Class Write up - Reforming Women

November 12, 2003


This was a little free-form, but it worked fairly well. It ran better in the afternoon than in the morning - better turnout, more interested students, more people had done the reading. The afternoon section is just plain better than the morning section. I do not know why - at the start of the semester I thought the morning kids would be better.

This is a long writeup. I followed my notes for the introduction and conclusion. I changed the middle on the fly. The below is what I did and how I could have done it better.

I told them at the top that last week we saw women and society from an economic and social perspective, and this time we were going to cover the same ground from an intellectual and cultural perspective. I like what we covered, but I might re-arrange the presentation. The other way I framed the discussion was by pointing out that gender roles are always changing and that people are always nervous about changing gender roles. What I did not say, but could have, is that people tend to appeal to the past to justify or legitimate their goal for the future. I used a simple clothing example to make the point. Who wears tights now, men or women? Who wore tights in the 13th century, men or women? The class smiled as soon as I gave the second half of it, but it made the point that at one time men showed their legs and were judged by their legs.

We started by discussing the Beecher-Grimke debate. As expected, the kids liked Grimke. I put the two on the board and we summarized what they argued, their points, and their assumptions. That went well.

Then I did a basic history of women and society.

I started with Benjamin Rush, Republican Motherhood, and the idea that the best way to control the horde of young people in the EAR was to educate them in republican values, that women were the only people who could provide that education, and that women thus had to educate themselves in order to educate their children.

I proved this by drawing on Nancy Cott's (I think) evidence on writing styles. Colonial women who wrote letters, even letters to other women, always apologized for writing. They referred to themselves as a "female" correspondent, they apologized in advance for the errors of the letter, their entire style was self-conscious and showed that these women, while writing letters, were very aware that they were encroaching onto "male" behavior. By the 1820s, women stopped referring to themselves as "female correspondents," stopped apologizing, and not only did their writing get better, they were no longer being self-conscious about the process of writing itself. I argued that writing had gone from a male to either a female or an everyone activity; gender roles had changed.

I then quickly summarized the Second Great Awakening, showed that women were more likely to join churches during this awakening, and that this reinforced the notion that women were more religious than men.

From there I moved to a talk about the sentimental culture. This transition was the weak part in the class. Next time I might want to foreground the role of Jonathan Edwards and the Religious Affections. I used him in the second section but not in the first.

I once again set up two columns on the board; this time they were the 17th and the 19th centuries.

I explained that the 17th century people read their Bibles from the assumption that God was King. They focused on hierarchy, glory, and control. Puritans emphasized original sin and argued that everyone was born evil: we are born evil, family government and social laws and punishments are there to restrain the evils in all of us, and only religion can remove that evil. If you die before getting that religion, you are bound to Hell. Puritans were consistent, and many held to infant depravity - if a baby is born and dies immediately, does its soul go to Heaven or to Hell. Logically, based on Original Sin, the soul goes to Hell. Many Puritans believed this (I did not cite Nathaniel Emmons who elaborated this approach in the 18th century).

Furthermore, most 17th century people agreed with a body of thought dating back to the 13th century holding that women were more easily swayed by evil. Eve had tempted Adam, it was through woman that evil had entered the world, and women were obviously moral inferiors to men. I referred to the Salem Witch Trials to set this up, asking the class if more men or women were accused of witchcraft, and why?

In contrast, as we had discussed earlier, 19th century people assumed that women were more religious than men. There was a change in gender, morality and religion.

I continued with the 19th century position that, because God is Good, God could not condemn an innocent infant to eternal damnation. Dead infants must go to heaven. If so, then we must be born in a state of goodness. But, conversion religion requires that we recognize that we are evil so that we can reject that evil and be saved. So where does the evil come in? Hopkins argued that evil comes with the ability to choose, and that evil consists of knowing two alternatives and choosing the worse of the two. Thus children become evil at the time that they learn to make moral judgements.

This approach to the problem of evil then had two consequences. People who taught themselves that sin consisted of making the wrong choice, flocked to the decision theology of the Wesleyan and Finneyite revivals. Ministers asked their audience to make an immediate choice between heaven and hell. Afterwards people were told that they had to immediately renounce sin whenever they encountered it, and Hopkinsian immediatism led to benevolent reform movements including abolition.

The other consequence was less obvious. Catherine Beecher shows the problem: she never thought of herself as evil. She was the daughter of a minister, she was raised up religiously, she took care of her younger siblings after her mother died, and all her life she devoted herself to doing what she thought was the right thing. According to her biographer Katherine Kish Sklar, Beecher was never able to experience a conversion because she was never able to convince herself that she was utterly evil and worthless. Instead, CB joined the Episcopal Church which did not require a conversion experience and was perfectly willing to believe that people were either morally good or morally neutral from the moment of their baptsm. Later on, Horace Bushnell would formalize Cbs position in his arguments about Christian nurture, and the mainline Protestant churches would continue their movement from conversion to nurture, decision to practice.

The weakness here is that I did not prepare a story for the change. The story I want to tell is Jonathan Edwards who, in his Surprising Narrative and his Religious Affections emphasized emotion. For Edwards, religion without emotion was not really religion. But, critics charged, emotions can come from either God or the Devil. How do you tell if your emotional experience was a good or a bad thing? Edwards responded with standard orthodoxy: the proof of a sincere religious experience comes from the change in our behavior afterwards. While some would say emotion only, others would say practice only, Edwards insisted that you had to have both or you had less than nothing. If I had handled this in a different order, with Edwards in the middle, it would have made a better story.

Instead of a story, I prepared a compare and contrast. I showed them cultural differences between the 17th and 19th centuries. I talked about graveyard decorations, from skulls and demons to angels and cherubs. Death was no longer something scary that came unexpectedly - no one posed for paintings while holding a skull after about 1750. Death in the 19th century was a time to think not of Hell but of Heaven. 19th century cemeteries tried to celebrate the afterlife. In this they were much like popular music, which talked about the afterlife as a time when families would be reunited. (I cited but did not sing verses from "Poor Wayfaring Stranger" and "Circle be Unbroken". None of the kids would admit to knowing Wayfaring Stranger. I might add music lyrics to the reader next time.) Finally I talked about deathbed scenes like those of Little Eva in UTC. People learned of these scenes through literature and religious periodicals; they tried to re-enact them in their own lives. By the 1830s people on their deathbed were often badgered by well meaning relatives who were hoping for a "good death" where the person dies while praising God for the glory that they see. It was a culture shift, it was a turn to sentimental culture.

Finally I ran through a fairly traditional narrative of immediatism to abolitionism to women's rights. I explained the difference between equal rights feminism and separate spheres feminism, typefied by Grimke and Beecher respectively. I told them briefly about Seneca Falls in 1848 and read a little of the Seneca Falls declaration. I closed with the narrative of women getting the vote: local votes in school boards and local option elections, gained because women had responsibility over children and the home. Votes for political office in some Western states, gained through a mixture of equal rights and separate spheres arguments.

Then women lobbyied for the vote on equal rights terms during WWI, comparing Wilson to the Kaiser for both denied democracy to the people they ruled. They got the vote, the crucial swing votes, on separate spheres grounds by arguing that women would reform the voting public. Women activists assured their followers that once women had the vote they would vote in all of the items on the women's platform. Everyone was convinced that women would vote differently, that they would change politics. I was low on time so I did not review the Progressive argument that only educated smart (i.e. white middle class) people should take part in politics, so lets enfranchise white women while disfranchising poor, illiterate, and underclass people.

The irony, of course, is that while women got the vote on separate spheres grounds, once they got the vote they voted like people and not like women. Women voted much like men did - on class, region, and ethnocultural lines rather than on strict gender lines. The equal rights feminists were right, women really were just like other people.

Posted by Red Ted at November 12, 2003 10:07 AM | TrackBack