Let Her Speak for Herself: Nineteenth-Century Women Writing on the Women of Genesis

By Marion Ann Taylor; Heather E. Weir | Go to book overview

§30 Etty Woosnam
(1849–c.1883)

Etty Woosnam44 was born in India to British parents and as a teenager returned to England to reside in Somerset. Her essays on women in the Bible for young ladies' Bible classes read like powerful sermons. Her elaborate depictions of women's lives reveal much about the lives and values of privileged women in nineteenth-century Britain.

Woosnam, like Stowe, recognized the complexities of Sarah. She praised her qualities that matched the ideals of the cult of domesticity but also acknowledged her weaknesses. She connected Sarah's strengths and weaknesses to the lives of women of her day. Sometimes Woosnam attributed great power and influence to women, though that power was exercised within circumscribed roles and spheres. Other times, she calls women weak and inferior to men. Woosnam's personal ambivalence over the Woman Question reflects the tension found in the writings of many women throughout the nineteenth century.45

Woosnam used a wide variety of resources to support her various arguments, including academic resources, literary sources, and devotional writings. Woosnam, a strong supporter of the cult of domesticity, developed a theology of work for women. She argued that women should see their household duties as a part of the pious life. Woosnam's discussion of women's work is part of a larger debate over how far the boundaries of the domestic sphere should extend. In an address to a class of "lady students" at Oxford in 1897, Elizabeth Wordsworth, Principal of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, argued for very wide boundaries when she encouraged women to enlarge their sphere of sympathy, and "yearn for the ignorant, the untaught, the unevangelized, of every race and of every clime. She must be always lengthening her cords and strengthening her stakes (Isa liv. 2) … She, too, must use those handmaidens—all art, all knowledge, all study, all skill—to bear her company in the service of the King."46

44 For a more complete discussion of Woosnam, see part 1, "Eve—The Mother of Us All."

45 See the discussion of the Woman Question in the introduction.

46 Elizabeth Wordsworth, Psalms for the Christian Festivals (London: Longmans, Green,
1906), 18.

-165-

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