earthly time when people would not suffer under white men. The Ghost Dance Movement gave hope and encouragement to men and women whose lives, livelihoods, and lands had been stolen. Despite the non-violent nature of the ghost dances,  the U.S. government and white American settlers perceived the Ghost Dance Movement as a religious movement meant to incite war. Tension mounted as the U.S. government arrested leaders of the Ghost Dance Movement throughout 1890. The U.S. government called for the continued forced removal of the Oglala Lakota from their lands. In December 1890, the U.S. army surrounded a group Oglala Lakota  travelling to the Pine Ridge Agency. The group included men with weapons as well as women and children. The U.S. army attempted to disarm the men in order to board them on trains for removal. In the process, shots were fired and the  U.S. army massacred Oglala Lakota men, women, and children near Wounded Knee Creek.