Primary sources add much to research. They add a vivid sense of reality to research that would be otherwise lacking in contemporary research. When reading the article The Female World of Love and Ritual one can see Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s emphasis on primary sources to forward her thesis that women actively pursue relationships with other women simply because of the societal norms of the time.
In the article The Cult of True Womanhood, Barbara Welter uses primary source evidence to show that women are meant to conform to a preset societal norm and any deviation outside the preset piety that women are expected to maintain compromises their femininity and virtue. In the source that we are analyzing here, we see the journal of a young woman who is living in New England in the mid-nineteenth century. She is attending school in Salem, Massachusetts. She is seventeen, going on eighteen and an ardent abolitionist.
The intended audience of her journal is her own self, to remind herself of the historical events that were unfolding before her eyes. She may have also been preserving her thoughts for her progeny. We are unsure how it came to be preserved, but we can speculate the journals were passed down through this woman’s family and then transcribed into a book and then online. The journal can tell us much about the daily life of a woman in the pre-Civil War North. It speaks actively of the abolitionist movement as well as the social circles she moved in.
it also speaks of this young woman’s interest in pursuing her education by attending lectures. She also talks of attending church and religious lectures. The journal cannot tell us of any psychosexual relationships this young woman had with any of her female friends. We do know that she mentions several close friends in her journal but does not mention any particularly close male friends or suitors. She seems to have been close to her teacher, Miss Mary Shepard, going to her house and going for walks with her on several occasions. There is no evidence the relationship proceeded beyond that.
It seems as if there is a lot of intentionality in the source. The writer seems very intentional about recording the daily events of her life. She also used her journal as a kind of notebook to record what went on at the lectures. This may have been not only for her own edification, but for her potential progeny as well. The journal speaks highly of the young woman’s involvement with the anti-slavery movement. It also talks about the high esteem that the writer felt for local anti-slavery speakers, visiting preachers and her own teachers and Headmaster.
She also speaks highly of her father, who seems to, at times, be at odds with his daughter’s yearning to learn. He wants her to return home, while she desires to continue remain in Salem and continue her education. There are several times when her father wants her to return home, but the girl’s impassioned pleas and at times the interventions of her aunt save her and allow her to remain in Salem. We can learn much from this source. We know that this young woman travelled in a mixed group, but when she did, it was with all modesty, having as a chaperone a married woman or a married couple.
She also tended to travel in a group of young educated women. She spent a large amount of time with a Mrs. Putnam, Mary Shepard, Sarah Redmond, Elizabeth Church, Maria B. , and others. She seems to have spent a large amount of time with Mary Shepard, her teacher. She seemed saddened when Mary had to leave for a brief time. We also know that the young woman did not seem to have any male romantic relationships. We also know that this young woman was extremely independent and forward-thinking. This young woman fits in very well with the ideal painted by Rosenberg.
She is strong, independent and forms strong bonds with other women. She seems to shun the advances of men and instead focuses on her education and moving within the spheres postulated by Rosenberg (1975). This young woman lived in a sexually segregated world and she moved within it comfortably. Her social calendar was quite full—filled with lectures, readings, sermons, schooling and social visits that occupied her time. She did not seem to mind the absence of a man in her life, which contradicts with Welter’s proposition. Welter would view this young woman as inherently un-feminine (1966).
Welter saw women of this period as weak and submissive, and felt that they should be happy within the domestic roles that society had set out for them. Welter felt that the only education women needed was the domestic education that they would receive at home. Welter saw women as men saw women, not as independent-minded individuals, but as art objects whose only purpose was to raise children and attend church. Welter felt that participation in social societies directed women away from their religion, which she sees as the only social entanglement that a true woman needed.
The woman in our journal was the antithesis of this mold. She was not married, had no children, was actively involved in many social societies, and attended church on a regular basis. She seems to have retained her femininity but gained her independence. This still would have been an anathema to Welter because she felt that women ought to know their place and that their place was totally dependent upon their spouse (1966). Rosenberg felt that women needed to have the psychosexual relationship that can exist between two women.
Women are able to understand each other on a psychic plane of sorts, and by the sharing of confidences and the spending of inordinate amounts of time together; they are able to be better women. By cultivating these relationships, even to the point of displacing the men in their lives, they are acquiring for themselves a new gender role, taking for themselves the best of men and women. In other words, they have the independence of men combined with the sensitivities and sensibilities of a woman.
The woman in the journal that we are analyzing has the intrinsic intelligence of a man along with the nineteenth century naivete of a woman. This is best reflected when she writes about the capture and trial of an escaped slave. She very adroitly identifies the issues involved and makes her own judgments about the outcome of the proceedings. Under Welter’s hypothesis, the very idea that our writer would even be involved in such a society outside of church makes her an unwelcome female specimen. Under Rosenberg’s theory, the fact that our writer had a close circle of intimate female friends was what was simply accepted at the time.
Women spent large amounts of time visiting, shopping, having teas and organizing dinner parties and dances. During the time of our writer a large amount of women began to get involved in the abolitionist movement. Women saw it as a cause d’etre, something to occupy their days and times. It allowed women to become educated about a major cause and do what they could to fight it. It was also at this time that education became more important. Under Welter (1966), education for women was not important. They needed only enough writing to make out invitations and write correspondences to friends.
Under Rosenberg (1975), women should have expected to be educated; it was not a privilege but a right they were entitled to. Being that there was no mixed education, being in a sexually segregated school allowed women to form the necessary close psychosexual relationships that allowed women to function within a society that rejected what they had to offer. Men tended to shun the women in their lives and move within their own circles, so women shunned back (Rosenberg, 1975), shutting men out and allowing women in.
Women would share a house and even a bed, though there was no evidence of any sexual relationships occurring (Ibid). Women would even share their journals with each other, as well as their confidences, hopes and dreams (Ibid). This was a world in which men were unwelcomed and unneeded. Women supporting women in a male dominated world was the only thing that women had. Men did not include women, so women saw for themselves a chance to form more delicate relationships with the fairer sex. Both Rosenberg and Welter use primary source material to make valid arguments about the nature of “true womanhood”.
One sees women as strong and self-reliant, forming loving same-sex relationships as a way to compensate for men not welcoming them into their world. The other sees women as totally dependent on men for their self-image and self-worth. In Welter’s world, women are confined to domestic chores and church. In Rosenberg’s world, women have more expansive experiences, moving in social circles, experiencing new ideas and developing new relationships. While both see women as confined within rigid societal structures, one sees women as freed by the structure, while the other sees women as confined within the strict rules of society.
Both have differing views of femininity, but both see women as individuals with a unique, though differing role within the society. There is much that we can learn from all three of our female writers. From our journal writer, we get a micro chiasm of daily life during the mid nineteenth century. From Rosenberg we get a glimpse of women as psychosexual beings with a need to form strong affiliate bonds with other women in order to counteract the rigid gender roles that were expected from them. From Welter we see a completely different picture of women.
From her we see women as submissive, constricted into a very rigid gender identification role. As researchers, we must continue to use and evaluate primary sources carefully, so that we might continue validating our theories and moving forward into new arenas of research. Bibliography Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women Signs Vol 1, no. Issue 1 (Autumn 1975): 1-29. Welter, Barbara. “The Cult of Real Womanhood: 1820-1860. ” American Quarterly Volume 18, no. 2 (1966): 151-174.
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