20 Mar

Nina Baym, “Onward Christian Women” (1990)

In “Onward Christian Women” Nina Baym examines Sarah J. Hale’s Woman’s Record (1853) to better understand Hale’s notion of the “woman’s sphere” and its implications for gender studies and women’s rights in nineteenth-century America. Woman’s Record was the “most fully expressive of [Hale’s] theory of womanhood.”[1] This work reconceived world and Christian history in terms of women’s history. Hale divided history into four eras that highlighted the biographies of over 1,600 women. This history conflated the progress of Christianity with the progress of women. The two were not separate because, according to Hale, the “Gospel harmonizes best with the feminine nature.”[2] Christianity supported the moral superiority and progress of women, especially mothers. God called Christian women as missionaries to lead the evangelization of the world and usher in the millennium.[3]

Baym maintains that by arguing with her contemporaries in Woman’s Record about notions of womanhood, “Hale brought a female polyvocality into the public arena, instituting—for all her talk of “woman”—not woman’s voice, but women’s voices, at the center of contemporary history….Instead of just speaking softly among themselves, women were invited to address each other in public, within earshot of men.”[4] Thus, Woman’s Record created a public space for women to express their voices. It opposed New Historicist and Foucauldian interpretations that antebellum women were “increasingly passive, compliant, and privatized consumers.”[5] Antebellum women, as expressed by Hale, were Christians, spiritually superior to men, diverse, different, and able to endure and adapt.


Contemporary Americans remember Hale (1788-1879) as the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and as an advocate for the inauguration of Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Hale also achieved widespread notoriety in nineteenth-century America for championing women’s education, women’s missionary activities, and the “woman’s sphere.” Scholars have examined Hale’s “woman’s sphere” with a critical eye. Some have seen Hale “as either a profound conservative or equally as a progressive liberal.”[6] More often, scholars have interpreted Hale as “a retrograde force, a woman who impeded the development of egalitarian feminism through her espousal of the ideology of separate spheres for the sexes and contributed to the weakening of an older, vigorously masculine cultural style through her successful championing of an alternative feminine (i.e., sentimental, consumerist) aesthetic sensibility” [See: Ann Douglass, The Feminization of American Culture]. Since the 1960s, feminist scholars have interpreted Hale and women like her as opposing egalitarian feminism. Thus, most scholars have refused to recognize Hale as a feminist.

Baym essay is critical for re-reading Hale and recognizing that Hale would have considered herself a Christian feminist. Hale understood women as the morally superior agents of God who would usher in the millennium through their domestic and social work. Baym also recognizes the political role that Hale supported for women. In the introduction to the second edition of Woman’s Record (1855), Hale makes two points: “on the right influence of women depends the moral improvement of men; and that the condition of the female sex decides the destiny of the nation.”[7] Elsewhere, Baym notes Hale’s intervention into the political sphere in her discussions of “woman’s sphere.” Hale recognizes the Anglo-Saxons as the exemplars of moral development, and, further, she elevates the United States over Britain as the leading Anglo-Saxon nation. In doing so, Baym argues that Hale “demolishes, inadvertently but irreparably, the very boundaries between the male political and material sphere and the female spiritual and moral sphere on which her argument has depended….Hale cannot ultimately avoid becoming conventionally political. And her politics are conventional: Anglo-Saxonist, expansionist, nationalist.”[8] In other words, Hale promotes political roles and responsibilities for women.

Baym insights are crucial: nineteenth-century American women recognized that they had religious, social, and political roles in the Republic. Other scholars have recognized one of these elements, but left others out. Barbara Welter recognized the religious, but not the social or political aspects. Linda Kerber recognized the political , social, and moral aspects. But these moral aspects had very little, if anything at all, to do with religion, particularly Protestantism. Baym recognizes the religious, social, and political aspects. Nonetheless, Baym interprets Hale’s support of politics as an inadvertent dismantling of the woman’s sphere. This interpretation misses the points of Hale’s argument.

Hale fully intended and recognized that women could and should influence the political sphere. But, the way that nineteenth-century women defined the political sphere is not the way that twenty- and twenty-first century American define the political sphere. The political sphere in the nineteenth-century was a public sphere, but it was defined in more narrowly institutional forms. Hale recognized that women should not vote, work in industry and mechanics, lecture to men, or hold public office. But, this did not mean that women could not influence the political sphere through their writing and religious efforts. The woman’s sphere was a literal construction for women like Hale. But, Hale never defined this sphere as purely private and purely domestic. For Hale, the woman’s sphere included any space where Christian women needed to act, except for narrowly defined political spaces. Hale did not have a problem commenting on the moral implications of slavery. And, she hoped that her commentary would influence politics and politicians. She did not think, however, that women should vote about slavery in the states because this was a decidedly political act.

To better understand how women like Hale used and defined “woman’s sphere,” scholars must rethink how this term was defined in the nineteenth-century and how it was related to religion, politics, and women’s moral influence on the world. Nineteenth-century American defined religion and politics in very specific ways because they did not want the states or Federal government to support an official religion. The legacy of disestablishment complicated how religion and politics were defined in the woman’s sphere. Moral influence on the world was not apolitical in the nineteenth-century. Contemporary scholars recognize it as apolitical because our contemporary moment recognizes the separation of religion and politics, and defines political action in very specific ways.

[1] Nina Baym, “Onward Christian Women: Sarah J. Hale’s History of the World,” The New England Quarterly 63, no. 2 (June 1, 1990): 251.

[2] Quoted in ibid., 255.

[3] Ibid., 253.

[4] Ibid., 268.

[5] Ibid., 269.

[6] Ibid., 249.

[7] Ibid., 254.

[8] Ibid., 261.

16 Mar

Let Prelim Reading Begin…

…for real this time. I finally passed my German reading exam!

To begin, a challenge to the historiography of “woman’s sphere” as a separate sphere:

“The prejudice that they [women] were going ‘beyond their sphere’ has met them at every step of their intellectual and moral progress….And these denunciations were made because she established schools for the poor, and female friendly societies to improve the habits and character of those who had none to help them. They were made by men, by clergymen, who feared that a woman, by outvying them in doing good, would rob them of their exclusive glory. How contemptible now does the conduct of those men appear. How nobly the example of Hannah More should animate her sex to endure, if so it must be, the reproach and ridicule of the selfish and prejudiced, while engaged in works of benevolence and in designs of philanthropy and improvement; as men come more and more to comprehend the spirit and truth of Christianity, so will the estimation of woman’s sphere increase. They [men] will see that the religion of Jesus is, throughout, in harmony with female character, that he poured contempt on all those pursuits from which men claim to derive their exclusive power and glory.”

– From Sarah J. Hale, Godey’s Ladies’ Magazine, November 1837

Sarah J. Hale defined the “woman’s sphere” as the practice of women’s Christian benevolence and philanthropy in the private and public spheres.