Between the end of the American Revolution and the outbreak of the Civil War, American women could be found working to break down the barriers to their sex’s full and equal participation in society. With the coming of the Jacksonian era of the 1820s and 1830s, increased efforts were made to apply the democratic ethic to many segments and groups in American society. Female and male leaders encouraged reforms in education, working conditions, health care, prisons, temperance, and slavery. Numerous women participated in these reform movements, and many recognized the need to apply the reform principles to women’s conditions. In Connecticut Catharine E. Beecher spoke out for certain reforms in women’s conditions. Her writings, speeches, and actions detail the contributions she made to improve women’s status and power.
The Reverend Lyman Beecher and his family were a nationally influential family and Beecher himself was a dominant and dynamic family leader. His seven sons each of whom entered the ministry, and his four daughters all achieved some degree of national recognition for social, political, or cultural thought. Catharine Beecher, the most prominent Beecher woman prior to the 1850s, developed principles and practices seeking to equalize the education of women for teaching and domestic “science.” She wrote and spoke extensively on her new ideology of domesticity, hoping that women could attain equality through work in spheres separate from men.
One of Catharine Beecher’s major aims was the education of women and her numerous books advanced ways to increase their status and power in society (see the bibliography at the end of this period unit.) She encouraged the establishment of women’s colleges, seminaries, and Institutes. She hoped that women educated at these schools of higher learning would become professional educators, community service leaders and managers of well organized and “scientific” homes. Beecher’s goal was that women would be educated to attain positions of status comparable to men in other sectors of society. A long term benefit of such clearly defined spheres of work and duty would be to further women’s individual autonomy and equality.
In her writings and speeches Beecher criticized the rival school of women’s thought which called for woman suffrage.* She believed that the involvement of women in the political life of the state or the nation would be a “grievous wrong” for spiritual, physical and psychological reasons. Women were meant to improve and save society; not to become embroiled in the destructive forces infecting the political arena of men.
Isabella Beecher Hooker often explained that the vote for women was the only method for safeguarding the social structure. Anne Farnam has described Hooker’s political philosophy:
If women were allowed the power to vote, they could exercise their moral strength and good influence, so evident in their rule of the family (remember or see Catharine Beecher’s views on women’s moral superiority, and note that Catharine was a mentorlike figure in Isabella’s education.) This rule could be developed by women in a much broader sense, and would thus mitigate the evil forces of men, which include war, aggression, dishonesty, sex and drink. Not only did woman have a moral responsibility, and a natural right to use the vote, but she also had a personal right to protect herself and her individuality against man. “Personal liberty and personal responsibility” were words Mrs. Hooker used often in her legalistic end constitutional arguments for woman’s suffrage.
Isabelle Hooker and other Connecticut and national suffragists did not succeed in winning the right to vote during the Progressive Era. However, their spirit and love of battle for their cause rarely dimmed. Their actions and principles established characteristics and ideologies that would be fundamental to the attainment of women suffrage in 1920.
Before reading the selected passages from Isabella Beecher Hooker and others, you should consider the following lesson plans and historical questions to use with your students.
LESSON PLANS: For two or three days.
1. Present a brief biographical lecture on Isabella Beecher Hooker as a leader in the early woman suffrage movement in Connecticut, or have your students read photocopies of this material.
2. Discuss with your students their views on Isabella Hooker’s claim that every woman and man should have their natural right to “personal liberty and personal responsibility.” Discuss how personal liberty and personal responsibility are opposite halves of an individual’s political rights. (Also realize that Isabella Hooker by the turn of the century expressed feelings that woman suffrage should be possessed by only responsible women, immigrant and “bad” women should be excluded.)
3. Have your students research and draw timelines for the expansion of woman suffrage, beginning with Wyoming in 1870 and culminating with the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. (Use Encyclopedias).
Beecher was innovative in designing an ideology that focused on the home and the family. This ideology, described below, proposed the unification of American women in service to their society and nation. As a result, superior moral and social power would accrue to women through their leadership in the private sector of society. Thus, Catharine Beecher believed that women could overcome their present marginal status in antebellum society.
Much of Catharine Beecher’s code of domesticity remains with us today. The code’s underlying principle of female self-sacrifice continues today to contribute to the belief that the theory of domesticity is valid. Kathryn Kish Sklar in her biography
in American Domesticity
wrote about the principle of self-sacrifice:.
Women have always been praised for their readiness to put the needs of others before their own, but not until Catharine Beecher’s lifetime were they led to accept self-sacrifice as a positive good and as the female equivalent to self-fulfillment. As American culture developed new forms of self-realization in the nineteenth-century (exemplified in the image of the frontiersman and the writings of Emerson) it attached a male label to these experiences and called women selfish and unnatural if they wanted the same set of personal goals. For them another set applied: devotion and service to others, selflessness, sacrifice. Catharine Beecher was especially attracted to this formula since it described her own experience and since it focused the spotlight of cultural virtue on women. Self-sacrifice, more than any other concept, informed both the triumphs and tensions of nineteenth century womanhood, and Catharine Beecher was its major theoretician.
Thus, during America’s Reform Era, a Connecticut woman advanced a theory establishing the “genteel cult of the lady and the encumbering customs of domesticity.”
Before reading the selected passages from Catharine Beecher, consider the following lesson plans and historical questions.
Important historical concepts, skills and eras in the Connecticut women’s rights movement, 1830-1980.
: a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to the law.
: the state or quality of being free, the power to do as one pleases and be free from physical restraint, the positive enjoyment of various social, political, or economic rights and privileges.
: the state of being alike in status, quality, or nature.
: the theory of the political economic and social equality of the sexes, and organized in an activity on behalf of women,s rights.
: the state or quality of being self-governing, self-directing freedom and especially moral independence.
the releasing of a person from paternal care and responsibility, and making one free.
: the nonpolitical rights of a citizen, especially the rights of personal liberty guaranteed to U.S. citizens by the 13th & 14th Amendments to the Constitution and by Acts of Congress.
: the vote or franchise used by a citizen in deciding a question or choosing a person for an elective office.
: the separating of a whole picture into its component parts through short essay, outline, timeline and debate formats.
Historical Cause and Effect
: explaining the sequential relationship between two historical facts or situations with answers to the questions when, how and why.
Historical Comparison and Contrast
: an examination of two or more items to establish their similarities and their differences.
: historical information that is obtained through interviews with persons who have participated in the event under study or with the subject being analyzed. Interviews are usually tape recorded.
: the method of integrating one limited aspect of history into a larger historical survey.
THE FOUR HISTORICAL ERAS:
Connecticut Women in the Reform Era, 1830 1860s.
Connecticut Women in the Progressive Era, 1870s 1910.
Connecticut Women in the Era of the World Wars, 1910s 1950.
Connecticut Women in the Modern Era, 1950s to the present.