From the swift emergence, a decade ago, of a serious new interest in women’s history, scholars have recognized in this field not only a subject of intrinsic fascination, but a constructive approach to numerous aspects of social and cultural history. Recent works in the history of the family, medicine, literature, and social reform have benefited from attention to women; indeed there are few aspects of American social history that have not been enriched by this newly opened area of investigation, although study of the great reform movements of the nineteenth century has probably benefited most.1 With all the good that has come from this interest, there lurks below the surface, indeed sometimes in full view, an embarrassment for the twentieth-century scholar who deals with nineteenth-century women.

The cause of this discomfort is variously labeled “the cult of true womanhood,” “the cult of domesticity,” or, in one instance, “the feminization of American culture,” an expression carrying with it some of the condemnation for weakness and fussiness associated even now with the word “feminine” in the minds of most people.2 The cult conveyed, to be brief, the idea that women were superior in moral and spiritual insight to men, yet limited in their mental hardihood in confrontation with the tougher ideas, and distinctly in need of male protection in a world too heartless for their kind and gentle natures, too coarse for their refined sensibilities. Woman was morally pure, for she was less prone to temptation; she understood religion readily, though her mind might not be strong enough for theology. Woman’s kingdom was the home, and her specialty the family.

The problem for the modern scholar, who usually rejects the assumptions on which this conception of women is based, is that many of the women who achieved most in the nineteenth century were themselves subscribers to the cult of femininity, and that though there were many who accepted it only partially, there were very few who rejected it out of hand. It would be easy to write off, or discount, the idea as a myth imposed on women by narrow-minded or envious men were it not for the disagreeable fact that many of the women who participated in the major reforms of their time were either victims of these ideas, advocates of them, or busy employing them to advance their causes.

As Ronald G. Walters has written, from the point of view of one scholar whom the “cult” does not embarrass,

“the cult of domesticity,” a rationale for female economic and political irrelevance, carried implications that justified public activity by women, particularly in reforms to suppress mankind’s animal nature and to liberate the downtrodden.

This description fits, of course, most of the great movements of the Jacksonian era of “freedom’s ferment,” but it fits none quite so closely as the abolition movement, where the questions of animal nature and “liberation of the downtrodden” came to focus on the plight of the slave. Walters suggests that the image of the slaveholder in the mind of abolitionists served to focus a generalized discontent prevailing in the more thoughtful Northern circles with the relationship between power and “the loss of moral control.”

The slaveholder was all-powerful, and had come to symbolize the unbridled and dangerous passions of men everywhere in America who were engaged in the exploitation of the fantastic advantages open before them, while threatening at the same time the cherished values of a moral order. Moreover, the slaveholders’ property consisted in people who shared (in the minds of friend and foe alike) many characteristics with women as they were conceived of being under terms of the cult. Lydia Maria Child, abolitionist editor and writer, said:

The comparison between women and the colored race is striking. Both are characterized by affection more than by intellect; both have a strong development of the religious sentiment; both are exceedingly adhesive in their attachments; both, comparatively speaking, have a tendency to submission; and hence, both have been kept in subjection by physical force, and considered rather in the light of property, than as individuals.

Many quotations might be adduced to illustrate the connection antislavery leaders made between women and blacks, both in aptitude and overt condition, but these observations, however condescending they may appear today, were not then offered as pejoratives. In a world rejecting force as inferior to moral suasion, these phrases could sound like compliments. Abolitionist Nathaniel P. Rogers thought “Antislavery is peculiarly woman’s work—slavery man’s [work]. Man is a tyrant; he has enslaved women among his other slaves.” A Dr. Seth Rogers, commenting on the love of slaves for song and nature, said during the Civil War that they were “all natural Transcendentalists!” These were the “natural” qualities complimented in women as well as slaves.

Most abolitionists believed that the urge for power and domination over others derived mainly from man’s licentious and self-indulgent nature, which needed to be curbed by revised social arrangements as well as by self-control. For the slaveholder it was clear that this meant removing his claim to human property. For others, this aspect of antislavery thought explains why most of the advocates for radical change in the laws regulating sex and marriage, the founders of much-derided celibate and “free-love” communities, had early careers in antislavery. They denounced marriage as a form of slavery, a view in which many feminists joined. What is fascinating is that even here there was a tendency to emphasize the more refined instincts of women in explaining the need for changes that would release them from the endless round of childbearing and the legalized prostitution many feminists regarded marriage as being.


There was at first no conflict perceivable between the cult of femininity and antislavery. There were many activities women might engage in without challenge to the limits of their “sphere.” They might properly organize and work in the antislavery fairs that raised money for the antislavery lecturers. Such efforts became increasingly significant as all reform began to be more highly organized. Women might sew and spin and discuss the problem of slavery and earn praise for their effort. They might also become authors in the good cause. Producing much of the literature that Professor Ann Douglas deplores, the women who wrote against slavery became experts at pulling the heartstrings. Harriet Beecher Stowe was only the most famous of a throng of similar writers, but her depiction of the relationship of Uncle Tom and Little Eva reflected the abolitionist assumption that women and children and blacks were in a closer relation to heaven than were men, and that they could also speak for one another better for that reason.

Few works of the genre came as close to being great literature as Uncle Tom’s Cabin did, and about that there is, of course, some debate. But much of it was highly effective as propaganda. The books written for adults were designed to alert readers to the dangers to women slaves of unbridled power and lust in their owners, and books designed for children frequently pressed the little ones to identify with the fate of the slave child and its mother.

The more women learned as participants in antislavery organizations, the more their thoughts turned to larger possibilities. They were, by antislavery standards, particularly well placed by their sex to contribute their thoughts and feelings on the subject of slavery. Yet every effort they made to speak out publicly as lecturers met with hostility. It was inevitable that this social restriction would be challenged in time, and highly likely that it would be challenged by just the right people in the antislavery movement.

Late in the 1830s a number of stresses appeared in the American Anti-Slavery Society, the organization formed in 1833 by William Lloyd Garrison and the Tappan brothers of New York, Lewis and Arthur. Although conflicts have been exaggerated by historians who have taken sides either with Garrison and his New England followers or with their opponents in the New York-Western and evangelical group, it is also true that after a schism in 1840 there were two organizations where once there had been one.3 The division was primarily over tactics, whether Garrison’s view of concentrating exclusively on moral suasion to bring about emancipation, with its complete abjuration of political action, should prevail.

The New York-Western group, led by James Birney and the Tappan brothers, was beginning to plan political action against slavery, which it in fact undertook in 1840, by organizing the Liberty Party. Steps in this direction served to bring into focus the classic dilemma of all reform strategy: what to do about other related, and perhaps more radical, issues? Would the adoption of the non-resistance (pacifist) ideal hinder the movement for the slave? Would taking up anti-Sabbatarianism and perfectionism alongside antislavery turn away the Christian ministry and church members in general? Would taking up women’s equality deter all conservative citizens from considering support of antislavery?4

For many abolitionists who had effectively used revival movements in the churches to promote antislavery, there was no doubt that the answer to all these questions was a resounding yes. But to the Garrisonians the answers seemed less significant, for no political action was contemplated with a government based on a “compact with hell,” their phrase for the Constitution that supported slavery in the Southern states. Their goal was to change the hearts and minds of the larger public, to convert the people to antislavery.

As Aileen Kraditor has written so persuasively, it should be acknowledged that Garrison did not mean to exclude those who would not adopt Christian anarchism with him, or women’s equality, or any other of the battery of unpopular causes he took up on his own way toward human perfection. But the regular employment of his famous abolitionist newspaper The Liberator in the support of all these causes caused them to be associated with antislavery in the minds of most citizens, and in that sense Garrison’s very prominence may be regarded as forcing those who saw matters differently to withdraw. In all events, withdraw they did, and it was Garrison’s specific championship of the women in the movement that precipitated the crisis, and afforded the Tappan group the occasion for establishing a separate society, the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society.


It was the election in 1840 of the formidable Abby Kelley to membership in the business committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society that prompted the withdrawal of the evangelicals, but the dispute over women’s role had been continuous for five or six years, and acute since the arrival in New England in 1837 of two demure Quaker women from Charleston, South Carolina. They were Angelina and Sarah Grimké, and they were prepared to lecture on the consequences of slavery for both white and black. It was their participation in the lecture circuit that forced the antislavery movement to come to terms with “the woman question.” Trained to lecture by the young evangelical writer Theodore Dwight Weld in his famous Band of Seventy Antislavery Apostles, they were the only women.

Ironically, women’s first opportunities had come to them informally through the religious revivals in the West, the center of the evangelical-political part of the movement that now, in 1840, withdrew from the American Anti-Slavery Society in part because of women’s public exposure in the movement. But what was spontaneous, impromptu, and accepted in the western revivals provoked alarm and drew censure further east, where many Congregational ministers were being but slowly moved from the far more conservative position on slavery held by the American Colonization Society.5 Therefore the arrival of the Grimké sisters in New England, speaking everywhere, and before “promiscuous” (or sexually mixed) audiences, produced a sensation perhaps not anticipated by Weld when he had trained them.

The Grimké sisters appealed to Northern opinion as Southern white women pleading on behalf of enslaved Southern black women. They went beyond that and urged recognition that underneath both slavery and the studied neglect and relegation of blacks in the North to second-class citizenship was racial prejudice. This must be cast out from Northern minds, as slavery must be cast out of the South.6 Women had an important part to play, for black women were “our countrywomen; they are our sisters; and to us they have a right to look for sympathy with their sorrows and effort and prayer for their rescue.” The Grimkés also pointed out what was beginning to be more obvious, that women must cast off their own culturally imposed prohibitions and inhibitions.

Although Sarah and Angelina spoke at first to religious meetings of women, men began to slip into the audiences, and as the fame of these meetings spread, the Congregational ministry took alarm. The General Association of Congregational Ministers shortly found occasion to rebuke them in a “Pastoral Letter” open to the public, warning that such activity as theirs threatened “the female character with widespread and permanent injury.”7 The ministers could not “but regret the mistaken conduct of those [men] who encourage females to bear an obtrusive and ostentatious part in measures of reform, and countenance any of that sex who so far forget themselves as to itinerate in the character of public lecturers and teachers.”

Especially to be regretted was “the intimate acquaintance and promiscuous conversation of females with regard to things which ought not to be named; by which that modesty and delicacy which is the charm of domestic life, and which constitutes the true influence of woman in society is consumed, and the way opened, as we apprehend, for degeneracy and ruin.” Underneath it all was the throbbing note of loss:

When she assumes the place and tone of man as a public reformer, our care and protection seem unnecessary…. If the vine, whose strength and beauty is to lean upon the trellis-work,… thinks to assume the independence and the overshadowing nature of the elm, it will not only cease to bear fruit, but fall in shame and dishonour into the dust.

Alas, cruel words to young women who were just beginning to find their vocations. Sarah Grimké had once wished to become a lawyer, and had studied at her brother Thomas’s side long enough to know how to handle this situation. In a series of public letters of her own she attacked the underlying assumptions of the “Pastoral Letter.” She professed to rejoice that the ministers had called attention to the present danger to the female character; women should look into the matter, for there was indeed

danger from those who, having long held the reins of usurped authority, are unwilling to permit us to fill that sphere which God created us to move in, and who have entered into league to crush the immortal mind of woman. I rejoice, because I am persuaded that the rights of woman, like the rights of slaves, need only to be examined to be understood and asserted, even by some of those, who are now endeavoring to smother the irrepressible desire for mental and spiritual freedom which glows in the breast of many, who hardly dare speak their sentiments.8

Sarah Grimké then turned to Biblical authorities so often cited against women, and called for women translators. She pointed out that in the various sections of the New Testament instructing Christians on their duties, no difference was made in sex. As for male protection, she exclaimed, “how many of my sex feel in the dominion, thus unrighteously exercised over them under the gentle appellation of protection, that what they have leaned upon has proved a broken reed at best, and often a spear.” But the pastors had much support for their position, and when a subsequent antifeminist “Clerical Appeal” went out, there were notable abolitionist signatories, and for them Sarah’s answer was quite the same as what she wrote the New England clergy. It was degrading to white women as well as black to live in “daily habit of seeing the virtue of [an] enslaved sister sacrificed without hesitancy or remorse,” and as consequence “she looks upon the crimes of seduction and illicit intercourse without horror,…and loses that value for innocence in her own [sex]…which is one of the strongest safeguards to virtue.” Sarah was coming very close to endorsing the “cult of femininity” to make her argument. As for the woman who ignores this to “fold her hands in apathy,” Sarah pronounced firmly, “she cannot be guiltless.”

Sarah Grimké’s was the first important, full, and free statement for women’s equality made in America; it appeared ten years ahead of the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. Beyond her specific justification of women speaking out against slavery, she attacked the entire conception of women’s sphere as it was understood, pointing out that everywhere a woman’s time was held to be less important than a man’s, a little girl’s education was neglected. “In most families it is considered a matter of far more consequence to call a girl off from making a pie, or a pudding, than to interrupt her whilst engaged in her studies.”

And then there were the obvious vested interests of male authority and emolument. Women could sing in church choirs and teach Sunday schools, but they were excluded from the ministry by a “supposed divine command.” If St. Paul’s instruction “I suffer not women to teach” were to be taken literally, then surely women should not be permitted to teach or sing. Then why the contradiction? “Simply, as I believe,” Sarah wrote, “because in the one case we subserve their views and their interests, and act in subordination to them; whilst in the other, we come in contact with their interests and claim to be on an equality with them in the highest and most important trust ever committed to man, namely the ministry….” She pointed out that in primitive Christianity women did indeed minister the word of the Gospel.

As Sarah took on the New England ministry, her sister Angelina shortly found herself embroiled in a public debate of her own on the same issue with a more redoubtable authority, Catharine Beecher, the elder sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher, and at that time the most famous Beecher of them all, except perhaps for the patriarch of the tribe, Lyman, the evangelical divine.

Though Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher would in time be prominently identified with the cause of the slave, the Beecher family was at this point very cautious in its relationship to abolitionism. The father, Lyman Beecher, had been president of Lane Theological Seminary when Theodore Dwight Weld, then a young radical student, launched debates that led to the formation of the Western movement for immediate emancipation and to the secession of many prominent students who helped to found Oberlin College.9 Catharine Beecher was already well known for her activities on behalf of woman’s education, the founder of the very fine Hartford Female Seminary, and a staunch publicist and manipulator of the cult of domesticity. Between Angelina Grimké and Catharine Beecher the lines were firmly drawn about the place “femininity” had in reform, and nowhere were the two opposing views better stated.

Like her father, Catharine Beecher wrote very authoritatively, and her Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism, with Reference to the Duty of American Females (1837) was a masterpiece of command, which angered Angelina Grimké profoundly. Their quarrel was over Angelina’s insistence that women should express themselves in the interest of reform in just the same way men did, and Catharine’s insistence that American women could exercise a great force in American society if they worked within their own sphere to heal the divisions created by democratic politics.

In the words of Beecher’s biographer, Kathryn Kish Sklar, “Whereas the Grimkés wanted to extend popular democracy to include women, Catharine wanted to restore hierarchical authority and give women a place within that hierarchy.” Catharine Beecher readily accorded men the superior position in the management of affairs outside the home; within it women could extend an authority that could be “infused into the mass of the nation” so that it might not be “distracted and tortured by the baleful passions and wicked works that unrestrained party spirit and ungoverned factions” were bringing. The Grimkés countered with the natural rights argument for full equality. Children of the late years of the Enlightenment, the Grimkés heard the language of the Declaration of Independence:

The investigation of the rights of the slave has led me to a better understanding of my own. I have found the Anti-Slavery cause to be the high school of morals in our land—the school in which human rights are more fully investigated, and better understood and taught, than in any other. Here a great fundamental Principle is uplifted and illuminated, and from this central light, rays innumerable stream all around. Human beings have rights, because they are moral beings: the rights of all men grow out of their moral nature, and as all men have the same moral nature, they have essentially the same rights…. Now if rights are founded in the nature of our moral being, then the mere circumstances of sex does not give to man higher rights and responsibilities, than to a woman. To suppose that it does, would be to deny the self-evident truth, that the “physical constitution is the mere instrument of the moral nature.”10

From this basis Sarah Grimké argued that for a woman to be counted for representation in Congress but to be allowed no vote was to become a civil slave, and reminded her readers that the American Revolution had been concerned with taxation without representation. Even the churches had excluded women from participating in decisions affecting their spiritual welfare, she concluded bitterly, and even the churches that gave women the right to preach on the basis of inspiration (she meant the Quakers) denied them equal rights in the management of affairs.


That such sweeping claims for woman’s equality should have come from women involved in the antislavery movement is not surprising, for the rationale that blacks were enslaved because their difference put them outside the guarantees of republican government had a clear analogue in the difference between women and men.11 For women and blacks, with their physical differences, the only real basis for an argument for emancipation had to be an argument based on the rights of humanity; certainly so, if the argument were to be for full equality instead of an acceptance of difference coupled with a sphere of superiority, as Catharine Beecher’s strategy implied. Natural rights, bolstered with a favorable reading of the Bible, was the course taken by the convinced abolitionist and the feminist in turn. So much is plain, but that the women who first stated the case so clearly should have been Southern women who had come from the highest stratum of Charleston society is a far from probable phenomenon.

The mystery can only be resolved by reference to the Grimké sisters’ special environment in an admittedly eccentric and learned constellation.12 Whether their convictions against slavery came quite so early in life as they later seemed to believe has been questioned; their early journeying through various religious denominations has been the cause of curiosity. It may be that their exposure at an early age to the logical extreme of the cult of femininity offered by upper-class Southern life, and exemplified by their own mother, who was much maligned by her daughters, explains their progress toward feminism. They later had much to say about the uselessness of woman as plaything of man and as social butterfly, and about women’s concern for clothes and the search for a suitable marriage. It should also be pointed out that these sisters, along with Lucretia Mott, were the eldest of those women active in this phase of American feminism, and that they were undoubtedly often reminded in a family of lawyers and public servants of the basic philosophy of the American Revolution.13

And yet it is sad to relate that they had not the staying power that their sincere commitment to feminism or antislavery would indicate. Those feminists who came later had more, and it could be because there were few models for the Grimkés, while they were themselves models for others. In any case, Angelina’s marriage to Theodore Dwight Weld, which took place soon after the famous altercation with the New England clergy, put an end to the lecturing phase of antislavery for both of them, as well as for sister Sarah, who moved in with them to form a ménage à trois.

The correspondence on the eve of their marriage shows that the couple hoped to continue their work, and indeed in one way they did so for a short time. The great abolition tract, American Slavery as It Is, came from the cooperative efforts of the three in the early years of the marriage, with the women culling Southern newspapers for atrocities to illustrate Weld’s arguments.14 And Weld himself, always full of statistics, lived in Washington for a short time, serving as the moving force of the lobby there under the auspices of the founders of the Liberty Party. He pressed forward the campaign against a congressional gag rule, banning consideration of antislavery petitions.15 But all three slowly drifted to the edge of the old movement, and settled in New Jersey, operating a school there and living by the strictest standards of diet.

Garrison, never one to forget a grudge, mentioned from time to time the long silence of the Grimké-Weld trio, and historians have been puzzled since. Gilbert Barnes cynically suggested that Weld married Angelina to get her off the platform and win his point with Garrison, but a reading of their letters attests to the real passion between the two.16 A more sensitive but related explanation comes from Katherine Du Pré Lumpkin, who noted that Weld’s loss of voice coincided with his marriage, and that Angelina’s sense of her powers to move people with her voice was very high at the time. Soul-searching letters passing between the three indicate solicitous concern on the part of Sarah and Theodore that Angelina might possibly be more moved by personal ambition than some direct call from God to speak out as she had been doing. They cautioned her against a worldly spirit.

Then the children came, and Angelina was often unwell. She was clearly an unhappy mother, and Sarah enjoyed doing the work. She therefore took over, and Angelina felt both resentful and guilty. In Dr. Lumpkin’s interpretation Angelina seems caught in a last struggle for personal emancipation, the breaking of the bonds of expectations society (and Sarah and Theodore presumably) had of her as wife and mother. Hence Lumpkin’s choice of title, The Emancipation of Angelina Grimké, prefigures the moment, late in life, when Angelina Grimké emerges for a short and late career serving the feminist cause.

It is today far easier to admire Angelina Grimké, even when she faltered, than to tolerate such a woman as Catharine Beecher, for Grimké spoke the language we now love to hear. In that cause she and all the feminists who argued on grounds of natural rights may be complimented for not having left around an intellectual debris that had to be swept up by another generation. Yet it is only fair to point out that the Grimké sisters’ retreat to the home illustrates well the superior realism of reformers who exploit the attitudes of those they must persuade. Most of the institutions of higher learning were founded by women who exploited the cult of true womanhood as an argument for women’s education. The subject matter of these schools went beyond the argument in nearly all cases, and inclined to expand as the century wore on.

For this reason one must hand to women such as Beecher the important achievement of laying the foundation for the feminism of the late nineteenth century. As Susan Conrad has recently written, the women’s colleges provided the institutional support women required for the later phases of their movement, and in them women formed the connections and acquired the experience they needed for political action. It is doubtful that Catharine Beecher foresaw all this, but in the short run she did much to give women a prior claim to the career of school-teaching, and also provided women with a justification for assuming a dominant position within the family.

This latter idea has become so general that it is difficult to recall that men were once all powerful within the home as well as without. This change in power relationships within the family reflected a larger democratization in society, and the subjects and themes in Beecher’s writing suggest her awareness of the realities of the society of which she was a part. The economic and material conditions of the nineteenth century precluded very many women being fully released from exacting domestic chores, and one of Beecher’s functions was to reconcile women to the life most of them would probably lead, by convincing them that it was significant, that it could be improved, and that a woman who took her domestic duties seriously could do them well and achieve much satisfaction from her work. She designed kitchens for servantless homes, gave advice on rearing children, some of it surprisingly perceptive and modern in tone.

No subject was too trivial for her monumental text, A Treatise on Domestic Economy, or too large.17 So popular it became in American life in the several decades after its publication that Beecher “could enter virtually any community in the United States and expect to be received as the heroine who had simplified and made understandable the mysterious arts of household maintenance, childrearing, gardening, cooking, cleaning, doctoring, and the dozen other responsibilities middle-class women assumed to keep their children and husbands alive and well.”

Beecher gave her constituents confidence in their abilities and, as her biographer points out, was rewarded by them with the kind of affection modern women have accorded Dr. Benjamin Spock for his famous book on child care. Much of what Beecher did and wrote reminds today’s reader of the meaningless occupations of women that Betty Friedan exposed so mercilessly in The Feminine Mystique: the commercialization of the home, woman as consumer, the assessment of various soap powders, the careful study of beauty treatments, a need to be all things to all members of the family and nothing else.

But it is well to recall at the same time that circumstances in Beecher’s day were very different and that these chores were not as meaningless and artificial as in our times. Many women needed to be told that there were better ways of getting water into the house than pumping it into a bucket, better ways of dressing their daughters than in whalebone corsets. Beecher was professionalizing tasks that women were not to be entirely free to choose or reject for many years, convincing women that in serving the home they were shaping the “intellectual and moral character of the American people,” and reconciling women to the all-but-inevitable. There was good and bad in that.

The irony of it all was that Beecher, in celebrating womanhood, was living for herself and behaving very much like a modern career woman, aside from her rhetoric, which has a ritualistic, almost perfunctory ring to it, coming from so tireless a traveler, writer, and fund-raiser. She clearly became a “role model” for younger women, who learned a clue or two from watching her and who preferred her independent behavior to her domestic advice.

The requirements of the age were complex and the scholars who consider the spectrum of responses to those requirements, while justified in having favorite personalities, should perhaps consider that the techniques of the survivor, while not always attractive, have their own not-always-ignoble ends to serve. Catharine Beecher was a survivor.

It may also have been true of this period of reform, as it has been true of our own, that the existence of a more radical and ideological left made the work of those engaged in practical efforts for concrete and immediate improvements easier than it might otherwise have been. In this light, Catharine and Angelina obviously had need of each other, just as they shared more of nineteenth-century domesticity (and, for that matter, subverted more of it) than either recognized.

This Issue

October 7, 1982