The House of Feminism

True Love and Perfect Union: The Feminist Reform of Sex and Society

by William Leach
Basic Books, 449 pp., $18.00

The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods, and Cities

by Dolores Hayden
MIT Press, 367 pp., $9.95 (paper)

American feminists of the nineteenth century—women’s rights women—felt they needed a doctrine that would help make their demands for social reform legitimate and at the same time serve as a powerful instrument in their criticism of the conservative institutions under-pinning American society. In flight from the orthodox church at a time when organized religion was still by far the strongest of these institutions, feminists were forced to invent their own god—a god who they felt did not endorse and perpetuate patriarchal systems.

The political impact of religious belief for nineteenth-century women is far from clear; historians of the women’s movement continue to debate the so-called “feminist” and “antifeminist” aspects of women’s faith. On the one side, missionary activities, religious revivals, utopian communities, and social reform work gave many women the energy and legitimacy to determine their own lives. On the other, the orthodox conception of females as hand-maidens of the Lord—and of men—was used to justify their continued exclusion from positions of authority in both clerical and lay organizations. For leaders of the women’s rights movement themselves, however, no conventional religious orthodoxy could be persuasive.

The biographies of feminist leaders of the nineteenth century repeatedly show a progression through the possibilities of faith. Rejecting Calvinism and embracing what was then taken to be a more liberal creed (Quakerism or Unitarianism, for example), these women still tended to become disaffected and they sometimes ended by resorting to spiritualism or even personal deism. In the path from piety to sisterhood to feminist agitation there was usually a sharp break—a sort of “deconversion”—before the end of the route. Some as astute as Elizabeth Cady Stanton recognized that belief in God must be distinguished from control over the ideology and institutions of the church. If women were free to believe and to gain what strength they could through faith, institutionalized power remained in the hands of men.

Perhaps it is not so surprising, in view of this, that many feminists turned to science. They did not suspect they would find the same defects in the institutions of the new god.

William Leach’s True Love and Perfect Union is especially valuable in its exploration of the links between feminist beliefs and the rational, positivist ideology of nineteenth-century science. According to Leach’s evidence, feminists were unable to gain the same kind of objectivity toward the scientific mode of discourse as they had toward the religious.

Leach begins with two promising assumptions: that it is possible to distinguish an ideology of feminism itself; and that feminism, seen against the background of other nineteenth-century ideologies, was “not peripheral to or independent of other reform movements.” These two principles enable Leach to discuss feminist ideology in its relation to the main bourgeois reformist mainstream and to analyze its relation to Progressivism.

Welcome as this approach is in principle, however, it accounts for the book’s discursiveness. Leach feels bound to describe feminism in connection with every …

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