Reflections on Quakers and Antebellum Reform

This weeks readings focused largely on the religious world of the women who engaged in abolition, temperance, and women’s rights movements during the early part of the nineteenth century.

One point that I am interested in talking about is the overlapping visions of the millennium and of creating a utopian society. The goal of bringing about some perfect end, some culmination of history, is touched upon by all of the authors and in both political and religious terms. Whether that end is the spread of liberty and spread of American Republicanism or the bringing about of a peaceful society where “the lion lays down with the lamb” or the end of sickness through proper diet, there are various ways the desired utopia is imagined and various ways groups attempted to bring that utopia into being. I am interested in the larger context of this utopian impulse – this does not appear to be unique or particularly American but it also feels as though the impulse is particularly strong during this period.

One concern stemming from the work of Abzug is the use of “Manichean” to describe dualistic tendencies in the reformers thought. While it seems fair to say that they saw themselves and the world as part of a cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil, I am concerned that using “Manichean” too widely lessens the strength of critiquing the evangelical reformers particularly on that basis. (also, how many readers know why Manichean patterns are a problem?)

In thinking about trends in the scholarship, I found it interesting that, while Abzug present a helpful broad analysis of the metanarratives / social imaginaries / cosmos behind antebellum reform movements, the writers of the other text are much more narrowly focused on the particular experiences of particular women, rather than on broad patterns of thought. Last semester Mike mentioned that one way of writing history was writing “empathetic” history (and I of course forget the other way). The works by women about women fall pretty squarely into that category, presenting these women as empathetic characters to be understood. While this is very useful, it would be interesting to discuss ways of connecting empathetic accounts to trends in thought and ritual, and the broader implications of those trends.

I do want to do some more reading on the Gimké sisters after the readings for this week, largely for my own benefit as they are incredibly articulate and insightful in their discussions of the role of women in society.

I do appreciate that all the writers, to varying degrees, problematized the framework of domesticity and separate spheres as a way of discussing the role of women in the 19th century. Hardesty relied on these the most, but she also drew attention to the various ways women used these social ideals to claim additional influence, particularly on issues of morality and religion. I am very skeptical about “separate spheres” as a useful mode of analysis (as are many others) so was good to see the analysis in these texts either problematize or ignore this framework.