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 …

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