As surprising as it may seem, I did not realize that my character Maggie Blaine Smith (of the Saint Maggie series) exemplifies the type of woman promoted in Catharine Beecher’s books. But it seems that she does.
Maggie is neither a submissive housewife nor a driven career woman. She can drop her oversight of the household and go to work at her husband’s newspaper, or perhaps find a position of her own. But Maggie doesn’t do it. Not only doesn’t she do it, but I feel as if the character won’t do it. It’s one of those peculiar things about being an author. Our characters can and do refuse to do things, and there’s nothing we can do, Maggie chooses to balance her household duties with her writing and editing skills.
Aside from being surprised (again) at how much I have retained from my graduate work in North American Religion and Culture, I also am astounded at how it has fed into Maggie’s development. And, somehow, I think Miss Beecher would approve of Maggie.
I once wrote a research paper on how Beecher came to her theory about women and power and position. It’s a subversive and revolutionary theory, at that, which reminds me of Jesus’ statement, “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” But let’s take the journey of how Beecher came to her philosophy.
Catharine Beecher clearly was conflicted about women’s role and this partly was due to the tensions in her early family life. Her father was a Presbyterian minister and the member of the family to whom she felt most akin. Young Catharine often when with Rev. Lyman Beecher when he visited members of his parish. She also admired his extroverted personality and the power he wielded in their community. However, Catharine’s feelings more her mother were different. Roxanna Foote Beecher was the picture of the good Puritan wife, submitting to both God and husband, and skillfully and effectively managing a household and nine children (of which Catharine was the oldest). It was a position that Catharine found stifling. And yet, Beecher dutifully took over running the family household when her mother died of consumption.
Catharine remained close to her father until she was 21 years old, at which time he began pressing her to marry as well as to undergo a religious conversion. Beecher balked at the idea of surrendering herself to husband and to God.
Tragically – yet fortunately – the marriage issue resolved itself when her prospective husband died in a shipwreck. As for conversion, Beecher felt neither guilt for her sins nor a need to commit herself to God (since she felt that she was already committed). However, she did manage to appease her father by recommitting herself to central Presbyterian tenets and by joining the church.
Beecher’s approach to religion led her a reconfigured theology that had little do to with conversion and everything to do with morality and moral training. Like many Americans of the time, she viewed personal and corporate morality as being vital to the nation.
In a Treatise on Domestic Economy, Beecher argues that democratic institutions depend “upon the intellectual and moral character of the mass of the people. If they are intelligent and virtuous, democracy is a blessing; but if they are ignorant and wicked, it is only a curse…” (Treatise, 13). In addition, she believed that good citizens put the nation above themselves and saw sacrifice as integral to a democracy’s survival.
Given the critical need for moral training, the next question is: who should teach the children? Miss Beecher has an answer for that, too. The only logical, natural answer for her was that “women would.” As she explains in An Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism: “Will men turn aside from…high and exciting objects to become the patient labourers in the school room, and for only the small pittance that rewards such toil? No, they will not” (106).
However, it was not simply a matter of willingness to teach. Beecher also argues that women are better qualified for the job. After all, who knows more about sacrifice than women, especially mothers? They, Beecher says, are the ones who must submit their needs to those of their family and the larger community.
Beecher argued that, because they are set apart in the sphere of domesticity and separated from the hustle-bustle of politics and business, mothers also are “set…apart from the self-aggrandizement that might underlay the actions of others” (Boydston 117). In short, women were purer than men, who were tempted by the evils of the world. This purity made women perfect for the vocation of shaping national morals.
Catharine Beecher’s redefinition of womanhood was designed to help women embrace and exercise their power over society (the way her father had exercised power in his community). And yet, Beecher could not bring herself to discard the domestic model her mother had embodied, which prevented her from endorsing women’s expansion into the political and industrial realms. However, her ideal of womanhood did redefine “motherhood” as a profession, rather than a “biological relationship” (Boydston, 119). As far as Beecher was concerned, a “mother” was any woman who was involved in nurturing others. “Woman is to do everything by peace and love,” she wrote to Angelina Grimke in An Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism. “…[b]ut this is all to be accomplished in the domestic and social circle” (100).
Pretty clever, huh?
Beecher envisioned a vast army of women gently directing America’s moral course, but always from the sphere of the home, the classroom, the hospital, the church. But before such a thing could happen, people had to recognize that the wrongs against women had been committed and needed to be righted (Boydston 139-140). So, the very people who had no overt political power could control the national moral pulse by using one-on-one influence.
However, there is an interesting little glitch, noted by Boydston, Kelley, and Margolis. Though Beecher exalted the family as the haven of moral purity, males were suspect because they had been corrupted by the world outside. Women weren’t just responsible for raising moral children. They also were charged with individually civilizing men and teaching them the value of sacrifice (232). In effect, men became children in need of the moral teaching offered by the women in their lives.
While I believe that Maggie embraces a great deal of Beecher’s ideas, I do not believe either she or her friend Emily Johnson see their husbands as immoral or amoral. Although… Eli… that guy gets a bit shady when he’s in full newspaperman mode. But more on that and other ways Beecher’s influence shows up in the Saint Maggie series tomorrow.
Beecher, Catharine. An Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism. Philadelphia, 1837.
---. Principles of Domestic Science.
---. Religious Training of Children in the School, the Family, and the Church. New York, 1864.
---. A Treatise on Domestic Economy. 1841. New York: Schocken Books, 1977.
---. Woman Suffrage and Woman’s Profession. Hartford, 1871.
Boydston, Jeanne, Mary Kelley, and Anne Margolois. The Limits of Sisterhood: The Beecher Sisters on Women’s Rights and Women’s Sphere. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1988.
Sklar, Kathryn Kish. Catharine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1973.