The Emergence of American Women

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

by Nancy F. Cott
Yale University Press, 225 pp., $12.50 (continued from NYR, July 14)

The Feminization of American Culture

by Ann Douglas
Knopf, 403 pp., $15.00 (continued from NYR, July 14)

Perish the Thought: Intellectual Women in Romantic America, 1830-1860

by Susan Phinney Conrad
Oxford University Press, 292 pp., $12.95

Dimity Convictions: The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century

by Barbara Welter
Ohio University Press, 198 pp., $4.50 (paper)

Women and Equality: Changing Patterns in American Culture

by William H. Chafe
Oxford University Press, 207 pp., $8.95

The Sex Radicals: Free Love in High Victorian America

by Hal D. Sears
Regents Press of Kansas, 279 pp., $15.00

We Were There: The Story of Working Women in America

by Barbara Mayer Wertheimer
Pantheon, 376 pp., $6.95 (paper)

Seven Women: Portraits from the American Radical Tradition

by Judith Nies
Viking, 235 pp., $8.95

When life comes near to imitating art, bad art, then truth begins to sound excessive, and the writer who records life may easily become an excessive writer. This is one of the problems of Victorian letters. A check through the typically detailed “Contents” of many a fat volume of the “Life and Letters” genre reveals by objective count as well as morbid attention a shocking number of deaths and grave illnesses, particularly of children and young mothers. To flip to the text is to find there the deathbed scenes so dear to the novelists of the day, the intimations of immortality and reassurances of Heaven, and the reason nineteenth-century liberal Christianity ditched the Calvinist doctrine of infant damnation. This was a first step in a process both Ann Douglas and Barbara Welter have called “the feminization” of American religion.

It is indeed true, as Theodore Parker said, that infant damnation could never have been a woman’s idea. More to twentieth-century taste is the mute but poignant testimony of a single headstone standing behind ten short graves, listing the names, birth and death dates of these young ones who died in clusters of two or three, over a period of two decades, victims of what epidemics, fevers, or congenital diseases we cannot know. If the Victorians were much preoccupied with physiology and illness, death, and the innocence of its victims, a review of daily living helps make clear why this was so.

These reflections do not constitute a defense of Victorian second-raters, the “scribbling women” or the flaccid clergy who joined them in creating their sentimental and unrealistic literature. Nor is it an adverse reflection on any of the excellent studies recently appearing on nineteenth-century women in America, for the quality of these works suggests that a field not much more than a decade old has already reached maturity, and provides an excellent approach to the general social history of the American people. It does appear, however, that Victorian culture is especially hard to take on its own terms, and that Victorian “sentimentality” seems designed to make modern authors nervous. Each of the new books on American women must deal with it, however, for the simple reason that Victorian ideas about home and family, women and children, the subjects most freely sentimentalized, were connected at every point and in every, sense with the emergence of women into prominence in the fields of literature and reform.

Most American women who became feminists began their journey in that direction by first taking an interest in some other reform movement. Usually it was antislavery, but there were many choices, for a young country in the throes of industrial revolution was in need of radical adjustments on many fronts. The reform of educational practices prison conditions, the treatment of the insane, and the saving of prostitutes were respectable enterprises; antislavery and the women’s movement less so; and the Utopian communities aiming at a root-and-branch reorganization of society not at all.

What mix of …

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