This paper was nominated by my professor, Dr. Richard Shiels, to be presented at the annual OSU Academy of History Conference. (I declined.)
19th Century Women: Abolition, Women’s Rights, and Reform
Ginzburg, Lori D. Women and the Work of Benevolence. New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1990.
Lerner, Gerda. The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Pioneers for Women’s Rights and Abolition. New York: Schoken Books, 1967.
As a woman at the dawn of the 21st century, it is hard to imagine what it would be like to be placed within the strict confines of a "woman’s sphere"—devoid of the basic rights of citizenship, subjected to an inferior education (if any at all), having concerns of health and welfare often disregarded—while always in a state of dependency on a male. It is even more difficult to fathom that many women in the 19th century could overcome their state of "natural inferiority" to bring about changes in the hearts and minds of their neighbors, their cities, and eventually their U.S. government.
Both books, Women and the Work of Benevolence and The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina, shed light on the topic of women’s activity in 19th century America—their accomplishments and their failures; the obstacles placed before them and how they would eventually overcome.
Women and the Work of Benevolence spans much of the 19th century, beginning with benevolent work in its earliest stages; and following its path through the antebellum period, the Civil War, and the postbellum era. Ginzburg addresses the progression of female benevolent work, and how it responded to a new form of "electoral" politics, the growing economic rifts between social classes, and the opposition that some more radical benevolent societies faced at every turn. A shift occurred, according to Ginzburg, in the nature of benevolent work as time went on. Involvement in antebellum benevolence was based not on economic class, but on a "virtuous" class—that is to say all women possess a set of morals superior to men, therefore they align along the terms of gender and not economic class. Eventually this would change to a more class-conscious movement that emerged in the postbellum era, aimed at controlling the lower rungs of society.
Throughout the book, Ginzburg constantly refers to the widely held idea of a "feminine morality"—the belief that elevated women to a higher moral standard than men, thus making them perfect candidates for the work of benevolence (i.e. charity, community service, and fixing "society’s ills"). Ginzburg questions this idea of feminine morality, pointing out many contradictions between this ideology and the actual practice of benevolent work. The idea of a "woman’s sphere" meant that there were certain realms that a woman should not venture into, namely politics and business concerns. Ginzburg argues that benevolent women used political connections and fundraising techniques that directly violated the "woman’s sphere". For them to cling to a "feminine morality" was to limit their scope of influence while undertaking reform.
Ultimately, there would be an shift in the benevolent women’s approach. No longer would they hide behind their supposedly superior morality. In later benevolent work, the women challenged "propriety", with a cry for equality of men and women as they undertook the reforming of society.
A slight change of pace can be seen in The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina. This book is a biography of two sisters from South Carolina, Angelina and Sarah Grimké—unique in the fact that they were daughters of a prominent slave owner, yet still developed a lifelong objection to slavery and a strong conviction for women’s rights. They were pioneers in both the abolition and women’s rights movements. Also, they maintained a strong conviction for the end of racial prejudice directed at the free blacks of the north, making it a cause they incorporated into their anti-slavery rhetoric.
This narrative of the close-knit lives of the two sisters carries the reader along their childhood in the south, their eventual move to the north to pursue their interest in the Quaker religion, and their eventual involvement in the anti-slavery movement. It was be their strong convictions against slavery that propelled them into the abolitionist movement, and the uniqueness of their Southern background and first-hand knowledge of the hated institution that would cause them to become so well known.
Their public involvement as abolitionists would be a series of lecture tours advocating immediate emancipation, with Angelina’s unprecedented address of the Massachusetts legislature in 1838 being the peak of their antislavery involvement.. Angelina would eventually marry Theodore Dwight Weld, a prominent abolitionist, and her involvement in the cause would eventually decrease. Weld, Angelina, and Sarah would eventually settle down to become teachers, but they maintained ties to the abolition and women’s movements throughout the rest of their lives.
While both books contain many of the same overlapping topics, making mention of many of the same movements and individuals, the general approach and purpose of the books were much different. Ginzburg’s Women and the Work of Benevolence offers a look at many different varieties of benevolent work, with abolition being one of the main topics discussed. It goes beyond just a basic description of women’s benevolent work. Ginzburg looks to delve into the ideology behind these movements, making the rhetoric of a "feminine benevolence" a main topic of her book. Her discussion of specific reform movements, societies, and individuals are often used to give credit to her thesis. In the mean time, the reader is bombarded with a plethora of names, dates, and facts that give background information on benevolent societies, useful for the reader who is willing to wade through Ginzburg’s sometimes confusing rhetoric.
As previously mentioned, the two books do cover a variety of the same topics regardless of their approach: both cover the antislavery movement in great detail. The approaches taken towards this subject matter, however, differ greatly. Gerda Lerner aims to look at the antislavery movement through the life of a specific abolitionist (or two abolitionists, Sarah and Angelina). With great skill she traces stages of the two women’s lives, and how they eventually came to know the cause of abolition. She focuses on their contribution to the cause, making it a more narrow picture of abolition.
Ginzburg’s presentation of the subject is much different than Lerner’s specific focus on the Grimkés. Instead of narrowing the focus to an individual or group, she puts the antislavery movement in the larger context of women’s movements. She lumps the female abolitionist cause into a larger category of "ultraist" or radical societies—ones that emerged primarily in the 1830’s aiming at reforming society and doing away with time honored male institutions such as slavery and alcoholic consumption. She felt these societies were more likely to face public criticism than more conservative causes, as well as a lack of political and economic influence which had to be made up for with a large following of supporters.
What is central in the discussion of abolition in Ginzburg’s book may be mentioned only in passing in Lerner’s. For example, the ideology behind breakup of the abolitionist movement into two factions is discussed in great length in Women and the Work of Benevolence. This is a view of abolition that only briefly mentioned in Lerner’s book—her book is not one that goes into the abstract on many occasions. In Lerner’s book, the reader draws may conclude that the breakup was solely a matter of "the women question", and the split had an effect it had on public involvement on the Grimkés. This illustrates the broad vs. narrow view displayed by the two books.
The kinds of sources used by both of the authors were similar. Primary sources in the form of letters, diaries, printed speeches, pamphlets, laws, legal proceedings, etc. are used. Both authors consult secondary sources, mainly scholarly books and journal articles. Grimké Sisters of South Carolina, however, relies more heavily on primary documents. Much of Lerner’s insight to the personalities of the two Grimké women, as well as otherwise unknown details of their lives, come from their diaries, which she consults endlessly. Ginzburg has more of a tendency to interject the views of other historians, those of which she cites through out her book.
Both Lerner and Ginzburg’s book were reviewed several times in various journals. As for Women and the Work of Benevolence, opinions of reviewers same to be similar. Sarah Stage, a professor of history at the University of California, reviewed this book in Reviews in American History. While she makes a few criticisms of Ginzburg’s conclusions, she praises it as an "ambitious book" that was a "required reading" for anyone studying women’s history. A similar analysis of the book can be found in The American Historical Review, by Peggy Pascoe of the University of Utah. She feel that its "strengths…far outweigh its weaknesses, but weaknesses there are."
The major qualm that both reviewers held was that Ginzburg’s thesis ignored a shift back to a gender-conscious morality that occurred after the initial postbellum class-consciousness of benevolent work. Also, Stage calls Ginzburg’s thesis "too broad and sweeping", feeling that she made a few too many generalizations, undertaking a topic that she isn’t able to completely "unravel".
The Grimké Sisters of South Carolina was considered to be "a useful introduction to a noteworthy duo [Grimké sisters] and an estimable addition to the literature of the nineteenth century" when reviewed by Benjamin Quarles in the Journal of Negro History. Another reviewer, Jane H. Pease, stated in The Journal of Southern History that it was a "well-written biography of these daughters of a South Carolina judge and rice planter, though it throws little new light directly on abolitionism and feminism, is a major contribution to … literature which probes the personalities and motivations of reformers".
The criticisms by these reviewers are well taken. Women and the Work of Benevolence was a well written book—giving sufficient evidence for each point that she makes. It is not, however, a book that the average reader can breeze through. Ginzburg’s work is complex, and since it is chronologically organized, a reader must understand her main points from the get-go to follow the theme of the book. Ginzburg should be praised for offering the reader a useful introduction—this informs the average reader of the importance of "feminine morality" to her thesis, and goes on to provide a useful outline of the chapters contained within her book.
Women and the Work of Benevolence will definitely stimulate the reader to think, although its thesis is not one that the average reader will be able to truly agree or disagree with unless further reading on benevolent work is done. To just take Ginzburg’s word for her ideas that "the conflation of femininity and morality created a false conscious among women" is certainly not one that can be formulated without a broad knowledge of the rhetoric and ideology of the 19th century—a feat that Ginzburg has accomplished in her study and should be given much credit for.
The Grimké Sisters of South Carolina proved to be more clear in its approach, requiring little re-reading twice, thrice, or even more times to understand as was sometimes the case with Ginzburg’s book. Lerner sets out to write a biography of the lives of two women who would be known as pioneers for the abolitionist and women’s rights causes.
With a keen ability, she aims not only to state "the facts"—important events, places, and people who touched the lives of the two women—but Lerner also attempts to recreate a few of the internal struggles and feelings that might have afflicted the inner person of the Grimké sisters. This is a task that would not be easy considering the Grimkés are no longer living. Her psychoanalysis of these struggles are posed often through out the book, showing that Lerner has confidence in her ability to read into this abundance of feelings that may have been crossing the minds and hearts of the sisters in their daily lives.
Any historical psychoanalysis is subject to criticism, however, because there is no way to get into a dead man’s (or in this case woman’s) mind. Lerner’s analysis of the "inner-Grimké" does not seem outrageous, however. Her assumptions about the character, personality, and mindset of the two women seem to make perfect sense in light of the concrete facts we can know about their actions.
Reading these two books together—an in-depth look at the rhetoric of a broad benevolent cause, and a biography of two women who acted upon these notions—is highly advisable, for their subject matter compliments one another in many respects. (It seems fair to mention that the Grimke sisters were discussed in Ginzburg’s book, as well as Lerner’s). It is a good exercise in reading two very different kinds of historical literature, the narrative and the monograph. In many respects, if the reader missed a point about abolition in one book, he would certainly catch it in the other. Reading Ginzburg’s book provided valuable background on the broad topic, then Lerner’s book illustrated the manifestation of 19th century practices and ideas in the lives of two individuals who were experiencing the shifts in benevolent work that Ginzburg describes in such detail. For a reader looking to understand why women became involved in benevolent work, and then interested in seeing how this played out in the life of an individual, reading first Women and the Work of Benevolence then The Grimké Sisters of South Carolina would be very effective.