Little Women? the Female Mind at Work in Antebellum America

Article excerpt

Most students pursuing an advanced degree of history before the 1970s would have thought women's intellectual life an unpromising subject. The classic works of American intellectual history seldom included women and rarely took their endeavours seriously. Intellectual historians did not recognise that they were defining `intellectual' and `intellectual life' in ways that excluded women. A sampling of the indices of surveys of American intellectual history reveal that none give women any sizable place. Ralph Henry Gabriel mentions four women in The Course of American Democratic Thought (1940, 2nd ed. 1956), Perry Miller one in the Life of the Mind in America (1965), Robert Skotheim none in American Intellectual Histories and Historians 1966), and Rush Welter three in The Mind of America, 1820-1860 (1975).

The books published during the upsurge of women's history that began with Eleanor Flexner's Century of Struggle in 1959 offer little information about women's intellectual life. Historians of women from the sixties through to the late eighties mainly investigated political or social history. For political historians the struggle for the suffrage and other political rights and privileges was the central story of women's history. For social historians intellectual history seemed an elitist pursuit that ignored the many. For example, one of the. path-breaking new social history books of those years, Nancy Cott's The Bonds of Womanhood (1977), described women's religious life and education as aspects of social life.

Not only did most women's historians ignore their subjects' intellectual lives, a few historians writing about women's cultural and intellectual history emphasised the limitations that women confronted when pursuing intellectual self-improvement and expression. The title of Susan P. Conrad's history of women intellectuals, Perish the Thought 1976), suggested this approach which Barbara Welter developed in `Anti intellectualism and American Women'. She asserted that nineteenth-century American women could not be truly womanly if they were truly intellectual. For her Margaret Fuller's life told a story for all women intellectuals of opportunity denied.

Recently the historical profession has renewed its interest in intellectual and cultural history. On one front, women's historians are stepping beyond the focus on limitations that so occupied Conrad and Welter. Mary Kelley pioneered with Private Woman, Public Stage (1984) by showing how nineteenth-century authors contended with and used gender conventions to shape their lives and careers. Recent achievements include Charles Capper's biography of Margaret Fuller, the antebellum author and critic, and Joan D. Hedrick's Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life (1994). These thoroughly researched biographies raise to serious scholarly consideration the domestic and quasi-public institutions that educated women, and through which women educated others. On another front, intellectual historians are borrowing from literary scholars and exploring new fields such as the history of books and reading. They are now conceiving of intellectual life in broad, embracing ways. David D. Hall's Worlds of Wonder: Days of Judgment (1989), Janet Cornelius' When I Can Read My Title Clear (1991), and my own Victorian Homefront: American Thought and Culture, 1860-1880 (1991) show how everyone has an intellectual life and participates in an everyday world of ideas.

For this article I have been working with a variety of sources from the years 1830-55 including advice books, diaries and letters, school records, commonplace books and albums. The commonplace book, student newspaper, and literary society records under consideration are typical of the written residue that survives as a source for investigation of antebellum middle-class women's intellectual lives. Their authors never will have biographers who record their literary talents or life achievements. Yet together these sources will prove their authors knowledgeable, in their own sense, and reveal how these women saw themselves as reforming womanhood. …


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