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.