Domesticity with a Difference: The Nonfiction of Catharine Beecher, Sarah J. Hale, Fanny Fern, and Margaret Fuller

By Nicole Tonkovich | Go to book overview

Chapter Five
THE DOMESTIC MANNERS OF AMERICAN LADIES

In 1841, as Catharine Beecher was completing her Treatise on Domestic Economy, her cousin Elizabeth Foote wrote from Ohio: " Catharine Beecher is with us but is expecting every day to go to Chilecothe -- She is writing a book upon house keeping and domestic matters generally -- if it were not for these maiden ladies instructing the married ones how to keep house and take care of children I dont know what would become of us" ( 28/29 Jan.; Foote Collection, Stowe-Day). In this letter Foote notes a central paradox that characterizes all four of these writers. Beecher was an unmarried, childless, and virtually homeless forty-one-year old woman writing a book on domestic practice. Foote's ironic separation of "maiden ladies" from "married ones" based on experiential authority suggests a beginning distinction that, if followed, demonstrates how the Treatise -- as well as other similar conduct books -- rests on unarticulated ideas about gender, class, location, and nationalism.

Foote assumes that heterosexual marriage produces important differences among ladies, and that her domestic experience as a married woman is significantly different from that of her cousin, whose domestic expertise was only as an older sister, aunt, and perpetual houseguest. These assumptions, in turn, depend on deeper markers of class identity. Married women, unlike their single counterparts who often worked to support themselves, derived their economic support from their husbands; their exemption from labor was a component of their own and their husbands' elevated class status. "Maiden ladies," like Catharine Beecher, although they might enjoy a certain respect for their dutiful acts of schoolkeeping and writing, were, nevertheless, objects of pity because they labored. Beecher Treatise engaged these

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