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.


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.


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.


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.


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

Margaret A. Nash, Women’s Education in the United States, 1780-1840 (2005)

 Women’s Education in the United States, 1780-1840 examines “how women’s opportunities for higher education progressed from the scattered and short-lived academies of the late-eighteenth century to the permanent and highly academic seminaries of the antebellum era” (4). Margaret Nash argues that these early academies institutionalized women’s right to education and set “in motion a commitment to accesses to equal education for women” (116). Academics in the early American Republic catered to white, middle-class women and upheld notions of intellectual equality. Many women and men, teacher and students, valued learning for learning’s sake.


Chapters 2 and 3 examine the theories behind women’s education and the actual educational practices of women immediately after the American Revolution. Women’s education was discussed in terms of Enlightenment rationalism. Americans who supported female’s capacity to learn drew on John Locke’s theory of child development. Lock suggested that males and females possessed equal potential in education. Locke described the infant’s mind as a tabula rasa, or a blank state, that could be influenced by teachers and parents. Locke advocated the same education for males and females since both were equally capable of harnessing the powers of reason. Americans also drew on René Descartes and François Poullain de la Barre, to support their arguments that women enjoyed intellectual equality. Others looked to Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Emile, or on Education to support their arguments that men and women possessed intellectual differences based on biological capabilities.

Women’s education was also discussed in terms of civic republicanism. Nationalists, like Noah Webster and Benjamin Rush, recognized the role of women in educating moral, intelligent, and unified citizens. According to this logic, women needed to be properly educated so they could instruct the next generations of American citizens. Women held power over their husbands, other men, and children and, therefore, could shape the virtue of citizens and the nation. Women’s education was also discussed in terms of the personal rewards of education. According to Nash, these rewards included: the pure pleasures of learning; the ability of education and arts to bring one closer to the divine and a Protestant ethos; helping women cope with harsh marriages; improving household management; and supporting self-sufficiency. Discussions and practices of women’s education immediately after the American Revolution reflected “both the rhetoric of human rights and Enlightenment ideals about intellectual equality” (12).

Chapter 3 examines the academic and non-academic subjects of men’s and women’s academies of the early national period. Nash argues that because of beliefs about Enlightenment rationalism and civic republicanism, pedagogy and curricula were similar for both men and women in most academies. Chapter 4 investigates the relationship between class and female education. Nash argues that women viewed education as part of their emerging “middle-class” identity. Education was an emblem of class society. Americans also justified women’s education because it was related to evangelicals’ emphasis on education for the Christian progress of the nation. Chapter 5 argues that women pursued education because they yearned to learn. Chapter 6 examines the ways women’s education was bounded by race and class for the creation of a white middle-class.


Women’s Education in the United States elevates the study of women’s education in the early American Republic. Nash makes key theoretical moves that historians should imitate. First, Nash situates the most famous female academies and their founders (Catherine Beecher’s Hartford Theological Seminary, Emma Willard’s Troy Female Seminary, and Mary Lyon’s Mount Holyoke Female Seminary) within the larger female academy movement from the 1790s to 1840s. Nash argues that while well-known, these schools are no different in terms of curriculum and pedagogy than other female academies. This allows historians to understand that thousands of girls and women pursued education during this time as part of their middle-class identity. It also helps historians to see how male and female educators supported women’s education. Looking at an array of academies also allows scholars to see Troy, Hartford, and Mount Holyoke in their own context and not simply as precursors to women’s higher education in post-bellum America. These three schools were all founded by 1840. Thus, rather than a beginning, these schools mark a pinnacle in women’s education. Situating these schools in their own context also helps historians realize that these schools were not inferior to later women’s colleges or men’s schools of the same period. These three schools were a part of the flourishing of women’s higher education in the early Republic, not just the forerunners of higher education.

Nash also challenges historians to look beyond the ideology of separate spheres as they examine female education in the early American republic. Historians often deem these early academies as inferior because they examine these schools through the lens of the ideology of separate spheres. This ideology assumes that there was a strong distinction between male and female education. This has led scholars to assume that either women were intellectually inferior to men, women’s schools were intellectually inferior to men’s schools, or that the larger public did not support women’s education. Nash reminds scholars that the reality of the ideology of separate spheres has been challenged. Advice literature argued for this division, but many women did not adhere to it. Moreover, the ideology of separate spheres has been challenged because of its reliance on the clear distinctions between public and private. Scholars have shown that these lines were fuzzy at best. The lines between public and private were permeable and constantly negotiated.

Nash argues that the ideology of separate spheres has harmed studies of women’s education. It assumes that women were being trained for passive, familial roles. Thus, historians examine schools for their ability to transcend or confer domestic ideology to female students. The ideology of separate spheres has also dismissed the public and private nature of academies.

Nash concludes that historians should move beyond study the ideology of separate spheres when they study women’s education in the early American Republic. This moving beyond recognizes that the phrase “woman’s sphere” was used throughout the nineteenth century. But, it also recognizes that the phrase was not clearly defined in society or individual’s minds. Thus, “using ‘separate spheres’ ideology limits our understanding to explain women’s education in this period because it necessarily limits outs understand both of education and of the construction of gender” (12).

Despite Nash’s insistence and willingness to move beyond the ideology of separate spheres, she does not always do so. This is particularly clear in her reading of Catherine Beecher. Nash makes it clear that historians have misread the ideology of separate spheres. Actual nineteenth-century women did not relegate their activities to the private, or domestic sphere. Nevertheless, Nash argues that Beecher espoused the ideology. By this phrase, Beecher meant that “women should concern themselves with the ‘private sphere’ of home and children, while men should involve themselves in the ‘public sphere’ of paid employment outside the home and in the realms of politics and government” (2-3). Did Beecher actually say this? No. Scholars have traced this reading of the ideology to Engels and Marx’s critique of capitalism which imbibed their own readings of separate spheres into capitalism. Moreover, Beecher did not say this because she did not use the phrase “separate spheres.” If historians want to transcend separate sphere ideology they must stop attributing the phrase and its connotations to nineteenth-century women. Beecher, like other women did use the phrase “women’s sphere.” As Nash notes in her conclusion, Beecher used this phrase to talk about the domestic and social roles of women. These social roles included the professionalization of teaching and missionizing which were not private or domestic. Nevertheless, Nash concludes that for Beecher the woman’s sphere was the home and classroom. Beecher though that “women should leave the realm of politics to men.” By politics Nash seems to mean the public sphere. Nash, like other historians, re-inscribe Beecher in the realm of separate spheres. Beecher cannot escape because historians will not read her work without the lens of separate spheres. Historians must ask what nineteenth-century Americans meant by “woman’s sphere,” politics, and religion to really transcend “separate spheres” ideology. Despite Nash’s own ability to move beyond the spheres in her reading of Beecher, her work is an important contribution to studies of women’s education and religion in the early American Republic.

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.


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.


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.

29 Mar

Linda K. Kerber, Women of the Republic (1980)

In Women of the Republic Linda K. Kerber examines how the American Revolution affected women’s roles in political and domestic life. Kerber traces these roles through the origin and adoption of the language of “Republican Motherhood.” To understand the transformation of the female political imagination, Kerber analyzes political treatises, women’s diaries and letters, published materials, legal documents, probate inventories, and court records.

Kerber argues that Anglo-Americans inherited the Enlightenment tradition from Europe, which ignored the role of women in conceptions of the new social order. Women challenged this ideology during the Revolution as they negotiated contradictory loyalties to their families and the state. Women adopted the language of Republican Motherhood, which “provided the justification of women’s political behavior; it bridged the gap between idiocy and the polis” (11-12). Women exhibited patriotism by serving as army nurses, joining voluntary associations, and signing petitions. Yet, women were not recognized as political beings in the new republic. After the Revolution, courts upheld coverture laws, limited dower rights, and restricted divorce. American women had few legal rights as citizens. The language of Republican Motherhood was also adopted to promote women’s education. Republican mothers were informed citizens, well-read in religious texts, histories, and politics. Yet, education served women’s domestic duties, especially the training of virtuous sons and husbands for the republic.

Kerber’s work is noteworthy for its consideration of the gendered notions of Enlightenment ideals, politics, and freedom during the Revolution and Early Republic. Kerber demonstrates how women participated in politics in their everyday lives by adopting the language of Republican Motherhood. Republican Motherhood was a revolutionary invention in that it allowed for the intersection of women’s domestic life and the polis. Women used Republican Motherhood “to articulate a poltical ideology that blended the domestic and public sphere” (36). Thus, Republican Motherhood represents “a stage in the process of women’s political socialization” (284). Kerber’s work is also noteworthy as it encourages scholars to recognize the limitations of Republican Motherhood. The role was liberating, but it also severely limited women. Republican Motherhood masked women’s actual positions in the polis: “women remained on the periphery of the political community” (12). The American Revolution did not provide women with the same political and legal privileges as it did white males in the early American Republic.

For a historiography of separate spheres and a critique of Kerber’s “Republican Motherhood” see: the tag “separate spheres.”

26 Mar

Christine Leigh Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (1997)

Christine Leigh Heyrman examines how evangelicalism spread to the American South from the 1740s to 1830s. Southern Cross surveys the diaries of itinerant Baptist and Methodist preachers to recognize “why southern whites of all classes long kept their distance from evangelicals” (26). Heyrman argues that evangelicalism did not gain widespread support in the South among white Southerners until the 1830s. In its incipient years, evangelicalism challenged the social and familial roles of the Anglican South, particularly the patriarchy of white masters. Itinerant preachers “realized that the future of their churches in the South depended on more than yielding ground to gentlefolk and slaveholders. It would require winning humbler folk as well by altering, often drastically, many earlier evangelical teachings and practices concerning the proper roles of men and women, old and young, white and black, as well as their positions and relationships between the church and the family, and between Christianity and other forms of supernaturalism” (26). By the 1830s, “Southern whites came to speak the language of Canaan as evangelicals learned to speak with a southern accent” (26).


In the eighteenth century, the largest number of churchgoers in the South were “Anglicans, members of the colonial church of England who later came to be called Episcopalians” (7). The First Great Awakening (1730s to 1740s) did little to affect the religious atmosphere of the southern colonies. From the 1740s to 1760s, some evangelicals moved to the South to proselytize, and more settlers moved south and southwest bringing their pietistic traditions. Heyrman notes, “All of those migrants and missionaries carried into the South the conviction that spiritual rebirth was essential to salvation, and the most militant among them, Baptists and Methodists, aimed at nothing less than teaching all Southerners the language of Canaan” (11). To do this, evangelicals attacked the “popishness” of Anglicanism with its rituals and holidays, and sent young, itinerant preachers to the backcountry. Evangelicals gained some membership numbers and established churches. By 1776, however, evangelicals numbered less than 10% of the southern white population. After the American Revolution and the disestablishment of the Anglican Church, evangelicals (Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians) gained only a few more adherents. By the early 1800s, evangelicals comprised only 17% of the white population and 8% percent of the enslaved population. “Why,” asks Heryman, “was it that evangelicals, although now invested with every advantage, still struggled to claim the soul of the South?” (23). The answer: Evangelicals challenged the social hierarchies of Anglicanism and southern culture.

These challenges angered and frightened most white laypeople, particularly white masters. Evangelicals preached about the sinfulness of humans, the torments of hell, and Satan and demons’ ability to interact with and take visible form in the world. This supernaturalism frightened white people in at least three ways. 1) It equated Satan with “the black man,” who represented the powerfulness of enslaved people. 2) It appealed to enslaved men and women who regarded supernaturalism as an integral part of religious life. 3) It frightened whites who also believed in the power and literalness of Satan. Evangelicals also challenged social hierarchy by sending out young, single, itinerant preachers. These young men challenged southern culture’s emphasis on patriarchy. These men did not defer wisdom to age, they were unmarried in a society that preferred marriage, they were single men interacting with married women, and they demanded reverence and respect from all classes of southern men. Evangelicalism also upset traditional understandings of family. Ministers ridiculed marriage, rarely dated, and married late. They expected loyalty among evangelicals after conversion, not among family members. They also upset hierarchies by seeking the conversion of women first and being in close proximity with women alone. They allowed women to speak in public, give testimony, and receive revelations. Women’s newfound spirituality looked hyper-sexual to white, male southerners. The language of family and “God the Father” in evangelical circles also undermined the earthly family. The emphasis on an intimate relationship with the male Jesus upset notions of masculinity. Moreover, ministers denounced social interaction among families and communities by denouncing dancing, parties, and drinking. Poorer white males even detested evangelicals who seemed to disrupt their relationships with white masters. Evangelicals challenged all levels of southern culture and society. These challenges hindered the popularity of evangelicalism. By the early 1800s, evangelicals recognized these stumbling blocks and altered their messages.

Evangelicals tamed their emphasis on Satan and supernaturalism to appease whites. This also meant segregating churches and seeking approval from masters to preach to and baptize enslaved Africans. Taming supernaturalism meant curtailing African participation in evangelicalism. Evangelicals stopped women from preaching and specking in public. They associated female piety with the home and domesticity. Evangelicals married and had families. They deferred power and authority to white masters. “What had come to matter most to men of God was what had always mattered most to men of honor: vindicating their mastery within the public sphere” (252). Evangelicalism draped itself in southern culture and society in order to win the souls of the South. Evangelicals came to resemble white masters. After winning the white masters, evangelicals were able to win the unchurched, white, lower classes from the 1810 to 1830s.


Southern Cross examines the spread of evangelicalism contra Nathan Hatch’s notion of democratization. Unlike Hatch, Heyrman recognizes, firstly, that regionalism was important to the growth of evangelicalism. Hatch suggests that “The choice to study common developments springs from a conviction that certain underlying cultural dynamics of this period are not reducible to distinct regional characteristics…no section of the new nation was exempt from a democratic upsurge in religious matters” (12). Heyrman shows that regionalism impacted the spread of evangelicalism in the South. Evangelicalism challenged the establishment of the Anglian Church in the southern colonies and southern culture. Regionalism hindered and postponed the democratic upsurge in religious matters.

Heryman also challenges Hatch’s notion of democratization and popular religious movements. Evangelicalism was not a democratizing movement in the sense that it liberated people from social mores and promoted equality. To be sure, the movement attempted these things in its early years in the South. The moves toward liberation, however, were not successful. Evangelical ministers eventually re-inscribed the social order and gender roles of southern culture, and supported slavery. Evangelicalism did not liberate or embody the values of ordinary citizens. It actually did the opposite. Thus, Heyrman redefines the meaning of a popular religious movement: “This is the truest sense in which southern evangelicalism was a dynamic and popular movement: It was being reinvented during the very decades that it took root in that region, transformed by the demands of laymen and –women and the responses of clerical leaders” (27). A popular religious movement is the reinvention of religious values to meet the needs of particular laypeople, clergy, and culture.

Southern Cross is also important for what it says about the characteristics of evangelicalism. The dominance of evangelicalism in the South was not inevitable. Evangelicalism struggled for almost 100 years to take root in the South. Only when evangelical ministers conformed themselves and their messages to southern society and culture did it survive and thrive. Moreover, evangelicalism in the early nineteenth-century looked strange to many people. Its focus on supernaturalism and Satan frightened people. Evangelicals tamed supernaturalism to appeal to southerners. This is an important point. However, the degree to which evangelicals actually tamed supernaturalism may be debated. Recent studies show that belief in the supernatural grew throughout the nineteenth-century. In Heyrman’s story, supernaturalism all but disappears from evangelicalism. Nevertheless, the main point still stands. Evangelicalism of the early nineteenth-century was not the evangelicalism of the mid- or late-nineteenth century. Evangelicalism is not a static force or category that describes one particular theology and practice of Christianity.