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.