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 green patriotism and democratic impulse in a young republic, of evangelical zeal or romantic perfectionism, prompted this sudden concern for reforming everything from food consumption and clothing to the public schools and the institution of marriage has puzzled students of “freedom’s ferment,” but they can agree on one point. Each component represented a strategic softening of an institution that held the individual citizen of small account. American privilege was not dead, of course, but it was making adjustments to an expanded franchise; and the faith of Calvin, with its capricious and angry God and its unflagging focus on the Last Judgment, had increasingly less to say to a world that seemed to offer opportunities for the improvement of man’s condition while yet within the vale of tears. The connection between the humanitarian reforms and the less attractive manifestations of a “sentimentalized” or “feminized” culture is that they arose from the same enhanced valuation of the common man, even the common woman and child.
That the two most famous reforms, antislavery and the women’s movement, failed to secure their goals in the antebellum period has obscured the success of less contested objectives, in public education, the care of the insane and the training of the blind, and legal reforms, even in property rights for married women. With justifications and arguments modern feminists are not particularly happy about, women like Mary Lyon opened up college opportunities for women for the first time. Both William Chafe and Susan Conrad, who in their books under review have a lot to say about educated women, agree that a strategic accumulation of trained women who had learned leadership and mutual support in college was an essential precondition for a successful drive toward woman suffrage.
If these were the necessary bonds of leadership, those who were to be led in time to ask for and take more freedom were already forming their bonds to one another, as Nancy Cott explains, on the basis of her research into the records of the lives of ordinary women who lived in the early decades of the century. What Cott suggests we might call a new “social ethic” for women developed in response to the rapid and challenging changes between the Revolution and 1830. This ethic held the private family household to be central in “the transmission of culture, the maintenance of social stability, and the pursuit of happiness; the family’s influence reached outward, underlying success or failure in church and state, and inward, creating individual character.” The family as basic social unit was not new, but woman’s great importance as the arbiter of life at home was. Cott believes that the “cult of domesticity,” though in seeming contradiction to the rise of feminism, was in fact its necessary precondition. But building the ideology of woman’s superiority “within her sphere,” however necessary from a historical standpoint, did produce the large amount of sentimental “woman is beautiful” writing that so embarrasses Ann Douglas and many of the intellectual women who are Susan Conrad’s subjects.
The women who made capital of the cult of femininity to advance their own writing careers seemed to many, even at the time, to be having their cake and eating it too. They are the subjects of Ann Douglas’s deepest disappointment, for she is convinced these editors of “ladies’ ” magazines and writers of sentimental novels launched consumerism and contributed to the rise of mass culture in America by writing what their readers, increasingly women, wanted to read. A different interpretation from Douglas’s might take the same women writers, their success with their readers, and the sentimental works themselves as evidence that the new technology of printing was already making publication too easy, and that the new literacy had quickly outrun education. But whether one accepts what might be called the “mushroom growth of democracy” theory or Douglas’s psychological explanation, that the women craved an acceptably feminine basis of authority, the results for literature were the same. It is true that readers preferred novels celebrating domesticity to serious efforts to portray the deeper conflicts of humanity. The “scribblers” by their existence made it hard for writers like Hawthorne and Melville to get readers and, what was worse, criticism they could respect.
In a fascinating critical chapter, Douglas reads Melville as being directly engaged through most of his creative writing with the growing influence of women and the liberal clergy over American letters. By Douglas’s reading of Moby-Dick (1851), Melville still hopes to influence readers, but later he turns against them, seeing the hopelessness of effecting change. This, she argues, is the meaning of Pierre (1852). So closely does Melville’s work follow and support the main lines of Douglas’s argument in The Feminization of American Culture that it would be hard to guess whether Melville inspired Douglas’s thesis or the thesis inspired the reading. In either event one Douglas reader wants to read Melville through again.
Douglas is not the first, of course, to notice that Moby-Dick is a man’s book, but for her it is so in a special way, dedicated to exploring “the meaning of masculine authority.” Starbuck, as first mate, is allowed to speak “for the softer, more ‘human’ values,” and it is he who attempts to persuade Ahab to desist from the pursuit of the white whale because of Ahab’s own young wife and newborn son. But Ahab resists such arguments, and has his way with the crew, leaving only Starbuck unconvinced, and Starbuck’s death demonstrates “the inefficacy of the sentimental creed.” The “sweet powers of air” whom Starbuck addresses cannot save him. Behind the driven Ahab Douglas sees the hard-driving God of Calvin, and believes this is the necessary way to understand the masculinity of Ahab. No conventional believer, Melville yet found in Calvinism a fit subject for serious literary exploration. “Its hieratic form, its preoccupation with pain, defiance, and grandiosity, its complex confrontation of the human and the inhuman, give Melville a suitable object for imitation, exploration, and attack.”
When Melville praises the beauty of the white whale, he does so by saying, “real strength never impairs beauty or harmony, but it often bestows it.” For Douglas he is defending “the sublime” against a society that is merely interested in the “picturesque.” But the defense did not succeed, and Douglas’s reason for calling this chapter “the Revolt against the Reader” becomes clear. Pierre was published one year after Moby-Dick, and it registers Melville’s resentment. In it Douglas sees “a savage study of the conspiratorial interaction between genteel religion, feminine morality, and polite literature against the interests of genuine masculinity.” Pierre’s mother, Mrs. Glendinning, and her friend the Reverend Falsgrave, are made to stand for the women and ministers who have “feminized” American letters, and they show the weaknesses of their kind: they are unwilling to look at facts. They will neither of them defend a pregnant but unmarried girl, he because he is dependent on Mrs. Glendinning’s favors (as Douglas sees the liberal clergy as being dependent on women) and she because she will not remind herself of the very real limits of her powers as a woman. For she could not reach the seducer, or comprehend “the complex imperatives of male sexuality.”
Douglas also sees in the books Melville wrote about men and the sea a realistic, “Marxist” understanding of economic and social power, class relationships, that is totally missing in his more thoroughly “fictionalized” works which include women such as Pierre, Mardi, and The Confidence Man. The latter are more psychological, more “Freudian.” Women are outside class, outside economics. In these works the author is “profoundly concerned with sentimentalism and self-hatred,” and Douglas believes that he is deliberately “imitating and punishing his ‘fiction’ hungry audience.” The fit between thesis and evidence adduced is at all times so perfect that questions will inevitably arise concerning the consciousness of Melville’s intention. If Moby-Dick was meant to educate readers, to tell them that their liberalized creed no longer took evil into account, one asks why the author advised women not to read his “wicked” book. Since Moby-Dick took a long time in the writing it must have represented an extended hope, and so it seems odd that the despair of Pierre should so quickly overtake Melville. When his reviewers called Pierre “utter trash” and the “craziest fiction extant” Douglas’s readers want to know who the reviewers were, and what were their grounds for judgment beyond their hostility to Melville’s presumed hostility to them. There must be more than one reader who would prefer to read Moby-Dick six times than Pierre twice.
In Douglas’s absorbing book every particle of evidence fits the thesis so closely that a question also arises concerning possible exceptions that may not have surfaced. One thinks for instance of the South, whose culture forms no part of this thesis, but where in these same years the “sanctity” of pure womanhood came near to being an article of religion. It was a society that wove unrealistic fantasies about itself as no other could, and yet the old orthodoxy did not give way to the liberalized creeds of Universalism, Congregationalism, or Unitarianism; when and if it sank, it succumbed instead to a robust evangelicalism. It is difficult to regard the antebellum Southern clergy as uneasy about status, or as advocates of “feminine” or passive virtues.
Douglas should perhaps have devoted more attention to explaining her selection of the thirty women and the thirty liberal clergy who were the basis of the study. We learn that they are chosen “among the leading literary propagandists for a sentimentalized culture” and we learn that they share certain characteristics, such as being self-conscious in their effort, and employing literary means to promulgate “liberal religious ends,” but we do not know if any of these are necessary conditions to be included. Feminists are excluded because they inclined not to employ literary means to advance their arguments. Margaret Fuller, who thoroughly disliked the sentimental fiction of the “scribblers,” is included, as are a number of others who sharply attacked the “cult of domesticity.” The questions are important only because the book is important, and promises to be one of the most stimulating and perhaps controversial works appearing for several years in American cultural history.
To come upon Susan Conrad’s Perish the Thought after a reading of Douglas is to confront in the subtitle an entirely different point of view: “Intellectual Women in Romantic America, 1830-1860.” Intellectual women? Romantic America? Douglas believes that “a fully humanistic, historically-minded romanticism” ought to have replaced the Calvinist tradition. The tragedy was that Calvinist rigor was nudged aside by a sentimentalized religion instead. Exponents of such romanticism as Douglas would have hailed, aside from Melville and Margaret Fuller, “were rare.” Observing the considerable overlap in women studied in the two works by Douglas and Conrad, the reader might wonder if we have here another problem deriving from the notorious difficulty of defining romanticism.
Relying on the interpretation of Morse Peckham, Conrad takes romanticism to be the first self-conscious world view in which the very act of creating that view was the highest objective of mind. At its best the human mind must “perceive all aspects of experience and knowledge symbolically, in terms of the analogies and correspondences suggested by nature’s organic processes.” The symbols should be organic. Therefore the heroic person is that one who is most sensitive to his world, and the creative artist who creates new symbols, “the most sublime…example of that sacred self-hood upon which romantics bestowed ultimate value.”
This was the hour of the man of feeling. Or the woman of feeling. It is just here that the reader will remember that the exaltation of emotion and feeling over rational inquiry is one notable aspect of what Ann. Douglas and Barbara Welter (whose essays are next discussed) are calling “anti-intellectualism” and the “feminization” of our culture. Certainly expertise in emotion and feeling was a characteristic that the Victorians cheerfully assigned to women as special compensation for smaller mental apparatus. Even those who couldn’t agree that woman was mentally inferior claimed for her special sensitivity to nature and human relationships, to biological processes, to birth and death. She was man’s tie to heaven and earth.
American romantics placed more emphasis than the Europeans did, Conrad believes, on the morality and “social vision” of the artist. These qualities and the special affinity the “cult of true womanhood” had for romanticism meant that the movement in America “was directly responsible for the emergence and achievements of America’s first generation of women intellectuals.”
The achievements of Conrad’s women were concentrated in the fields of literary and aesthetic criticism, the translation from French and German into English of major works of romanticism, and the writing of history, especially women’s history. Of the thirteen women whose careers form the core of Conrad’s book, about half were identified with the movement for women’s rights, and in this capacity made some significant contributions to political thought. A number of Conrad’s women were apparently neutral on the subject, and a few were opposed. Yet in every case the problem existed to reconcile their femininity with their role as intellectual women in a world that had come to consider these as contradictions in terms. In a very interesting explanation of the origins of the word “bluestocking,” Conrad shows the decline in status of female intellectuals from the eighteenth-century vogue of the fashionable and clever salon. To “wear one’s blues” then meant to come dressed informally (in blue stockings) and be prepared for elegant and witty conversation. By 1830 nothing of this remained, and the word simply conveyed pedantry, and (usually) the status of the lonely and talkative old maid.
It is just here that we begin to see why four of Conrad’s thirteen intellectual women have already appeared among those thirty Douglas selected as having contributed most to the “feminization” of our culture. Some of these women achieved their reconciliation between female identity and a career as an intellectual by choice of field. A surprising number came to their main work first through skill in languages, and by translating works of other writers into English, an appropriately “passive” and womanly work. Conservative women, instinctively avoiding the conflict inherent in the professions men had cornered, tended to go into literary criticism, history, or translation, because, writes Conrad, “each area had methodological procedures and historical precedents that women could use as safeguards, often as masking devices for their own assertiveness. The strategy of the ‘woman of letters’ thus paralleled that of the ‘scribbler’; the former, however, did not have to base her case upon domesticity.”
But many of Conrad’s subjects found resolution of the conflict between their intellectual being and womanhood, as their society conceived of womanhood, impossible. The active feminists set out to change the concept. Conrad believes that historians have not grasped or portrayed the full richness and variety of the feminist argument because they have not recognized how feminist thought “continually evolved” through new concepts and the constant creation of new symbols and the accumulation of historical knowledge about women of the past. Especially important were the “dynamic metaphors” romantics used, and the organic vision feminists had of their own position as women at midcentury. Sarah Grimké liked to speak of woman as coming out of the chrysalis stage, being ready to burst from her cocoon, or as being now prepared to leave babyhood and become a fully capable “intellectual being.” Most feminists romanticized the “grand destiny” of women, who would be the redeemers of a world gone far wrong under male direction.
Ironically, Elizabeth Oakes Smith appears on Douglas’s list of those who sentimentalized our culture by writing a poem about herself when young called “The Sinless Child.” She is on Conrad’s list because of her writing of women’s history, and her intellectual contributions to feminism. She certainly sounds the revolutionary romantic in her speech to the Syracuse Convention of 1852: “Do we fully understand that we aim at nothing less than an entire subversion of the present order of society, a dissolution of the whole existing social compact?” Smith was especially hard on those women (many of them on Douglas’s list with her) who enjoyed careers for themselves but pretended that they would have been happier in domestic occupations. “If any woman of genius is so untrue to herself as to say she should have been happier as an in-door, painstaking, fireside woman careful for the small savings of a household…she is from some cause disqualified for the holding of God’s beautiful and abundant gifts….” Smith’s study of history gave her a clearer view than most of her contemporaries of the role industrialism played in women’s work. Because of the factory, women were no longer “condemned solely to the productive and laborious part of the domestic arrangement.” In a very contemporary gesture Smith selected a new middle name for herself from a distinguished intellectual ancestor, and had her children renamed Oaksmith. There is definitely in Smith’s case a line of development out of the cult of domesticity toward a larger world in feminism.1
Conrad is particularly concerned to reveal intellectual women not only through their works and their connections with American romanticism, but as a social class with special characteristics as well. She should have done more about this, and the book would have been improved by a fuller treatment of shared characteristics too briefly drawn together in the final chapter. It is interesting to see that the same pattern of religious denominations appears in both Douglas’s and Conrad’s lists, indicating the same movement toward the liberal creeds in both groups. There appear to be more lawyers and politicians among the fathers and husbands of the intellectual women and more ministers and farmers among the men in the lives of the sentimentalists. More sentimentalists remained single than intellectuals. Conrad observes that the fathers of many of her intellectuals had a very strong influence in the education of the achieving daughter, as in the very famous instance of Timothy Fuller’s rigorous discipline of Margaret. Other scholars have noticed that English women writers of the nineteenth century reveal a pattern of deceased mothers and dominant masculine intellects in the home. One would have appreciated in both studies a closer note of the birth order of the women studied. Conrad’s book should have been longer, and more space devoted to what particularly American features characterized romanticism in America.
The great strength of Conrad’s work is its specific connection of the women she studied to the “habit of wonder” that summed up the romantic’s view of the world. This attitude “was easily reconciled with traditional notions of feminine sensibility. Thus the romantic revolution, which called forth the intellectual talents of antebellum women, seemed to guarantee their ‘true womanhood’ as well.” Conrad also excels in portraiture, and the reader comes away with very distinct impressions of the women she treats—the self-effacement, for example, of Lydia Maria Child, who claimed so little for herself and sacrificed so much to her marriage with the charming but improvident David Child and his cause, antislavery. Elizabeth Peabody is seen here as Julian Hawthorne’s Aunt Lizzie, “Miss Thesaura” to her relatives, “probably the most learned person in the world.”
The first modern scholar to employ the phrase “cult of true womanhood” was Barbara Welter, who wrote a very influential essay by that title in 1966. Like a number of others she wrote, it appeared in a journal not widely read outside academic circles. The publication of nine essays under the title Dimity Convictions: The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century should bring this scholar’s work to the attention of a wider public, which it well deserves. Since many of these essays originated as lectures they have the merit of great clarity of presentation and a graceful style. Especially adept at the deployment of evidence, and skillful at quotation, Welter often entertains while she is informing. In the essay on “Female Complaints” Welter is undoubtedly lucky in having a Dr. Quackenbush to quote, even if he is being eminently sensible in his instruction to student doctors to heed “the anxieties, the troubles, and the accidents” that precede the mother’s delivery, “the time of woman’s great necessity.”
Those who had more standard names but spoke wisely of the disease “Chlorosis,” the green sickness that sapped the vitality of young females, were more numerous. To Welter’s credit she has had no more fun at the expense of these doctors than the dry humor of a flat statement, even when they ponder the dread results of overexertion of the brain during menstruation. There was “Miss M.” who erred in “believing that woman can do what man can…[and] strove with noble but ignorant bravery to compass man’s intellectual attainment in a man’s way, and died in the effort.” In agreeable contrast with some writers who have seen conspiracies in all this, Welter sees it as coming from the simple but widespread conviction that the greatest “end and object of woman’s existence” was “to perpetuate the species.”
Yet she is not easy to fool about inconsistencies, for she points out that those who strongly believed that the “immutable and absolute qualities of nature” included all the “aspects of nature which propped up society” drew the line on Darwinism, “biological or social,” when it was (rarely) applied “to those most sacred and therefore most unchangeable institutions: God, Democracy, and Mother.”
Welter anticipated nearly every question covered in the new books by Douglas, Cott, and Conrad in the main lines of her essays, “The Cult of True Motherhood,” “Anti-Intellectualism and the American Woman,” and “The Feminization of American Religion: 1800-1860,” all published some years ago. Yet she is not so concerned with the preconditions of social change or the consequences of change as Nancy Cott is, nor is she concerned with the internal substance of ideas of intellectual women as Susan Conrad is. When Douglas explores the same phenomenon Welter studies in the “feminization” of religion, she sees the consequences to American culture, and they are bad. Welter sees that a robust society engaged in the raw rough business of nation-building “did not immediately require” certain values it theoretically respected. This explains “the giving over of religion to women, in its content and its membership.” The virtues that might be wanted again were assigned to women (not required on the getting and spending front), and institutionalized. “The family, popular culture, and religion were the vehicles by which feminine virtues were translated into values.”
What did women get out of it? With Nancy Cott, Welter sees some benefits. Women got a sense of themselves in a way that only religion could bring, organizational experience in religious and reform activities, and sisterhood, “a quality absolutely essential for any kind of meaningful woman’s movement.” In general Welter is less attached to a specific thesis, more descriptive and less analytical. But she covers all elements of her subjects with system and dispatch. When she discusses feminine impressions on religion she carries us into Catholicism and Mormonism for a brief look-around, and it would be hard to find a more effective discussion of love and sex in the imagery of the Protestant evangelical hymns of the period.
In a long final essay, first published here, Welter pays her respects to Margaret Fuller, Transcendentalism’s tragic heroine, just as Ann Douglas did in a penultimate chapter, and as Susan Conrad made haste to do in a second. Whether Timothy Fuller’s extraordinary daughter would have found any of these efforts entirely satisfactory is an interesting speculation. She was hard to please. But she would not have thought it strange that she required so much space, and more individual entries in the indices of these works than any other American woman of her time. She once said, or was rumored to have said, for separating fact from fiction is hard in her case, “I now know all the people worth knowing in America and I find no intellect comparable to my own.”
Characteristically Welter’s handling of Fuller is firmly rooted in biography and she shows more skepticism of Margaret on Margaret than Conrad and Welter do. She makes plain that she distrusts some of the stories Fuller told of her youth, and she sees as well that Fuller’s feminism derived from her “consuming interest in herself, in the making and becoming of a person which was a life-work.” But this was because Fuller was a part of all womankind. “This was the mystical element of her feminism, increased by the Romantic philosophy she espoused in its German and New England forms, but fundamentally a part of her own nature and background.”
Conrad has of course stressed the German and Transcendental forms of the romantic movement in her explanation of Fuller. To Conrad, Fuller had passed beyond the stage of writing about the truth of life as the Romantics perceived it, and was persuaded that she must now live that life, which explains the departure for Europe, the participation in the cause of the Italian revolution, and the love affair with Count Ossoli. Her record was “brilliant and inconclusive,” and her life “a symbol of intellectual growth and energy, uncertainty, instability and diversity.”
All three writers agree that Fuller’s great wish was to combine ideal femininity with the intellectual life. Each is concerned to explain why her record, for one so brilliant, was “inconclusive.” Douglas sees much of her creative energy as spent in verbal eloquence, and explains that Margaret talked while others wrote. Why? A woman, and full of doubt about her reception, Fuller “needed the stimulus of a present audience to dare to display her full powers. She had been denied the selfconfidence needed for long-term productivity, for working without the reassurance of immediate attention and approval.”
For Welter, Margaret Fuller’s famous ego was simply the courageous performance of her own advance-work, something nobody else was going to do for her. This is a thing everyone must explain for himself, for the relationship between insecurity and bravado is not one on one. Margaret’s “monumental Me,” as her friend Emerson called it, the nature of her achievement, which was quite consciously as much in her life as in her writing, and her tragic death by shipwreck have posed riddles than engage each generation of American writers anew, our authors no less than Emerson and Hawthorne, who knew her, and Henry James, who was haunted by her. The views of Fuller given by Welter and Conrad and Douglas reflect their attitudes toward the era they study, making her “a symbol of the age.” She wouldn’t have minded that.2
In an explicit, if somewhat overdrawn, statement of 1860, Elizabeth Cady Stanton declared, “Prejudice against color, of which we hear so much, is no stronger than that against sex. It is produced by the same cause, and manifested very much in the same way. The Negro’s skin and the woman’s sex are both prima facie evidence that they were intended to be in subjection to the white Saxon man.” In fairness to Mrs. Stanton it must be carefully noted that she referred to prejudice and not oppression, and that in introducing a subject that has been, over the years, more attractive to women activists than to blacks, she was doing so at a time when popular feeling in the North was moving ever more strongly against slavery, but seemed stuck on dead center as far as women were concerned.
She was referring to the theme Nancy Cott has made use of in The Bonds of Womanhood to explain how the range of choices for women narrowed when the country was otherwise engaged in eliminating traditional constraints on “the common man.” In a supposedly “classless” society that still required exploitable labor, it was still possible to maintain that on the basis of such “natural” conditions as sex and race women and blacks could be treated as classes set apart from the democratic process. Such a theory could hardly be applied to the flood of immigrants arriving in the promised land, especially after manhood suffrage became general.
It is true that the women’s movement and the black struggle for equality have a curiously intertwined history, that the theory for omitting both women and blacks from the competition and rewards of American life has been the same, and that the means employed by society to enforce the theory have been remarkably similar. In a central essay in his Women and Equality: Changing Patterns in American Culture William H. Chafe invites an exploration of these similarities. “The real lesson of the comparison may be not what it tells about the condition of women and blacks, but what it teaches about the process and forms of social control in America.” Or in any other country, one might add.
Beginning with the theory of a “natural” inferiority Chafe holds to be the same for women and blacks, he points as well to the specific denial to both of personal and property rights under law. Chafe knows well how much more devastating the legal disadvantage of the slave was to that of women, but he sees a similar mechanism in the reduction of the individual to one whose person is actually defined, even named, by the white male in control of one’s destiny, by full consent of law. Passing on, Chafe then explores the very similar social coercions and sanctions experienced by those who step beyond their assigned role to undertake an occupation or strive for a goal considered inappropriate. Richard Wright’s employer scoffed when the future novelist was still a seventh-grade schoolboy, because it was laughable that a black child should be in school so long. To be a writer? “You’ll never be a writer…. Who on earth put such ideas into your nigger head?”
For a woman to choose a “man’s job” was to lose respect, and as Chafe points out in another essay by quoting a statement from Margaret Mead made in the Depression years, she might lose love too. The woman had two choices. She could proclaim herself “a woman and therefore less of an achieving individual, or an achieving individual and therefore less of a woman.” The first choice increased the chances of her being “a loved object, the kind of girl whom men will woo and boast of, toast and marry.” But by pursuing a career she risked losing “as a woman her chance for the kind of love she wants.”
Economic discouragements have also been very similar in the two instances, and so has the denial of access to the social and political groups that make strategic decisions that wield real power. Aware that the ultimate threat of physical violence is and has always been more explicit for blacks, Chafe still maintains that it is as well a significant element in the social control of women. Without stressing the threat of rape as a political weapon to the extent other writers have done, Chafe nevertheless believes the lurking fear of violence enters a woman’s consciousness early in life, and makes her readier to accept male dominance. Again Chafe leaves it to Richard Wright to explain that acts of violence against blacks “did not have to happen to me directly; I had only to hear of them to feel their full effect….” Women who have struggled against the inertia of state legislatures to get more effective legislation against rape and more thorough enforcement of existing laws will find much to approve in Chafe’s analysis.
In other thoughtful essays Chafe employs his comparative technique to analyze the significance of fortuitous external conditions, economic or political, relative to internal factors of group solidarity as preconditions of social change. While blacks must always have had a sense of being collectively oppressed and outside the system, even if a favored house servant or otherwise privileged, women have participated in many advantages, financial and social, derived from the exploitation of blacks and of themselves. This is because they have lived with the power that separated them one from another. A sense of shared troubles came harder; only when social conditions were propitious could the “problem that has no name” be recognized by a sufficient number of women to constitute a movement.
Chafe does not see the propitious moment as arriving for either blacks or women until the Second World War. The extensive move northward for blacks who took up war jobs in the cities at one and the same time encouraged and frustrated them. Women began to enter the work force as never before, enjoyed their independence, and remained. What had been too theoretical and abstract to interest many women in the movement led by Stanton and Anthony in the nineteenth century was no longer so. “Female workers might not consider themselves feminists; indeed they might shun any kind of association with the abstract cause of women’s rights. But the same workers knew that they did not receive equal pay with men and that most of the higher paying jobs carried a ‘male-only’ tag.” They could also see the advantages day care centers would bring.
Chafe concludes with two very effective essays, one on the successes and limits of the feminist movement of the 1970s, and the last on the present mixed outlook for the achievement of equality and individuality within the family. Chafe points out that traditionally Americans have thought of attaining equality through removing barriers to equal opportunity, and not on building toward equal opportunity through law. Affirmative action came in conflict with rights of white males, and involves a redefinition of social goals. A new vision of how things might be better for all is the only answer to the dilemma of whose “equal rights” come first. That vision
would necessarily include a revised perception of men and masculinity, particularly a willingness to support those aspects of men’s personalities that were nurturant, emotional, and expressive as well as those that are assertive and strong. If men provided a community of support for each other in breaking away from the masculine mystique, and women, in turn, showed esteem for men willing to risk such a departure, there was a greater likelihood of a successful transition to new norms of male-female relationship.
This modest and thoughtful little book, so entirely free from polemics, is excellent evidence of what an unprejudiced study of the past can contribute to the solution of contemporary impasses.
Even before the official beginning of the first American women’s movement at Seneca Falls in 1848, there were those who maintained that equal rights for women had to begin in the bedroom. In The Sex Radicals Hal Sears discusses some of the most defiant social reformers of the nineteenth century; he explains their philosophies and quarrels, their views of physiology and medical practice, and their incessant struggle with Anthony Comstock and his law. This contest, beginning with the passage of the Comstock Postal Act of 1873, which forbade the use of the mails for “obscene” matter, continued for nearly thirty-five years, and resulted at last in a kind of victory for Comstockery. But they were exciting years for the sex reformers, who were in and out of courts and jails often enough fighting Comstock to qualify in the minds of even those who opposed them as second to none in the struggle for freedom of expression. It is probable that of all the reformers of the past century, this is the only group who would have had any comprehension of our contemporary sexual mores.
Much of Sears’s story will be entirely new to many readers, and so may the idea that “free love” never meant libertinism to its advocates, but quite simply that there should be no coercion in sexual relationships, either “from the legally prescribed duties of marriage or from the unrestricted urgings of libido.” There were “exclusivists” and “varietists,” and even those who held that the only really acceptable justification for coitus was the purpose of having a child. But for all there was one common conviction, that conventional marriage was a form of sexual slavery. No analogy was so common with these reformers than the analogy to slavery, and it comes as no surprise to learn that most of them began as abolitionists. All maintained that a woman could not be free in the political sense until she gained control of her own body.
The origins of “free love” in America coincided neatly with the rise of feminism and spiritualism. As Sears points out, they were each celebrating the individual, and were by rather clear inference subversive of religion, the family as it was organized, and male authority. Most of the early adherents of free love were anarchists.
But Sears devotes less time to the antebellum origins of the movement than to the last quarter of the nineteenth century. He is particularly interested in the two clusters of radicals, one centered around Ezra and Angela Tilton Heywood and their paper The Word, published in Massachusetts, and the other about Moses Harman and his daughter Lillian, with her mate by “autonomous” agreement, Edwin C. Walker. They published Lucifer, The Light-Bearer, out of Valley Falls, Kansas, population thirteen hundred.
It is initially startling to discover how very “Victorian” the sex radicals were in their conception of womanhood. They too subscribed, most of them, to the idea that women were purer, had greater “virtue” in sex than men, and were capable of attaining higher spiritual relationships. An important argument for “free love” was the belief that sex without love was especially degrading to the refined sensibilities of women. But what was degrading for the “free lovers” was what was ugly or unnatural, not the act of love between loving members of the opposite sex. What Victorians called “the secret vice,” masturbation, was unnatural, and so was prostitution. Others believed celibacy was too.
Medical knowledge was limited, and what there was of it was seldom available to people wanting to prevent conception. Around the fringes of the sex radical group were doctors who considered it a social value to circulate such information and advice. They did not enjoy a reputation for dignity, but as Sears says, the Doctors E.B. Foote, father and son, made a fortune out of home medical books that publicized what sound information there was along with much that was not, including an Electro-Magnetic Preventive Machine. E.B. Foote proposed such “eclectic” methods of diagnosis and treatment as electricity, hypnotism, and spiritualism. “By today’s standards,” writes Sears, “it is a moot question whether the public faced greater danger of quackery from the eclectic or from the regular school of medicine. The conservative regulars, however, clearly tried to obstruct efforts to educate the public about contraceptives and sex.”
The sex radicals believed strongly in sex education. Dora Forster, one of a series of able women who edited Lucifer, explained how natural sexual play was to children, and not harmful. She believed children should receive theoretical education in sex, and “practical” education by sixteen “with a partner chosen from good friends of the family, and girls prepared by a hymenotomy.” Lillie D. White, another of the women editors, even defied the entrenched view of woman’s superiority. She sympathized with men who lived with women narrowed by the long tradition of oppression, women who found release in “petty spite and fretful bickerings.” In 1899 she was writing a version of the contemporary idea that women’s liberation is men’s liberation as well. Lillie White was particularly hard on the “ladies’ book” writers who have concerned so many historians of women for their advocacy of the domestic “sphere.” A woman, she announced, “has the right to follow whatever vocation in life she please, and if she is unfitted thereby for wife and mother, or chooses to ignore wifely and maternal ties and burdens, who shall deny her that right?” A woman had above everything else to “unlearn that she owes duties of any kind to gods, men or communities.”
The Heywoods seem to have anticipated the Berkeley Free Speech movement by many years when in 1880 they made the important decision to employ “fit, proper, explicit, expressive English names” for the sex organs “and their associative uses.” “Heywood,” writes Sears, “seemed to believe that by naming the unnamable, as in some archetypal myth, the dark spell of ignorance would be broken.” His wife, the splendid Angela, always invested her messages with a kind of sensuousness that eluded all others, and she was clever. “Such graceful terms as hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, fucking, throbbing, kissing, and kin words, are telephone expressions, lighthouses of intercourse centrally immutable to the situation; their aptness, euphony and serviceable persistence make it as impossible to put them out of pure use as it would be to take oxygen out of air.”
In the next few years there will undoubtedly appear more books on these fascinating iconoclasts, and we may expect that one or more of them will do as much for the antebellum radicals, like John Humphrey Noyes of Oneida and Stephen Pearl Andrews, founder of the “Modern Times” community on Long Island. We may object that the internal organization of Sears’s book is not always easy to follow. But it is one of the most interesting studies of some extraordinary Americans to appear in several years. They are the perfect antidote for moderns who have been reading at large among the sentimental advocates of the cult of domesticity.
In relatively new fields of study, finding interesting and sound general accounts is often more difficult than finding interesting and sound studies of special topics within the field. Several books recently appearing will be especially attractive to teachers of women’s history as well as the general reader. Barbara Wertheimer has just written We Were There: The Story of Working Women in America, a readable one-volume account full of fascinating information, culled and synthesized from the secondary literature. Unfortunately the early parts of the work are not always based on the most authoritative monographs, but the author is excellent on women’s work in industry and the process of organizing for improved conditions. The book is well illustrated, and its celebratory approach is not inappropriate for the level of presentation.
Judith Nies’s series of short biographies, Seven Women: Portraits from the American Radical Tradition, is aimed at a youthful readership, but several of the essays are of a quality to attract any age. Nies points out that women have usually been regarded collectively as a conservative force in society, but that in America there have always been women who demanded change. The true radicals she considers to be “social artists” who “restate the hidden truths of society” and “teach people to see with fresh vision.” Their hallmark was courage, and few were “well-adjusted” to their social surroundings.
Nies is best on middle-class women whose radicalism seems to derive from dissatisfaction with their own personal range of choice, and spreads from their inner world to the larger one. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman are especially well done. Harriet Tubman does not emerge altogether from the mythical status the sources all but force on her portrait, and Nies is not on perfectly solid ground in antebellum society. Her essay on Sarah Grimké lacks depth for that reason. But readers will be remembering a long time the vivid Mary Harris Jones (“Mother Jones”) organizing coal miners in her grandmotherly little black dress with its lace collar. Nies suggests that this image was cultivated for improved political effect, and that “Mother Jones”may have been a little younger than she said she was. That way she gave more style to her “hells” and “damns” and gave “a wonderful lift to the miners’ spirits.” Also remarkable for insight are Nies’s essays on Dorothy Day and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, middle-class women who took their way off the beaten path step by thoughtful step, led to defiance by what they read, and what they saw and experienced of human misery.
Gerda Lerner’s The Female Experience: An American Documentary is a valuable work. Carefully edited and properly introduced documents taken from real life and arranged with an order that illuminates successive aspects of the subject have become increasingly popular as teaching materials in recent years; they show students how to evaluate evidence, how historians work, and bring individuals into clearer focus in their historical setting. Lerner’s knowledge of the sources of women’s history is implicit in the choice of material, and unmistakable in the authoritative introductions she provides for the pieces included. She is honest about the part women played “in their own subordination by internalizing the ideology and values which oppressed them and by passing those on to their children.”
She is, in other words, writing more about the lives of ordinary women in our history than the lives of leaders. There are excellent selections on women growing up and making the choices women have had to make. One thinks particularly of Louisa May Alcott’s struggle to acquire patience, just as Jo has to do in Little Women; of Catherine Maria Sedgwick’s thoughtful and uncomplaining analysis of her position as old maid in a family that dearly loves her: “It is difficult for one who began life as I did, the primary object of affection to many, to become by degrees to be first to none, and still to have my love remain in its entire strength, and craving such returns as have no substitute.”
Lerner shows us women at work in all kinds of occupations, and in protest, too, against the world that limits their possibilities of achievement. Many of Lerner’s documents come from manuscripts not previously published. A better way could hardly be found to begin the study of woman’s past in America; and for the experience of the splendid variety of these dozens of American women no student or reader could become too advanced.
(This is the second part of a two-part essay. The first part appeared in the issue of July 14.)
September 15, 1977
Conrad reports that Ms. Smith even attempted (without success) to persuade her husband, the humorist Seba Smith, to change his name as well. ↩
For those who want to explore more deeply in Margaret Fuller, there recently has been published The Woman and the Myth: Margaret Fuller’s Life and Writings by Bell G. Chevigny (Feminist Press, 1976). ↩