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The nineteenth century produced a new and distinctive social type: the woman as reformer. Defying convention, she was nevertheless the product of one of the most popular conventions of the period, the sexual division of labor, which assigned commerce and politics to men and “culture” to ladies. In the orthodox version of the Victorian social myth, this same division of labor justified women’s confinement to the home. But in the 1830s, the reformers began to draw a different conclusion: If women were more “spiritual” than men, as the prevailing sexual stereotypes so clearly implied, to restrict their influence to the home was a criminal waste of resources.
Critics of feminism complained that exposure to the masculine world would unsex women, causing them to lose that fresh-eyed innocence which was the pride and pinnacle of Western civilization; but their solicitude, it turned out, was singularly inappropriate to the women on whom it was lavished. Their innocence, when put to the test, proved to be invulnerable. Nor did they lose the consciousness of themselves as women. On the contrary, they based their claim to be heard on the superior virtue of their sex, as well as on various communications received directly from God—and these, unpredictable as they were, were not likely to be communicated, it seemed, to anyone so indifferent to spiritual appeals, so immersed in the sordid business of making money, and so besotted with the world’s enjoyments, as a man.
Although they rejected the advice to stay at home, nineteenth-century women reformers did not reject the view of women on which this advice was based. Given the kind of family experiences that most of them seem to have undergone, both as daughters and as wives, they might pardonably have washed their hands of the whole business. In Europe, a certain kind of feminist reacted to domestic distress by trying to live as a “free woman.” The feminism of Mary Wollstonecraft sprang from a squalid childhood, and George Sand’s from a bad marriage, but neither proposed to reform the male sex, nor did they come to equate the subjection of women with sexuality itself. Instead they tried to free sexuality from the conventions that stifled it.
In America, however, unhappy homes commonly left a passionate sense of the wrongs of woman, a sense of the sisterhood of suffering which in turn nourished a tradition, handed down from mother to daughter, of masculine brutality. The female reformer, taking quite seriously her role as the custodian of official morality, threw herself into public causes in the belief that the influence of women would purify politics, abolish slavery, stamp out the demon rum, and lead to a general revival of religion. Finding themselves discriminated against even in such advanced circles as the abolitionist and temperance movements, American women, meeting at Seneca Falls in 1848, organized their own movement for “independence.” From then on, feminism in the United States was solidly aligned with the civilizing mission of women, even more than …
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