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.



04 Apr

Margaret A. Nash, Women’s Education in the United States, 1780-1840 (2005)

 Women’s Education in the United States, 1780-1840 examines “how women’s opportunities for higher education progressed from the scattered and short-lived academies of the late-eighteenth century to the permanent and highly academic seminaries of the antebellum era” (4). Margaret Nash argues that these early academies institutionalized women’s right to education and set “in motion a commitment to accesses to equal education for women” (116). Academics in the early American Republic catered to white, middle-class women and upheld notions of intellectual equality. Many women and men, teacher and students, valued learning for learning’s sake.


Chapters 2 and 3 examine the theories behind women’s education and the actual educational practices of women immediately after the American Revolution. Women’s education was discussed in terms of Enlightenment rationalism. Americans who supported female’s capacity to learn drew on John Locke’s theory of child development. Lock suggested that males and females possessed equal potential in education. Locke described the infant’s mind as a tabula rasa, or a blank state, that could be influenced by teachers and parents. Locke advocated the same education for males and females since both were equally capable of harnessing the powers of reason. Americans also drew on René Descartes and François Poullain de la Barre, to support their arguments that women enjoyed intellectual equality. Others looked to Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Emile, or on Education to support their arguments that men and women possessed intellectual differences based on biological capabilities.

Women’s education was also discussed in terms of civic republicanism. Nationalists, like Noah Webster and Benjamin Rush, recognized the role of women in educating moral, intelligent, and unified citizens. According to this logic, women needed to be properly educated so they could instruct the next generations of American citizens. Women held power over their husbands, other men, and children and, therefore, could shape the virtue of citizens and the nation. Women’s education was also discussed in terms of the personal rewards of education. According to Nash, these rewards included: the pure pleasures of learning; the ability of education and arts to bring one closer to the divine and a Protestant ethos; helping women cope with harsh marriages; improving household management; and supporting self-sufficiency. Discussions and practices of women’s education immediately after the American Revolution reflected “both the rhetoric of human rights and Enlightenment ideals about intellectual equality” (12).

Chapter 3 examines the academic and non-academic subjects of men’s and women’s academies of the early national period. Nash argues that because of beliefs about Enlightenment rationalism and civic republicanism, pedagogy and curricula were similar for both men and women in most academies. Chapter 4 investigates the relationship between class and female education. Nash argues that women viewed education as part of their emerging “middle-class” identity. Education was an emblem of class society. Americans also justified women’s education because it was related to evangelicals’ emphasis on education for the Christian progress of the nation. Chapter 5 argues that women pursued education because they yearned to learn. Chapter 6 examines the ways women’s education was bounded by race and class for the creation of a white middle-class.


Women’s Education in the United States elevates the study of women’s education in the early American Republic. Nash makes key theoretical moves that historians should imitate. First, Nash situates the most famous female academies and their founders (Catherine Beecher’s Hartford Theological Seminary, Emma Willard’s Troy Female Seminary, and Mary Lyon’s Mount Holyoke Female Seminary) within the larger female academy movement from the 1790s to 1840s. Nash argues that while well-known, these schools are no different in terms of curriculum and pedagogy than other female academies. This allows historians to understand that thousands of girls and women pursued education during this time as part of their middle-class identity. It also helps historians to see how male and female educators supported women’s education. Looking at an array of academies also allows scholars to see Troy, Hartford, and Mount Holyoke in their own context and not simply as precursors to women’s higher education in post-bellum America. These three schools were all founded by 1840. Thus, rather than a beginning, these schools mark a pinnacle in women’s education. Situating these schools in their own context also helps historians realize that these schools were not inferior to later women’s colleges or men’s schools of the same period. These three schools were a part of the flourishing of women’s higher education in the early Republic, not just the forerunners of higher education.

Nash also challenges historians to look beyond the ideology of separate spheres as they examine female education in the early American republic. Historians often deem these early academies as inferior because they examine these schools through the lens of the ideology of separate spheres. This ideology assumes that there was a strong distinction between male and female education. This has led scholars to assume that either women were intellectually inferior to men, women’s schools were intellectually inferior to men’s schools, or that the larger public did not support women’s education. Nash reminds scholars that the reality of the ideology of separate spheres has been challenged. Advice literature argued for this division, but many women did not adhere to it. Moreover, the ideology of separate spheres has been challenged because of its reliance on the clear distinctions between public and private. Scholars have shown that these lines were fuzzy at best. The lines between public and private were permeable and constantly negotiated.

Nash argues that the ideology of separate spheres has harmed studies of women’s education. It assumes that women were being trained for passive, familial roles. Thus, historians examine schools for their ability to transcend or confer domestic ideology to female students. The ideology of separate spheres has also dismissed the public and private nature of academies.

Nash concludes that historians should move beyond study the ideology of separate spheres when they study women’s education in the early American Republic. This moving beyond recognizes that the phrase “woman’s sphere” was used throughout the nineteenth century. But, it also recognizes that the phrase was not clearly defined in society or individual’s minds. Thus, “using ‘separate spheres’ ideology limits our understanding to explain women’s education in this period because it necessarily limits outs understand both of education and of the construction of gender” (12).

Despite Nash’s insistence and willingness to move beyond the ideology of separate spheres, she does not always do so. This is particularly clear in her reading of Catherine Beecher. Nash makes it clear that historians have misread the ideology of separate spheres. Actual nineteenth-century women did not relegate their activities to the private, or domestic sphere. Nevertheless, Nash argues that Beecher espoused the ideology. By this phrase, Beecher meant that “women should concern themselves with the ‘private sphere’ of home and children, while men should involve themselves in the ‘public sphere’ of paid employment outside the home and in the realms of politics and government” (2-3). Did Beecher actually say this? No. Scholars have traced this reading of the ideology to Engels and Marx’s critique of capitalism which imbibed their own readings of separate spheres into capitalism. Moreover, Beecher did not say this because she did not use the phrase “separate spheres.” If historians want to transcend separate sphere ideology they must stop attributing the phrase and its connotations to nineteenth-century women. Beecher, like other women did use the phrase “women’s sphere.” As Nash notes in her conclusion, Beecher used this phrase to talk about the domestic and social roles of women. These social roles included the professionalization of teaching and missionizing which were not private or domestic. Nevertheless, Nash concludes that for Beecher the woman’s sphere was the home and classroom. Beecher though that “women should leave the realm of politics to men.” By politics Nash seems to mean the public sphere. Nash, like other historians, re-inscribe Beecher in the realm of separate spheres. Beecher cannot escape because historians will not read her work without the lens of separate spheres. Historians must ask what nineteenth-century Americans meant by “woman’s sphere,” politics, and religion to really transcend “separate spheres” ideology. Despite Nash’s own ability to move beyond the spheres in her reading of Beecher, her work is an important contribution to studies of women’s education and religion in the early American Republic.

03 Apr

Kathryn K. Sklar, Catherine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity (1973)

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.


02 Apr

Tracy Fessenden, “The Other Woman’s Sphere” (2001)

“The Other Woman’s Sphere” examines how nuns and prostitutes stood “well outside of the nineteenth-century Protestant woman’s sphere” (169). According to Fessenden, “the creation and maintenance of a Protestant woman’s sphere in the nineteenth century emerges as part of the larger project of asserting a unified Protestant America in the face of social fragmentation along multiple axes, and then of managing that fragmentation by processing difference through a binary logic.” In other words, non-Protestant women like nuns and prostitutes, were coded as outside the woman’s sphere. Nonetheless, some Protestant women “resisted this homogenization of ‘woman’ and put it to work to serve their own interests” (172). Fessenden argues that the constructed discourse of woman’s sphere allowed “white middle-class Protestant women to extend their power over other women while allowing men to maintain their dominance over women as a class” (184). It allowed white Protestant men and women to protect and frame their hegemony over religious, racial, and class formations. Men, particularly those in the emerging medical field, biologized the woman’s sphere so that working outside the home was considered a criminal act. Protestant women working in factories, sales, or other jobs were considered dangerous like nuns and prostitutes who worked outside the home. One medical publication stated “A woman who works outside the home commits a biological crime against herself and her community.” Men deployed the ideology of biologized spheres to keep women out of public occupations.  The woman’s sphere came to be seen as separate from the marketplace.


Fessenden’s work is significant because she recognizes the woman’s sphere as an ideological construction by Protestants. Few scholars have recognized this religious aspect of the woman’s sphere. Fessdenden notes, “The widespread critical unwillingness to engage religion as a category of identity alongside or encoded within race or class also elide the ways that female power, whether represented as belonging to or transcending woman’s sphere, has frequently been organized as power over (and at the expense of) women whose racial, class, and religious identities set them in ambiguous relation to dominant and implicitly white, middle-class, and Protestant ideologies of womanhood.” Recognizing the woman’s sphere as a particularly Protestant construction allows scholars to recognize the relationships between religion, class, and race in the nineteenth century. It allows scholars to analyze the ways that Protestants deployed the woman’s sphere against non-Protestants, non-whites, and the lower classes.

Despite these insights, Fessenden’s work lacks a historiography of the ideology of woman’s sphere. It is not clear which historians Fessenden draws on to evoke and elaborate the definition and ideology of the woman’s sphere and the separate spheres. This is problematic because Fessenden invokes both phrases in ways that historians have already elaborated and/or cautioned against. For example, Fessenden suggests “As sites for probing the boundaries of private and public spaces, behaviors and roles, the figures of nun and prostitute both vex and bolster nineteenth-century constructions of legitimate femininity as domestic, maternal, pious, and separate from the workings of the market.” The idea that separate sphere ideology was metaphorical, or a construction, was supported by Linda K. Kerber in “Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman’s Place.” Moreover, the argument that this ideological construction separated women’s domestic life from public or industrial life has been argued by Jeanne Boydston in Home & Work. Neither of these scholars’ work appear in Fessenden’s notes. This makes it hard to trace what exactly is new and important about Fessenden’s elaboration of the woman’s sphere and the separate spheres. I suggest that the importance of this work emerges in its suggestion that men and women used the ideology of the woman’s sphere to talk about “the other,” or nuns and prostitutes. This work is also important because it argues that the emerging medical field, not just industrialization (See Boydston) worked to create the ideology of separate spheres. More importantly, this article suggests that the woman’s sphere promoted Protestant ways of understanding women, as well as Protestant women’s actions in society and their construction of “the other.” Few historians have recognized the religious dimension of the ideology of the woman’s sphere and how Protestant women  and men deployed this phrase to and against women.

02 Apr

Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, The American Woman’s Home (1869)

The Beecher sisters published The American Woman’s Home in 1869. Catherine lived with Harriet and her family while they worked on the advice book. The American Woman’s Home extended Catherine’s previously published Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841). Catherine’s Treatise was widely popular and entered its fourth edition just two years after its initial publication. Treatise was published almost every year from 1841 to 1856. According to Kathryn K. Sklar, Beecher’s Treatise established her “as a national authority on the psychological state and the physical well-being of the American home” (Catherine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity, 151).


The American Woman’s Home was a sequel to Catherine’s Treatise. It contained much of the same information from the previous book. However, there was new information. The sisters added to and updated the blue prints for American homes. These blueprints still included parlors. But by 1865, Catherine and Harriett equated an American woman’s home with a church. The architectural blueprints included houses with steeples and naves, and parlors that doubled as schoolrooms and pulpits. The sisters argued that mothers were the ministers, indeed the heads, of the home. The sisters recognized parlors as sanctuaries populated with sacred furnishings that formed and expressed a family’s salvation. The American Woman’s Home included chapters on decorating parlors in ways that would enhance religious formation. They suggested that “A small church, a schoolhouse, and a comfortable family dwelling may be united in one building, and for a very moderate sum” (The American Woman’s Home, 455). The home was the church and school.

These church-home-schools were not just for single families. The sisters suggested that any woman could run this type of home: “Christian women in unhealthful factories, offices, and shops; and many, also, living in refined leisure who yet are pinning for an opportunity to aid in carrying the Gospel to the destitute” (The American Woman’s Home, 458) could operate such an establishment. These “homes” could be run as benevolent organizations headed by women. These homes served as a means of employment outside the home. The Beechers urged women to “earn an independent livelihood, especially in employments that can be pursued in sunlight and open air” (The American Woman’s Home, 470). They also encouraged women to support the American Woman’s Educational Association founded by Beecher in 1850. The association was meant to train female teachers who would be sent West to run and operate their own schools.

The family and home were models for how society should work and function. The stronger and wiser members should raise the weak and ignorant members. Moreover, “When any are sick, those who are well become self-sacrificing ministers” (The American Woman’s Home, 18). The family served as the model of moral and social reform in heaven and on earth. “The family state then, is the aptest earthly illustration of the heavenly kingdom, and in it woman is its chief minister” (The American Woman’s Home, 19). Modeling social life on family would usher in the Kingdom of God. Women were the ministers to children and the socially destitute. Women would reform the world and bring about the millennium through their benevolent actions in homes and in the world. The American woman’s home was home, church, and school. But, it was more than the domestic sphere. The American woman’s home was anywhere in society where women’s religious instruction could act on and transform society.

See the full text of The American Woman’s Home (1869) here.

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

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.

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.