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.

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.

19 Mar

Sarah J. Hale, “The Ladies Mentor,” Godey’s Ladies’ Book (November 1837)

Sarah J. Hale recognized the influence of the printing press on women’s roles in the world and in Christianity:

“The invention of printing was a blessed era for woman. The multiplication of books has, in some degree, destroyed that monopoly of knowledge which men would engross, while learning was confined to manuscripts and the schools. As soon as books were accessible, the female mind received a new impulse, and the beneficial tendency of her awakened intellect, in refining and purifying the taste and character of men no one can doubt, who will read the writings of the old divines, even of the reformers themselves, and, compare these with the moral refinement which now pervades literature, secular as well as religious.”

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.