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

9.
Harriet Beecher Stowe: "The Woman Controversy"

IN a letter written to Edward Everett Hale, the editor of Old and New, Harriet Beecher Stowe offered an illuminating portrait of herself. Telling Hale in April 1869 that she was beginning a novel dealing with contemporary issues, she informed him that she was "to some extent a woman's rights woman, as I am to some extent something of almost everything that goes."1 Indeed she was. However, the extent to which Stowe supported the postbellum movement's leaders and their demands was determined by her conception of womanhood. During "the woman controversy," as Stowe characterized the debate concerning women's rights that emerged in the wake of the Civil War, she continued to maintain that women had a vital role to play in both the private and the public spheres.2 Having previously restricted that role to one of "influence," she now sought to extend women's political power through suffrage and to enhance their social and economic position through property rights for married women and increased vocational opportunities for all women confronted with the need to support themselves. Stowe welcomed expanded rights and opportunities for women precisely because she expected that they would empower the wife and mother and elevate her status. Indeed, she envisioned the achievement of women's rights as the catalyst for the performance of woman's duties.

Stowe's particular challenge to the patriarchial order did not entail fundamental alterations in the social and economic structure. In its broadest application, her ideology of domesticity, in particular her conception of womanhood, appeared to disregard differences based upon race, class, and individual circumstance. Nonetheless, she had been demonstrably sensitive to the plight of enslaved mothers as evidenced by Uncle Tom's Cabin. Stowe was also acutely conscious of the legal vulnerability of wives and mothers, regardless of their race or class. In her challenge to the nearly complete legal power accorded husbands, Stowe strongly supported legislative reforms that granted married women

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