The Limits of Sisterhood: The Beecher Sisters on Women's Rights and Woman's Sphere

By Jeanne Boydston; Mary Kelley et al. | Go to book overview

I.
Introduction

THIS is a book about three nineteenth-century American women--three females in a society dominated by males, three sisters and daughters in one of the nation's most illustrious (and controversial) families, and three children of an old religious elite that was struggling to extend its dominance into a new epoch. Together, the lives of Catharine Esther Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Isabella Beecher Hooker spanned the entire nineteenth century, chronicling the astonishing range of activities that engaged the energies and loyalties of white, middle-class women and demonstrating how those interests changed over time. Separately, they suggest the private experiences, the relationships, and the individual successes and conflicts that helped shape a century of women's history.

These would be reasons enough for a book--but there is another. During a century when people were almost continuously at odds over the proper place of females, Beecher, Stowe, and Hooker shared a commitment to women's power. Each in her own way--Catharine as an educator and writer of advice literature, Harriet as an author of novels, tales, and sketches, Isabella as a women's rights activist--devoted much of her adult life to elevating women's status and expanding women's influence in American society. Moreover, each ultimately achieved a position from which to make her views heard, and each contributed to the ideas of womanhood that have been carried into the twentieth century. These three women were certainly not the only Victorians to influence America's ideas of gender. And yet the white middle class of which they were a part exerted a significant influence over larger cultural norms, and white middle-class women in the Northeast played particularly visible roles in the nineteenth-century debate over woman's sphere. Catharine Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Isabella Beecher Hooker were among the most prominent of these. How they understood their experiences, how they generalized from them to the experiences of American women as a group, and how they formulated their goals registered in the lives of women across the country. Thus, this is a book about three visions

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