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American Women in Their Place

The Bonds of Womanhood: “Woman’s Sphere” in New England, 1780-1835

by Nancy F. Cott
Yale University Press, 225 pp., $12.50

The Feminization of American Culture

by Ann Douglas
Knopf, 403 pp., $15.00

The achieving female of a hundred years ago has presented problems as a model for her achieving feminist successors of our times. A fair assessment, for instance, of someone like Catharine Beecher, a front-running celebrant of the “cult of domesticity,” would be less galling if her contributions to women’s education had not been accompanied by so much emphasis on the special place of women in the home; in much the same way that Booker T. Washington’s similar achievements would have been admired more had Washington not shown a seeming acquiescence in the social segregation of blacks.

In this way Victorian America has provided an embarrassment for the modern scholar, torn between acknowledging the solid achievements, material and spiritual, of a highly energetic age, and a pervasive dislike for the style of the Victorians. Their houses and goods, once so despised, have recently won reevaluation, probably because time inevitably turns old furniture into antiques. But their “best people,” their typical elite, have not fared well with modern critics, who charge them with sticky sentimentality and a preference for “feeling” over reason. Many moderns find themselves more at home in the less treacly world of the eighteenth century, or at least in the company of those who, rather than express a hint of concurrence with prevailing and prejudicial norms, risked losing out in the nineteenth century.

An especially interesting form of this conflict between deed and style emerges from a consideration of a number of excellent new works on nineteenth-century women. Ann Douglas’s brilliant effort to reinterpret the well-recognized symbiosis of women and clergymen as the seedbed of modern mass culture and consumerism is among the best of these; so is Nancy Cott’s elegant and convincing study of how the “cult of domesticity” (an evil flower indeed in Douglas’s book) came about; how “the actual circumstances, experiences, and consciousness” of late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century women prepared them for acceptance of “woman’s sphere.”

Nancy Cott’s sources are the hundreds of surviving letters and diaries of women of suitable age and ability to have been writing them between 1780 and 1835, as well as the sermons of the ministers who took so large a part in popularizing the “cult of true womanhood.” Several years ago Aileen Kraditor cleverly entitled a work of hers on the advance of women’s rights Up from the Pedestal, suggesting that there would hardly be a way to go down from there. Nancy Cott’s The Bonds of Womanhood explains how women first got onto that isolated eminence that offered so little mobility.

Cott’s sophisticated but uncluttered explanation has no conspiratorial overtones. It is grounded in a thorough knowledge of how women of all ranks of society lived, worked, related to men, children, and other women during the half century that preceded the full flowering of the cult of domesticity and the simultaneous development of the first feminist movement. Better than any other work available The Bonds of Womanhood describes both the classic attitudes of the nineteenth century toward women and the opposition to the oppression of women in the historical context from which they grew.

Between the close of the American Revolution and another flamboyant era named for Andrew Jackson there fell a little-understood half century of astonishing social change that has no proper name to distinguish its social dynamics; it still appears in our books with the fragmented tags derived from an older political synthesis. The “Critical Period” is followed by the Federalist Era, the Early National Period, and the Era of Good Feeling, offering no suggestion that this broad threshold between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the beginning of intensive economic growth, the rapid development of modern transportation systems, the substitution of the factory system for domestic manufactures, and a rapid democratization of the political process. It is true that these changes were not all of them far advanced outside the New England states, but this is the region that concerns both Douglas and Cott, not only because of the relationship of women and women’s rights to religion and clergymen, but because of the special role of Calvinism in the cultural development of the country.

In the eighteenth century most labor of both men and women had taken place in and about the house and farm. When the factory system began to claim the labor of more and more men and unmarried females, explains Cott, the married woman found herself in the same workplace as before, with the same obligations, but she was not by 1830 so likely to be sharing either the place or the duties with as many other people. The “giving-out” system of manufacturing at home became the exception, and workers went to the factory, where they learned to look on time differently, to watch the clock in the modern way, and not the sun, to work for a fixed number of hours rather than to accomplish a specific task. Work under the new conditions was not casually mixed with social life as it once had been.

But for the woman at home, life continued as it had before, in the old patterns that could give way to individual needs and priorities from time to time. Now these patterns began to appear “unsystematized, inefficient, nonurgent.” A quilting bee still achieved the quilt, but it had a look of fun about it, and this way of mixing work with life and friendship began to be regarded as “woman’s sphere,” a place apart from the bustle of real life. As the vexations of industrialism began to make the real workplace less attractive, home seemed more and more a retreat, even a sanctuary. “In accentuating the split between ‘work’ and ‘home’ and proposing the latter as a place of salvation, the canon of domesticity tacitly acknowledged the capacity of modern work to desecrate the human spirit.”

The need of a retreat from the marketplace justified the mother and wife in her special obligation and her honor; she became the husband’s motive for working hard in the new ways of working, and his reward as well for accepting poor pay and insults. The very thought of her “will calm the tumult of his passions, and bid him struggle on, and find his reward in her sweet tones, and soothing kindness‌.” These lines from an “Essay on Marriage” in an 1834 issue of The Universalist and Ladies’ Repository illustrate well Cott’s view of the economic uses of the cult of domesticity. The fact that a woman, once married, had no claim to property or earnings, even her own, caused celebrants of the cult of domesticity to believe woman singularly disinterested when it came to economic affairs, above the battle so to speak. Living for others, she became the moral ballast of the family and the stabilizing influence in a turbulent society.

That, briefly, is how women got up on that pedestal. Once there, they found themselves regarded as a class, in a society that was turbulent in large part because classes were not supposed to exist. Intolerance of social distinctions meant that only women and blacks could be maintained in the dependent status characteristic of a more aristocratic order now dying away. Women and blacks, Cott points out, constituted a “natural” class, which was an acceptable way to identify a group as outside of competition. Society required classifications of some kind and “Sex, not class, was the basic category. On that basis an order consistent with democratic culture could be maintained.”

Being special in this way had the potential for exploitation by and for women. Increasingly the argument for better education for women rested on the superior claims of moral influence. Like the powerful matrons of Rome, the modern mother would rear virtuous children. She would refine the characters of her menfolk too. “We look to you, to guard and fortify those barriers‌against the encroachments of impudence and licentiousness,” Joseph Buckminster preached. “We look to you for the continuance of domestick purity, for the revival of domestick religion, for the increase of our charities, and the support of what remains of religion in our private habits and publick institutions.”

This much responsibility argued for more education even if it was of a special kind, designed to prepare women for marriage it proved difficult to confine women’s education to domestic skills. The schools founded for women inevitably compromised the idea that had brought them into existence: “As some opponents had correctly feared, education led many women to look beyond their domestic duties. Once guided to serious study and reasoning, some turned to books outside their own curriculum [and beyond the “accomplishments” of ladies], including works in law, medicine, and philosophy.” Another benefit more immediately available deriving from the cult of domesticity was the enhanced sense of sisterhood that connected women of the more fortunate classes with one another and with those who had little or nothing. If women shared an inborn advantage of greater sensitivity, then it stood to reason that no man, however kind, could become so good a friend as another woman, one who also shouldered the character-forming burdens of motherhood.

One of Cott’s best chapters describes the “sisterhood.” Particularly sensitive is her handling of women’s response to opportunities to meet one another on emotional and sympathetic terms unmarred by condescension or deference. It would be easy to deride effusions such as Louella Case’s letter to a friend who had ended a visit, but Cott does not. “No gentle voice to talk with, or read to me, no sweet, beaming, countenance to echo the feelings expressed, none of that gentlest of all sympathies, that of a pure, and true-hearted female,” writes Case, and Cott notes that such friendships were common experiences of middle-class women. The reform movements of the 1830s benefited from these friendships of women, for the voluntary associations became an institutional expression of the sisterhood.

It would have been good to have more from Cott on the relation of the cult of domesticity to the reforms of the period, particularly antislavery. The connection is suggested but not explored, perhaps because the movement outdistances the period of her study. But it is noteworthy that the position of slave women was always an especially telling theme with antislavery women. Ronald G. Walters in a revealing exploration of abolitionist attitudes toward women and family life shows how women seized their advantages as the world perceived them to be and turned them to account for the antislavery cause. Harriet Beecher Stowe he quotes as saying, “God has given to women a deeper and more immovable knowledge in those holier feelings which are peculiar to womanhood, and which guard the sacredness of the family state.”1 And more than one abolitionist was sure that there could be no woman who was not at heart an abolitionist.

It is good luck that Cott’s book and Ann Douglas’s The Feminization of American Culture have appeared simultaneously, for they provide some interesting points of comparison in their handling of similar subjects. Cott is as much interested in the lives of ordinary women as she is in the elite, while Douglas concentrates on women who wrote books and themselves contributed to the sentimentalization of their culture. She is even more interested, and with justification, in those women who did not do so, who were in fact restless and strident as they chafed at constraints. For her the “cult of domesticity” is only one of several forces that ground our culture down, “feminized” it, causing great loss of the best values we possessed when the faith of Calvin reigned, and heralding “the cultural sprawl that has increasingly characterized post-Victorian life.”

Guilty as they were, “that damned mob of scribbling females,” as Hawthorne branded them forever as being, did not accomplish all this alone. The ministers helped. It is Douglas’s thesis that Victorian women and the liberal Protestant clergy shared a common fate in that they had “lost practical function within American society and were anxious to replace it with emotional indispensability.” The ministers had lost their security because of the disestablishment of the Protestant clergy in the wake of the Revolution, Douglas explains, doing so with perhaps more assurance than the argument deserves. Congregationalists and Unitarians seem to have been more affected by the sentimentalizing and feminizing tendencies Douglas deplores than other denominations in the same legal situation. Why? Douglas suggests that the New England clergy had come to depend on the “economically conservative governing powers” in the period before the disestablishment; the support of the economic status quo was thereafter “ever more vital to their embattled position.”

This explains for Douglas why the ministers did not throw themselves into the reform movements of the time with more energy and in greater numbers. Actually many of them did just that, but the accusation may be largely true all the same, and Douglas is describing a large number of the liberal clergy when she says the minister was losing his position as a leader in society. More than ever a clergyman depended on the women of his congregation. “His place was increasingly in the Sunday School, the parlor, and the library, among women and those who flattered and resembled them.”

In Douglas’s interpretation, Nancy Cott’s view of changing female status is clearly in the background, but Douglas puts more emphasis on the part ministers played in assigning “influence” to women, giving them the power to redeem and inspire others, or convincing them that they had it. Douglas describes the results of this process as victory of “feeling” and “emotion” over reason—feminization. Certainly both ministers and women gave an inordinate amount of time to writing books of advice to women, little tales of domestic happiness, and few would argue that the intellectual content could touch that of a Calvinist sermon. Women got recognition for celebrating their own special form of bondage, and there was something very disagreeable in the maudlin descriptions of the beautiful deaths of beautiful children who had done little except to be good and inspire others.

Douglas is at her best in writing about women like Harriet Beecher Stowe, who contributed to all this maudlin celebration, profited from it (it was she who wrote the classic version for America in the death of Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin), and were in the end damaged by the society that insisted on such matter for a diet. But that all these horrors, such as furnishing heaven with the trappings of domesticity, pianos, books, and other comforts, were so much a part of a plan as Douglas’s pursuit of her thesis suggests may well be questioned. At one point the author meant to name her work The Sentimental Sabotage,2 which openly suggests the conspiratorial overtones that are in any case clear in the text. By constantly referring to the psychological dynamics of individuals Douglas manages to convey a pitiless psychological determinism at the same time that an unspoken conspiratorial collaboration is being described.

So short a summation cannot do justice to Douglas’s argument or the brilliance of her analysis of the works of those who found themselves outside the cult of sentimentality. Her account of Melville and the influence of class, for example, or Margaret Fuller and her frustration, are each worth the ticket. The wide reading on which this study is based is the sure sign that Douglas has learned well “the meaning of exhaustive, committed, and heroic scholarship” which she admires in others. For she has done it.

It is in the realm of present concerns over the status of women that the books of Cott and Douglas reveal very different perspectives. Cott is more accepting of nineteenth-century women on their own terms, more appreciative of their achievements, however flawed. Douglas shows deep disappointment over the nature of their victory, which she sees as ultimately a defeat. Cott takes an evolutionary view: “Throughout the nineteenth century feminists saw women’s progress not in opposition to but at one with esteem for home and family; their radical demand was to include a role in the civil and public sphere” as well.

How could this be wrong, Cott asks, by implication. “It is a lapse of historical vision to fault nineteenth-century feminists for ‘trailing clouds of glory,’ as it were, from the veneration of domesticity, as much as to call the ideology of women’s sphere reactionary and constraining from its inception” (my italics). Cott could have been speaking directly to Douglas. She concentrates particularly on the contribution that a sense of shared domestic life, with its burdens and rewards, made to the growth of sisterhood. This was a necessary stage. “Not until they saw themselves thus classed by sex would women join to protest their fate.”

If Douglas sees this step as a necessary phase in women’s development as a “class” she does not say much about it. What she does see is that there might have been something better, and deplores “the failure of a viable sexually diversified culture” to replace “the male-dominated hierarchical structures” that were overthrown by her misguided women and ministers. How good this would have been had it occurred about 1830 most of us can now agree. But realism suggests that this consummation would have required a vast crumbling of economic and legal barriers as swift and simultaneous and efficient as the tumbling down of the walls of Jericho. Simultaneously there would have to have been a mental preparedness on the part of women in all walks of life to seize their advantages quickly. Short of war and revolution history affords no such opportunities, and seldom even then. Social progress of the oppressed usually begins by indirection, and allies are found wherever they may be found.

To ask more than they have done of two authors who have contributed so much to scholarship is quite out of the question, but it does come to mind that their omission of any serious consideration of the major reform movements of the second quarter of the nineteenth century allowed them to escape an opportunity to examine more closely the distinction between style and deed during the nineteenth century. The Victorians did, after all, accomplish a very great deal for which the twentieth century stands under considerable obligation.

(This is the first part of a two-part essay. In the second part other aspects of the books by Cott and Douglas will be discussed in connection with the recent contributions of several other writers.)

  1. 1

    The Antislavery Appeal: American Abolitionism after 1830 (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), p. 103.

  2. 2

    See Mary S. Hartman and Lois Banner, eds., Clio’s Consciousness Raised (Harper and Row, 1974).

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