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

7.
Isabella Beecher Hooker: "The Cause Dearer to Me Than Any Other in the World"

ISABELLA BEECHER HOOKER'S ability to transform herself from private woman to public reformer was the result of several factors, the most important of which was her evolving belief in the power--and obligations--of womanhood. Indeed, she would entitle her only book, published in the very midst of the Beecher-Tilton scandal, Womanhood: Its Sanctities and Fidelities. Hooker's postbellum exchange with the political philosopher John Stuart Mill, included as one of the chapters of her book, reveals that she had begun to locate the power of womanhood in the "sense of motherhood." In turn, she announced motherhood to be the very source of woman's innate moral superiority (a view with which Mill politely but firmly disagreed but which Hooker shared with her sisters Catharine and Harriet). Declaring that "ages of subjection demand ages of exaltation," Isabella insisted that to her conception "a mother is the only being in this world who . . . approximates the divine nature." This superior creative ability, when combined with woman's "more intimate fellowship with the child of her womb during the antenatal period, and the power of sympathy that comes through this," provided her sex with "a moral advantage that man can never have, and for which he has no equivalent or compensation."1

Isabella had come to regard woman's spiritual power as compensation for her relative lack of physical strength. Yet she effectively turned the tables on antisuffragists like Catharine when she used this "fact" as part of her justification for women's entry into politics, thereby dismissing Catharine's objection that politics would contaminate women and bring ruin upon both the private and public spheres (a tactic also adopted by Harriet in her 1865 prosuffrage essay, "The Woman Question"). By embracing the bifurcation of male and female qualities while rejecting the ideology of separate spheres with which it was usually associated,

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