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.



22 Mar

Linda K. Kerber, “Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman’s Place: The Rhetoric of Women’s History” (1988)

“Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman’s Place” offers a historiography of the ideology of “separate spheres” in women’s history. Kerber argues that the phrase “separate spheres” was a trope or strategy used by historians that enabled them to “move the history of women out of the realm of the trivial and anecdotal into the realm of analytic social history.”[1] The phrase recognized women as more than a force in history (as had Mary R. Beard) and “proposed a dynamic by which that force was manifest.”[2] Kerber calls for historians to abandon this phrase and its implied dualisms—home versus market, public versus private, household versus state—since it denies the reciprocal relationships between gender and society and imposes static models on these relationships.


Kerber traces the ideology of “separate spheres” to Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1835 commentary of women in Democracy in America. In the section “Influence of Democracy on Manners Properly So Called” de Tocqueville implies the separation of male and female spheres. De Tocqueville provided the physical image of the circle around the home and the interpretation that it was “a limited boundary on women’s choices.”[3] According to Kerber, this was the most widely read work about women in American history after WWII. On examining the actual historical discourse, historians recognized that “women’s sphere” was used. Thus, the historians chose the term “sphere” as a figure of speech or a trope to talk about women in American culture.

In the 1960s, historians reinforced the centrality of the metaphor of “separate spheres.” Following Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, historians argued that American women’s history needed to be understood not through specific events but an ideology. Barbara Welter posited “The Cult of True Womanhood” in 1966 as a stereotype that women defined and that defined women. Welter defined True Womanhood as women’s piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness. Welter recognized that True Womanhood separated women into their own spheres. The domestic sphere and the “cult” negatively affected women. In 1968 Aileen S. Kraditor published Up from the Pedestal. It argued that the separation of the spheres and their broadening distinction were linked to the Industrial Revolution and the redefinition of men and women’s occupations. In 1969, Gerda Lerner wrote “The Lady and Mill Girl,” which introduced class into women’s history. Lerner argued that “the Cult of True Womanhood” was “a vehicle by which middle-class women elevated their own status.”[4]

Kerber argues that Kraditor and Lerner’s work was too dependent on Friedrich Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and State. Their worked subordinated the sphere of women to the sphere of men as had Engels. Engels argued that there was a split between the public and private spheres. The private sphere was that of women even though it was still controlled by man. Engels recognized woman, the home, and the private sphere as interchangeable. The separate spheres “served the interests of the dominate classes.”[5] Feminist-Marxists carried this idea into their work in the 1970s and argued that the home was the central problem for women’s social and psychic identity.

The separate sphere language of Welter, Kraditor, and Lerner had its own influence. Historians of women’s history, who did not consider themselves Marxists, employed the sphere language because it offered opportunities for social, cultural, political, and material analysis. But, the language in the 1970s generally associated the women’s sphere with the “subordination, deteriorating status, and victimization of women by men.”[6] Historians who turned to the political analysis of women recognized women’s history as a progressive history, or “a march toward the suffrage.”[7]

Historians of the 1970s argued for the existence of a distinctive women’s culture which separated and elevated women over men. Kathryn Kish Sklar’s biography of Catherine Beecher (1976) “analyzed the woman who did most to define the ingredients of the traditional women’s sphere: domesticity, nurture, and education” (17). According to Kerber, Sklar showed how “Beecher took the position that women’s sphere did not encompass politics.” Moreover, Kerber suggested that Sklar focused on Beecher’s address of “the elements of the physical location of the woman’s sphere, not only in abstraction like ‘the classroom’ or ‘the home’ but also in explicit and original plans for The American Woman’s Home”  (17). Thus, Sklar’s work showed that Beecher did not really recognize  women as political actors. This helped define the physical spaces of women in the home. Nancy F. Cott’s The Bonds of Womanhood (1977) examined how the “doctrine of women’s sphere” was practiced in nineteenth-century New England. Cott argued that church groups were one of the only ways women could meaningfully participate in their communities. Cott suggested that the suffragist movement of the nineteenth-century grew out of the separation of spheres. The women’s sphere, or “women’s perception of ‘womanhood’” was a precondition for feminism, but it was not necessarily proto-feminist.

Kerber recognizes this scholarship as occurring in two stages. The first stage—the 1960s and 1970s—developed the metaphor of separate spheres as a theme central to women’s experience and located its emergence in antebellum America. The second stage—the later 1970s—introduced the idea of the separate spheres as a liberating women’s culture. According to Kerber, this scholarship was “vulnerable to sloppy use.” At any one time, separate spheres could mean an ideology imposed on women, a culture created by women, and a set of boundaries women were expected to observe. The phrase also ignored race.

Kerber suggests that The Feminist Symposium in 1980 opened a third stage for thinking about separate spheres. Participants recognized the phrase as a metaphor, or rhetorical strategy that could be unpacked. The also recognized that the term “cult” had dropped out of usage in talking about womanhood and separate spheres. Following this opening, Kerber suggests some characteristics, or avenues for further research in this stage: 1) “the application of the concept [separate spheres] to the entire chronology of human experience, rather than to discussion of antebellum society, where perhaps, by accident, perhaps thank to De Tocqueville, historians first encountered it”; 2) the giving of “more attention to questions about the social relations of the sexes and treating the language of the spheres itself as a rhetorical construction that responded to changing social and economic reality”; 3) the recognition of “sphere” in its literal sense in terms of the physical space to which women were assigned.”[8]

Kerber concludes by urging scholars to abandon the phrase “separate spheres”: “To continue to use the language of separate spheres is to deny the reciprocity between gender and society, and to impose a static model on dynamic relationships.”[9] She hopes that “One day we will understand the idea of separate spheres as primarily a trope, employed by people in the past to characterize power relations for which they had no other words and that they could not acknowledge because they could not name, and by historians in our own times as they groped for a device that might dispel the confusion of anecdote and impose narrative and analytic order on the anarchy of inherited evidence, the better to comprehend the world in which we live.”[10]

Kerber’s analysis and historiography are insightful. However, scholars must be cautious of her advice for the third stage. Kerber suggests that historians move beyond antebellum America in their examination of separate spheres. This is laudable, but it dismisses the historical moment in which the phrase “woman’s sphere” developed. Part of this dismissal is that Kerber wants to recognize separate spheres language as a trope. But, this poses problems for scholars of nineteenth-century America because the primary sources (before de Tocqueville) actually refer to the “woman’s sphere” or the “sphere of woman.” Historians may need to stop talking about “separate spheres” in order to better understand the terms that actual historical women employed to talk about gender roles. There is too much slippage between “separate spheres” as a metaphorical construction and “woman’s sphere” as an actual term. “Woman’s sphere” is not the same thing as “separate spheres.” We must recognize this. If not, what are we to do with the  nineteenth-century authors who use and identify the intensification of “sphere” language at particular times? Kerber has an answer to this, but it is a bit arrogant. Kerber suggests that one day we will understand that separate spheres was “employed by people in the past to characterize power relations for which they had no other words and that they could not acknowledge because they could not name.” But, many people who used this language did use it in a particular way “woman’s sphere.” They also name the power relations: the subordination of women in Christianity and American culture. Women like Sarah J. Hale used the sphere language to name power relations and call for changes in these relations. Scholars must be willing to listen to the primary resources and what they tell us about the sphere language in particular historical moments.

Kerber’s analysis of religion and the separate spheres also needs reevaluation. In the second avenue for further study (see above), Kerber argues that the ideology of separate spheres could be helpful for evaluating religion in antebellum America. The ideology of separate spheres was a “familiar link between the old patriarchal culture and the new bourgeois experience.” Kerber suggests that “This aspect could be particularly welcome as a hedge against secularization; religious women of virtually all persuasions sustained a pattern of separateness both in their religious activism and in their religiosity.”[11] In this analysis, Kerber has fallen victim to the secularization thesis of the 1980s and to the separate sphere ideology itself. As scholars have now shown, the United States was not secularized in the 1980s. Religion remained an important part of life for men and women in public and private life. Moreover, women of the nineteenth century did not recognize the “separateness” of their religious activism or of their religiosity. Women practiced religion at home, in churches, through benevolent societies, in publications and writings, and politics. Most of them certainly did not recognize the secularization of nineteenth-century America. In fact, what most scholars would recognize as “secular” publications (Godey’s Ladies’ Book) in the nineteenth-century, were actually filled with articles about Protestant practices among women in public and political spaces. Religious women of the nineteenth-century did not necessarily separate religion and politics, and they did not separate themselves from “secular” society to practice religion. Despite these criticisms, Kerber’s historiography remains essential to the study of women in American history and the evaluation of study of separate spheres. Historians do need to recognize that “separate spheres” was metaphorical. But, we must also recognize they very particular ways that women used “woman’s sphere.” Investigating this term will help scholars better understand they physical places attached to this sphere. These places were not just the home. The term and concept of “woman’s sphere” actually undermines the notion of separate spheres altogether.

[1] Linda K. Kerber, “Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman’s Place: The Rhetoric of Women’s History,” The Journal of American History 75, no. 1 (June 1, 1988): 37.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 10.

[4] Ibid., 12.

[5] Ibid., 13.

[6] Ibid., 14.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 18, 21, 31.

[9] Ibid., 38.

[10] Ibid., 39.

[11] Ibid., 26.

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

Jarena Lee, The Life and Religious Experiences of Jarena Lee (1835)

Jarena Lee was the first woman ordained to preach in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. In 1835, Lee published her autobiography, The Life and Religious Experiences of Jarena Lee. The book was published in 3 editions and distributed at camp meetings, Christian societies, and on the street. Lee’s autobiography describes her encounters with Christianity, and her emotional conversion experience and sanctification.

Lee was born free in New Jersey on February 11, 1783. Her parents did not introduce her to religion. Growing up Lee felt the spirit of God and realized she was a “wretched sinner.”[1] Nonetheless, Lee did not experience conversion as a child. Lee came to religion in her twenties. In 1804, she heard a Presbyterian missionary preach at a local school and read the Psalms. Over the next few months, Lee experienced an illness that she attributed to “fearful oppressions of a judgment to come.”[2] Lee moved to work for a Roman Catholic family outside of Philadelphia. She attended an English church in the city, but realized it was not the church for her. Lee began attending a Methodist church in Philadelphia where she experienced her conversion to evangelical Protestantism. Lee recorded the ecstasy she felt while listening to Reverend Richard Allen preach: “Great was the ecstasy of my mind, for I felt that not only the sin of malice was pardoned, but all other sins were swept away all together. That day was the first when my heart had believed, and my tongue had made confession unto salvation—the first words uttered…was glory to God.”[3] Despite these feelings, Lee wrestled with her faith and doubted that she could find happiness in this world. After contemplating suicide for a second time, Lee had a vision of hell and Satan. One night she wept and cried aloud. Lee became ill again and went to stay with a physician. Soon, she came to accept her conversion and was baptized in the Methodist church in 1807. After her baptism, Lee also experienced sanctification. She asked the Lord to sanctify her soul and “That very instant, as if lightening had darted through me, I sprang to my feet, and cried, ‘The Lord has sanctified my soul!’ There was none to hear this but the angels who stood around to witness my joy—and Satan, whose malice raged the more.”[4] Lee’s autobiography reminds scholars that for many nineteenth-century Americans conversion experiences were long and emotional processes filled with visions, words, songs, crying, doubt, the heart, and the supernatural.

Four or five years after her conversion and sanctification, Lee felt called by God to preach. During the Second Great Awakening, more than 100 women served as itinerant preachers. Women preachers were white and black. They preached in barns, schools, and at camp meetings, but rarely, if at all, in churches. Denominations that supported women’s preaching included the Quakers, Freewill Baptists, Christian Connection, northern Methodists, African Methodists, and Millerites. In 1811, Jarena married Mr. Joseph Lee, the “Pastor of a Colored Society at Snow Hill.”[5] Lee preached less while married, but by 1819 resumed her itineracy. Rev. Richard Allen heard Lee preach and recognized her abilities. Rev. Allen ordained Lee as the first woman preacher in the AME Church in 1819. Lee preached to black and white audiences, and often meet with hostility in the field. Lee recorded one incident in her autobiography. Once a white man told her that “he did not believe the coloured people had any souls.”[6] Thus, the man tried to undermine Lee’s profession as a black, female preacher. Lee’s calling was far from easy, but she continued to carve out space in black and white circles to preach. In fact, in one year Lee traveled 2,325 miles and preached 78 sermons.

Lee expanded her Christian calling in 1838 by joining American Antislavery Society. Like many other nineteenth-century women, Lee challenged the notions of “Republican Motherhood” and “True Womanhood.” Lee was a black, female preacher. She preached outside the home in the public sphere. She became a woman author. And, she joined Christian voluntary associations. Jarena Lee carved out a space for herself in American Protestantism.

[1] Jarena Lee, Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee, Giving an Account of Her Call to Preach the Gospel (Pub. for the author, 1849), 3.

[2] Ibid., 4.

[3] Ibid., 5.

[4] Ibid., 10.

[5] Ibid., 13.

[6] Ibid., 19.

19 Mar

Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860” (1966)

Barbara Welter examines how nineteenth-century Americans defined womanhood from the 1820s to 1860s in women’s magazines, gift annuals, and religious literature. Authors and writers used the phrase “True Womanhood” to express their ideals surrounding women’s gender roles. While nineteenth-century Americans never explicitly defined True Womanhood, Welter argues that the phrase attributed religion (or piety), purity, submissiveness, and domesticity to womanhood. Religion was the core of True Womanhood. Domesticity, or the woman’s sphere, was also central to True Womanhood. Welter reasoned that religion and domesticity in went in hand: “One reason religion was valued was that it did not take a woman away from her ‘proper sphere,” her home. Unlike participation in other societies or movements, church work would not make her less domestic or submissive.”[1] Americans depended on their mothers to “raise up a whole generation of Christian statesmen who could say ‘all that I am I owe to my angel mother.’”[2] American mothers played a political role in the religious education of their families and society.

Expanding “The Cult of True Womanhood”

“The Cult of True Womanhood” is just as significant as Linda Kerber’s “Republican Motherhood.” In fact, “The Cult of True Womanhood” may be more significant for scholars of American Protestantism. Welter recognizes the ways that Americans centralized religion as a part of womanhood and motherhood from the 1820s to 1860s. In fact, Welter’s work has been foundational to scholarly work on woman’s sphere and the separate sphere. Yet, Welter’s work is not above critique.

Welter overstated the degree to which True Womanhood relied on domesticity and the home. Welter argued that “Woman…was the hostage in the home.”[3] Elsewhere, she stated: “There was only one place to look for her—at home. Clearly and confidently these authorities proclaimed the True Woman of the nineteenth century to be the Valiant Woman of the Bible, in whom the heart of her husband rejoiced and whose price was above reproach.”[4] To be sure, Welter is correct that the home was central to True Womanhood and nineteenth-century Protestantism. Lithographs pictured women at home reading the bible to their children and husbands. Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe equated homes with churches in The American Woman’s Home. But, these ideals of womanhood did not seclude women in homes in the domestic sphere. True Womanhood called women to reform their homes and then reform society.

The end of True Womanhood was women’s evangelization of the world. In this sense, Welter ignores the social dimension of True Womanhood that many of her primary sources laud. For example, Mrs. S.E. Farely wrote: “As society is constituted on the Domestic and Social Claims on Woman, the true dignity and beauty of the female character seem to consist in a right understanding and faithful and cheerful performance of social and family duties.”[5] Elsewhere, Welter cited other nineteenth-century titles that evoked women’s social, not just domestic duties. One essay was titled, “Woman, the Greatest Social Benefit.” Many of women’s social duties included participating in local churches, but also Christian benevolent societies for the uplift of other Americans. Church work was not valued because it would not make women less domestic or submissive. It was valued because women recognized their role in the evangelization of the world. Women’s duties went far beyond the home and the domestic circle for this evangelization. But, the home was a place to start. The Lady at Home suggested that “even if we cannot reform the world in a moment, we can begin the work by reforming ourselves and our households—It is woman’s mission. Let her not look away from her own little family circle for the means of producing moral and social reforms, but begin at home.” Evangelization started at home with women’s families, but ended in social reforms movements in the world. The sphere and duties of woman included all that was religious, whether that was at home or in society. Women had domestic, social, political roles as Christian mothers. But as many nineteenth-century women (see Sarah J. Hale) pointed out, their sphere did not include participation in the institutional political sphere.

[1] Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860,” American Quarterly 18, no. 2 (July 1, 1966): 153.

[2] Ibid., 171.

[3] Ibid., 151.

[4] Ibid., 174.

[5] Ibid., 162.