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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
The Triumph of Nationalism/The House Dividing
Topic: Culture of Common ManTopic: Cult of DomesticityTopic: ReligionTopic: ExpansionTopic: America in 1850
Topic: Cult of Domesticity
Overview of Triumph of Nationalism
Resource Menu: Domesticity
Text 1. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps
Text 2. Caroline Gilman
Text 3. Catharine E. Beecher
Text 4. Harriet Jacobs
Text 5. Fanny Fern
Text 6. Godey's Lady's Book
Text 7. Rev. Theodore Parker
Text 8. Elizabeth Cady Stanton


Topic Framing Questions
  •  How did women of this period define themselves? What stories did they choose to tell?
  •  In what ways did these women exercise—and define—power and influence?
  •  How did the “cult of domesticity” shape the debate over woman’s place in antebellum American society?
  •  In what ways did this debate reflect the prevailing tensions of race, class, region, and religion in American society?

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
  1.  Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, "The Angel over the Right Shoulder," 1852
Introducing this short story about a northern urban woman is the following exchange:
  --Husband: "Don't you wish you had never been married?"
  --Wife, after suppressing a "yes" response: "I should like the good, without the evil, if I could have it."

From this evolves an experiment in which the wife strives to create a life more fulfilling than merely keeping her "house and family in order." After her experiment fails, she has a dream in which the worth of her role as a wife and mother is revealed to her. Phelps, a well-known author of the time who addressed social issues, leads her story to a conclusion that is quintessentially nineteenth-century . . . or is it? Worthwhile to compare with Gilman's "The Planter's Bride." Appropriate for classroom use. 6 pages.

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
  2.  Caroline Gilman, Recollections of a Southern Matron, 1838, Ch. 35, "The Planter's Bride"
Bostonian Caroline Gilman moved to South Carolina in 1819 with her minister husband, and twenty years later she wrote two books to contrast the domestic lives of northern and southern women (the first entitled Recollections of a Housekeeper). In this chapter, Cornelia Wilton is the new and as-yet childless wife of her beloved Arthur, filling her days with longing and distractions after her husband returns to his duties as plantation owner. Worthwhile to compare this chapter with "The Angel over the Right Shoulder." Could be used in the classroom. 5 pages.

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
  3.  Catharine E. Beecher, A Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School, 1841, Ch. 1, "Peculiar Responsibilities of American Women"
Here in one text are intermingled the themes of gender, religion, and emerging American identity, as Catharine Beecher (sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe and a crusader for women's education) offers a brief political treatise to introduce her book on homemaking, childrearing, and healthful living. Quoting abundantly from Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America (1835/1840), she argues that woman's subordinate place in American society is the ultimate fulfillment of democratic and Christian principles, that women are happy in their place (and that Europe has it all wrong). Excerpts useful in the classroom. 10 pages.

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
  4.  Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 1861, Ch. 5-7, 10-11, 14-17
Born a slave in 1813 in North Carolina, Harriet Jacobs fled from her owner at age 22 to go into hiding at her grandmother's house in Edenton. After seven years she escaped to the North, where she remained active in freedmen's organizations until her death in 1897. In these chapters, we follow Jacobs's adolescent years as the tormented slave of Dr. Flint, a man obsessed with dominating her. By bearing children with her white unmarried lover, instead of succumbing to Dr. Flint's pursuits, Jacobs achieves a feeling "akin to freedom," but one that is soured by the shame she feels in violating her moral principles. How Jacobs deals with her choices in these chapters, and how she pleads for the reader to understand her predicament, reveals the double bind in which female slaves were trapped. Does a triumph of the spirit require the sacrifice of her integrity? Already widely read by students, this slave narrative can be presented anew in the classroom as a document of gender and power in the antebellum South. 34 1/2 pages.

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
  5.  Fanny Fern (Sara Payton Willis Parton), Fern Leaves from Fanny's Portfolio, 1853
Vignettes written for the Boston True Flag, the New York Musical World and Times, and other periodicals, these pieces lure the reader with their witty style into the waiting fangs of Sara Parton, who bemoans the condition of American womanhood at midcentury. The predicaments of woman in all her roles—wife, bride, mother, mother-in-law, spinster, widow,—are illuminated in these short pieces that range from mournful tragedy to bristly satire. "I've a perfect horror of satirical women," announces one of her male characters. "There's no such thing as repose in their presence." Prepare to enter the presence of Fanny Fern. Especially useful to contrast with the fiction in Godey's Lady's Book. Would definitely appeal to students. Titles range from 1/2 - 2 pages.

Read 3-5 of these recommended "Leaves" (118 total in Portfolio):

"Look on This Picture . . . ," p. 16
"Comfort to the Widow," p. 47
"How Husbands May Rule," p. 116
"Woman," p. 133
"The Passionate Father," p. 135
"The Ball-room and the Nursery," p. 141
"A Chapter on Literary Women," p. 175
"Children's Rights," p. 188
   "Sorrow's Teachings," p. 192
"A Word to Mothers," p. 234
"The Model Step-Mother," p. 301
"Advice to Ladies," p. 317
"A Little Bunker Hill," p. 346
"Important for Married Men," p. 352
"Aunt Hetty on Matrimony," p. 377

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
  6.  Godey's Lady's Book, 1850 (six issues)
"There is a beautiful parallelism between the condition of woman in her domestic life and the character of a nation," writes the editor of Godey's Lady's Book in 1850—Sara Josepha Hale, who prepared the monthly with a primarily female staff (Louis Godey was the publisher). With this "parallelism" in mind, consider adding GLB to your readings, especially to contrast with the singular voices of the women authors included in this menu.

Published from 1830 to 1898, Godey's was the Good Housekeeping of its day, providing fiction, essays, fashion spreads, crafts projects, house plans, mail-order opportunities, and, yes, gossip about the British royals. Perusing these six issues from 1850 will reset your mental gauge as you consider the lives of middle-class American women of the time. Would appeal to students. 1-5 pages, depending on the selection.

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
  7.  Rev. Theodore Parker, "Of the Public Function of Woman," sermon delivered in Boston, 1853 (concluding section)
Here is a unique voice in this resource menu—that of a man. One who understands that isolating women in their domestic role squanders a natural resource that society should nourish. And one who can argue this point to men. Theodore Parker, a liberal Unitarian minister in Boston, was well-known as a social reformer, abolitionist, and scholar; additionally, he was an early member of the Transcendental Club. Social justice was his cause, yet he knew to base his arguments for "the public function of women" on grounds that would resonate with a wide audience—efficiency, honest government, natural law, the progress of Christendom. It takes a while for Parker to warm up in this sermon, but by page six he is forging ahead with his challenge to make woman's "human nature human history." In excerpts, would be useful in the classroom. 8 pages.

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
  8.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Address known as "Seneca Falls Address," 1848
This text represents a culmination of all the readings in this section. Neither the keynote address at the Seneca Falls Conference, nor the well-known "Declaration of Sentiments" issued by its delegates, this speech was delivered by Elizabeth Cady Stanton at several occasions after the famed conference. It stands as an extended argument for women's rights as (1) the logical application of history's lessons and of Christian faith, and (2) as a path to greatness for the American nation. (Of interest, she does not argue from the standpoint of justice.) She is insistent, strident, and uncompromising. "The right is ours," she declares: "have it we must—use it we will." Can be paired with Catharine Beecher's "Peculiar Responsibilities of American Women" as a point-counterpoint debate. Excerpted, it would provide provocative discussion prompts in the classroom. 15 pages.

Toolbox: The Triumph of Nationalism / The House Dividing
Common Man | Cult of Domesticity | Religion | Expansion | America in 1850

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