Of Angels and Politics
I found this image at https://thebeetonideal.wordpress.com/2017/09/05/the-salience-of-the-home-19th-century-baptist-womens-domestic-role/, but I don't know its origin.
I haven’t written a blog in weeks. In fact, I haven’t written since December 2.
Long story short, December 2 marked the first week in Advent, the four weeks before Christmas. It is a time for serious reflection, but also a time for increased activity for those who serve on church staffs. For me that meant an extra service one Sunday, a luncheon hosted by the United Methodist Women at which I was the speaker, two separate campaigns to help those in need (one for coats and another for diapers), and the yearly intergenerational Christmas pageant and luncheon. If you notice that we seem to eat a lot at First United Methodist, you’re right. Food is usually involved whenever most Methodists get together. As our pastor likes to say, “food is love.” And we wonder why we have weight issues!
Anyway, I’m writing this blog perched on the edge of the weekend before Christmas and find that I have – crazy as it seems – a bit of breathing space.
So, here’s a little blog on women in 19th century politics. The information comes from Rebecca Edwards’ book, Angels in the Machinery: Gender in American Party Politics from the Civil War to the Progressive Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).
Edwards makes note that the metaphor of machinery was used for electoral systems and parties. Machinery, of course, was the stuff industry was made of. Industry and all activities outside the home were seen as part of the world of men. And it was in the realm of politics and elections that men debated “faith and deeply held values.” The subjects of these debates and campaigns often “rested on opposing views of the family’s relationship to the state.” (Angels, 3)
The opposite of men’s world was “woman’s sphere,” which was defined as the home. Women were to care for children, keep the home a haven of peace, and be responsible for religious nurture. Women became known as “angels of the home.” (NOTE: while these attitudes seemed widespread, they were practiced mainly among middle- and -upper class homes. The working classes, the poor, and enslaved women had vastly different expectations and experiences.) If you’re interested in where the term “angel in the house” originated, please go to http://victorian-era.org/angel-house-coventry-patmore.html
But overall, American society saw women as being selfless and pure, and therefore unfit for politics, which was a rough, tumble, and dirty business. Edwards writes, “The question was, should men manage politics in the interest of women and families, or should women join the debates and exercise power themselves?” (Angels, 3) After all, if the basic building block of American society was the family, then it was “the government’s first duty to preserve proper relationships within the home.” (Angels, 5)
Meanwhile, many women were taking notice of social and economic inequalities in American culture: slavery, poverty, alcoholism, child abuse, prostitution, women’s rights, and more. Women’s groups, such as the Methodists’ Ladies’ Aid Societies and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, began taking steps to address these things.
Most of us today will agree that our current era is politically polarized. This isn’t a novel thing. The Civil War and the era preceding it had much the same effect, one that lasted into the late 1800s.
Edwards writes: “The war took 600,000 lives and mobilized soldiers and civilians on an unprecedented scale. It also entrenched in Washington a new party with domestic and evangelical purposes. Republicans styled themselves ‘the party of the home’; they celebrated women’s moral influence and praised men who recognized the Christian example set by mothers and wives….By no means all voters shared these values at the time; in fact, a majority probably opposed them. But by the end of the Civil War, Republicans had won a loyal following.” (Angels, 6) On the opposing side, “Democrats attacked this ideology as destructive to patriarchal authority, and its proponents as effete aristocrats.” (Angels, 6)
About now, you should be thinking, “Hmmm… this argument sounds oddly familiar.” And you’d be right. The same attitudes still exist today to varying degrees. The only difference is that the parties seem to have swapped positions. The fascinating story of how that change happened in the 1900s will need to be left for another day – or perhaps another blogger. Let’s stay in the 19th century for the time being.
Since Maggie lives during the Civil War, she is subject to her society’s beliefs about “woman’s sphere” and therefore has an interest in some of the reform movements of her era. Most notably, she is involved in the Underground Railroad, but also has concerns about alcohol abuse, poverty, and women’s rights.
In A Good Community, she, Emily, Rosa, and Abigail seek to address a problem regarding equal education. As a result, Maggie finds herself embroiled in the debate over just how much a woman should get involved in a socially and politically charged question. She is of one opinion. Josiah Norton, the town’s leading industrialist, is of another. And, of course, her husband Eli has his own viewpoint.
I’ll address their stances in my next blog. Since I’m going to write the piece later today, it will be up Monday evening, hence thwarting the possibility that I’ll get derailed by the whirlwind of pre-Christmas work at church. (I have since given up doing all the “traditional” rushing about in my personal life. One can only do so much, after all.)
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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder