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

4.
Isabella Beecher Hooker: "A Tread Mill of Self Analysis"

DESPITE the recent intensification of interest, both popular and scholarly, in the female members of the Beecher family, Isabella Beecher Hooker--the only sister to campaign actively for woman suffrage--remains relatively unknown.1 During her lifetime ( 1822-1907), Hooker's contemporaries regarded her as a highly effective organizer on both the state and national suffrage fronts, an eloquent public speaker on behalf of the constitutional rights of women, and a pivotal figure in the controversies that distinguished the post-Civil War women's rights movement. Isabella's comparative lack of recognition can be attributed to several factors, the most important of which are the relatively late date ( 1974) at which much of her suffrage-related correspondence became available to researchers and the damage done to her reputation (both contemporaneous and posthumous) by her largely misunderstood role in the adultery scandal surrounding her brother, Henry Ward Beecher. In light of the latter, the documents themselves were often misread when they were not simply ignored, reinforcing the tendency among women's historians and Beecher family historians to treat Isabella as a lesser figure at best and--at worst--as an anomaly. Yet the time is ripe for a reappraisal of Hooker's career precisely on the grounds that her life and writings can provide us with a new way of approaching the complex interconnections between domestic ideology, especially the celebration of motherhood, and the more overtly political aspects of postbellum feminism.

Isabella's adult life was characterized by ongoing and only partially successful efforts to resolve a series of conflicts. First, she attempted to live up to and embody an ideal of domesticity inherited from her sisters that was often at odds with her daily experience as a wife and mother. She was also torn between the competing and sometimes contradictory demands of her various roles as a wife, mother, and sister. Finally, her commitment to her domestic obligations frequently clashed with her de

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