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

II.
Conversations among Ourselves

LIKE other educated nineteenth-century families, the Beechers relied on correspondence both to maintain close affectional ties and to keep each other current on their views and daily lives. The letters among Catharine, Mary, Harriet, and Isabella are especially rich in detail. Full of information on family comings and goings, and on the successes and frustrations by which each woman measured her life, the letters are particularly valuable as chronicles of the shifting relationships of four sisters. They show women with great and constant caring for one another--now teasing, now gently scolding, now rushing in with aid and solace. Yet the letters make clear that sisterhood did not always come easily to the Beecher women: Harriet found Catharine overbearing, Mary wished Isabella would lead a more retired life, Isabella envied Harriet's fame, Catharine thought Isabella ungrateful. The common ground was difficult to find. Catharine may have captured the promise--and the limits--of sisterhood when she wrote to Isabella in 1869: "I believe all of you are as good and sisterly as ever I could be." In many ways an affirmation of faith, her comment was at the same time an acknowledgment of boundaries. If "as sisterly as ever I could be" was as much as the Beechers, who were united by so much, could hope for from each other, how much more complicated for nineteenth-century American women generally, separated by the chasms of class and race, to find that shared experience.

Scattered from Connecticut to Ohio, in the 1830s the Beechers often kept in touch through "circular" letters--each member writing a paragraph or two and then sending the entire letter on to the next stop until the news had gone full circle. The following excerpts were written from Cincinnati. The first, dated soon af

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