Continuing on the theme I (with input from ElectricAngel) began previously…
If we look back to the early 19th century, we can see the seeds of modern feminism, in some of the more influential women of that time period. And were they indeed ever influential…
The book I mentioned in my previous post about early feminism in America, Kenneth T. Jackson’s “Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States”, discusses the impact of one Catharine Beecher, who was the daughter of the famous Calvinist preacher Lyman Beecher.
Starting at page 61 in Jackson’s book:
The eldest child of Lyman Beecher, a famed Calvinist preacher in the Puritan tradition, Catharine Beecher was born in 1800 into a family in which the missionary fires burned brightly. In addition to her father, her seven brothers were all ministers, including Henry Ward Beecher, the leading Protestant clergyman in the United States between 1850 and 1887. From his pulpit in Brooklyn’s fashionable Plymouth Church (Congregationalist), he preached to an audience of thousands every Sunday. His reputation was so great and his oratory so spellbinding that an alleged adulterous affair with a female parishioner and a sensational trial scarcely reduced his influence.
Now that’s interesting! An alpha, and possibly a bit of a bad boy, one able to get away with it by being so alpha; no doubt this influenced his daughter.
Her father isn’t the only other famous person in her family; Jackson continues:
Catharine’s sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote the inflammatory novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that helped lead to the Civil War. Another sister, Isabella, was one of the leading feminists of her generation. And Catharine herself, who never had her own home and family and was rarely on friendly terms with her closest kin, became the nineteenth century’s leading theorist of the virtues and requirements of domesticity.
Ah yes, domesticity. I have previously explored the influence of activist-minded women from the late 19th century and their cult of domesticity here. But pardon my digression; let’s examine what happened a bit earlier on, with Miss Beecher.
Continuing from ‘Crabgrass Frontier’:
In 1823 her fiance, a professor at Yale, died in a shipwreck, and the following year she took charge of a Hartford girl’s school. Nine years later, Catharine accompanied her famous father and her siblings to the “western wilderness” of Cincinnati, where she almost immediately founded the Western Female Institute. Although the school closed its doors four years later, Catharine remained in the Queen City until her death in 1878.
Throughout her long life, Beecher believed fervently in the moral superiority of women over men, a position outlined in the first of her twenty-five books, the privately printed Elements of Mental and Moral Philosophy, Founded Upon Experience, Reason, and the Bible (1831).
Ah, yes. Typical female supremacist, just like today, eh?
Actually, no; not exactly:
Catharine was not a feminist, however. She opposed the women’s rights movement as soon as it emerged as a national organization, insisting that woman’s relation to man should be one of dependence and subservience.
“Heaven has appointed to one sex the superior and to the other the subordinate station,” Beecher intoned. Unlike Angelina Grimke and other militants who sought immediate female self-realization, Beecher believed that women could best achieve their goals by being so unassuming and gentle that men would yield to them.
Sneaky! Much like Adelaide Hoodless, a bit later…
Continuing from ‘Crabgrass Frontier’:
Beecher’s national influence began with her Treatise on Domestic Economy, For the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School, which first appeared in 1841. An immediate popular success, it was frequently adopted as a textbook and was reprinted dozens of times over the next thirty years. Because the “cult of true womanhood” linked the home with piety and purity, Beecher sought to connect architectural and landscape design with her domestic ideal. … Although her designs were technically conventional – the houses were boxes with a central core of fireplaces – the book provided a vision of a healthy, happy, well-fed, and pious family living harmoniously in a well-built, well-furnished, well-kept house.
Beecher did not specifically refer to suburbia, but she assumed that family life could best thrive in a semirural setting. She believed that “implanted in the heart of every true man, is the desire for a home of his own.” Devoting five chapters of the Treatise to yards and gardens, she argued in favor of the physical and social separation of the population into the female-dominated sphere of home life, preferably suburban, and the male-dominated sphere of the business world, usually urban…
So, the sharp division of society into specifically male and female realms of influence is not in fact a traditionalist concept, but in fact one put forward by an ostensibly ‘modest’ reformer – who clearly was seeking to carve out a sphere of influence for women, that didn’t particularly exist before then: as masters of the home! So much for paterfamilias…