May 12, 1997
See to it that you "feel right":
An Inquiry into Woman's Sphere, Abolitionism,
and Inactivity in Uncle Tom's Cabin
The debate raging in the years 1836-1837 over women's proper duties and roles in regards to abolitionism was publicly shaped primarily by two opposing forces: on the one hand, sisters Angelina and Sarah Grimke, abolitionists and champions of women's rights; and on the other, Catharine Beecher, who opposed suffrage and women's involvement in abolitionism and argued in favor of woman's place in the home. After the printing of Angelina Grimké's pamphlet Appeal to the Christian Women of the Southern States (1836), Grimké and Catharine Beecher engaged in a written debate over woman's public role in regards to the slavery issue. Beecher responded to Grimké's assertions that Southern women should actively protest the system of slavery in her Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism (1837), in which she claimed that women, true to their naturally subordinate natures, were not fit to interfere in such matters. In light of these facts, it is surprising to note that Harriet Beecher Stowe was Catherine Beecher's sister. How could the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin be related to the same woman who wrote Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism-- an anti-abolitionist document which pleaded with women to keep their thoughts on slavery to themselves? In Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe not only frames both sides of the debate, but also actively incorporates it into her female characters and into her narrative voice, fictitiously dramatizing the issues with which Grimké and Beecher were concerned fifteen years earlier.
Uncle Tom's Cabin, if racist by modern standards, is at least clearly anti-slavery: Stowe's intent in writing the novel, as she states in her Preface, is "to awaken sympathy and feeling for the African race, as they exist among us" (Stowe xviii). In her Concluding Remarks, she goes even further, imploring
you, generous, noble-minded men and women, of the South,--you, whose virtue, and magnanimity, and purity of character are the greater for the severer trial it has encountered,-- to you is her appeal...cannot the ruffian, the brutal, the debased, by slave law, own just as many slaves as the best and the purest? (Stowe 440)
However, despite these statements, Stowe remains ambivalent, even conservative about what women's roles and duties in the cause of abolitionism should be, and this is revealed in the representation of many of her female characters. Where can we say Stowe herself stands on the issue of woman's sphere in regards to slavery? Is there anything which is contradictory between her own narrative voice and the stance she takes in the representation of her female characters? By examining three female characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin such as Mrs. Shelby, Mrs. Bird, and Miss. Ophelia in light of this debate, I intend to show that despite the revolutionary gesture which is inherent in the novel, Stowe sets forth a conservative message of women's responsibilities to the cause of abolitionism.
Angelina Grimké's An Appeal to Christian Women of the South utilizes Biblical rhetoric and illustrations to support her's argument that slavery is an evil which Southern women must take an active responsibility in ending. Part of the essay explicates Grimké's purpose in appealing directly to the Christian women of the South. Grimké acknowledges, "I know you do not make the laws, but I also know that you are the wives and mothers, the sisters and daughters of those who do" (Grimké 54-55). She urges women to take much more active and public roles in abolishing slavery, as it is fundamentally wrong and contrary to the Bible. She goes on to list the things which they can do to further the cause: reading the Bible, praying, speaking out against it to whomever will listen, and acting (Grimké 57). This latter suggestion is particularly radical, as Grimké demands that those women who are truly committed to ending slavery should set their slaves free, educate them, and pay them wages. As she advances, "Be not surprised when I say that such wicked laws ought to be no barrier in the way of your duty" (Grimké 57). She also advocates that women take a more active role in changing public laws and legislation, urging them to join the abolitionist societies and citing Biblical references to women who crusaded against injustice and led battles, even when contrary to the laws and norms of their society. Grimké's justification for this involvement is that the morality and ethics espoused by Christian doctrine supersedes any laws to which women are bound: "The doctrine of blind obedience and unqualified submission to any human power, whether civil or ecclesiastical, is the doctrine of despotism, and ought to have no place among Republicans and Christians" (Grimké 59). She cites women's involvement in the Northern abolitionist movement as stemming from this sense of religious duty.
In contrast, Catharine Beecher's argument against women's involvement in abolitionism in Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism is predicated on the belief that women are naturally unsuited for public activities and that their place is in the domestic sphere. While Beecher also uses Christian rhetoric to support her analysis of woman's sphere and role, she manipulates it in a different manner than Grimké does, arguing that "It is Christianity that has given to woman her true place in society. And it is the peculiar trait of Christianity alone that can sustain her therein" (Beecher 127). That is, women are relegated by God to the domestic sphere, and need first and foremost to utilize Christian precepts in order to maintain an agreeable home. As Beecher states, while men coerce by force and active public duties and offices, "all the power, and all the conquests, which are lawful to woman, are those only which appeal to the kindly, generous, peaceful and benevolent principles. Woman's is to win everything by peace and love...in the domestic social circle" (Beecher 127). Here she inscribes women into the domestic sphere above anything else. The idea that women must utilize their powers of persuasion in a manner which is non-confrontational, in an exhibition of pure love rather than adversity results from Beecher's conviction that women are naturally predisposed to peaceful natures. She goes on to say, "If these general principles are correct, they are entirely opposed to the plan of arraying females in any Abolition movement; because...it draws them forth from their appropriate retirement, to expose themselves to the ungoverned violence of mobs" (Beecher 127). Here, Beecher indicates that women should not be placed in a public position which would make them vulnerable to angry slaveholders or Southerners who are in opposition to their cause. By drawing parallels of abolitionism to mob violence, she places it a physically threatening context. Rather, Beecher claims that if women oppose slavery they should do so quietly and indirectly, using their soft influence in the home to sway their husbands' beliefs and opinions. Furthermore, while Grimké advocates women taking a public role in legislation, Beecher opposes it, claiming that women are not tempered to endure public office or petitions. She is very emphatic on this point, stating, "In this country, petitions to congress, in reference to the official duties of legislators, seem, IN ALL CASES, to fall entirely without the sphere of female duty" (Beecher 128).
These two sides of the abolitionist debate are played out in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, most notably through the characters of Mrs. Shelby, Mrs. Bird, and Miss. Ophelia. The character of Mrs. Shelby embodies the type of woman whom Grimké was directing her Essay to in order to change, as well as the type of woman whom Beecher would have applauded for her methods of female persuasion. When Mr. Shelby tells Mrs. Shelby that he intends to sell Tom and Harry, she protests:
O, Mr. Shelby, I have tried--tried most faithfully, as a Christian woman should--to do my duty to these poor, simple, dependent creatures. I have cared for them, instructed them, watched over them...I have taught them the duties of the family, of parent and child, and husband and wife. (Stowe 32)
While she overtly objects to the selling of Tom and Harry to her husband, her protests travel no further than the confines of her home. Certainly, she would not be willing to break any laws in order to free them, as Grimké suggests that Southern women should do. Rather, she remains inscribed into what Beecher refers to as woman's "appropriate retirement"--she urges Mr. Shelby by persuasion in an attempt to make him "willing to leave off their sins" (Beecher 126). And while Mrs. Shelby asserts that "you know I never thought slavery was right--never felt willing to own slaves," even after Mr. Shelby dies it is George, not Mrs. Shelby, who frees their slaves, even though she was the one given sole execution of the estate.
According to Stowe's agenda for how Southern women should behave in response to slavery, Mrs. Shelby is fairly ideal. Stowe never prescribes an overt plan of action for Southern women--rather, she insists that they pray and educate their slaves (442) as a form of protest. Mrs. Shelby is the pinnacle of a "good" mistress who alos believes that slavery is fundamentally wrong, yet educates her slaves instead of freeing them.
If Mrs. Shelby represents Catharine Beecher's ideal of how a virtuous and Christian Southern woman should respond to slavery, then Mrs. Bird more closely approximates Grimké's opposite ideal. Mrs. Bird takes Eliza and Harry into her home after they escape from Shelby's place. Mrs. Bird actively challenges her husband's involvement in passing legislation prohibiting Northern whites to aid runaway slaves. In a conversation with her husband before Eliza and Harry arrive, Mrs. Bird angrily tells him, "I heard they were talking of some such legislature, but I didn't think that any Christian legislature would pass it!....Now, John, I want to know if you think that such a law as that is right and Christian?" (Stowe 77). Mrs. Bird not only directly challenges her husband's politics, but she also aligns herself in accord with Grimké's assertions that such laws are contrary to true Christianity: "American masters cannot according to Jewish law substantiate their claim to the men, women, or children they now hold in bondage" (Grimké 42). Mrs. Bird also goes further, threatening that she would break such a law, if ever she got a chance; "It's a shameful, wicked, abominable law, and I'll break it, for one, the first time I get a chance; and I hope I shall have a chance, I do!" (Stowe 77). Mrs. Bird's statement here is strikingly similar to Grimké's impassioned assertions that "If a law commands me to sin I will break it; if it calls me to suffer, I will let it take its course unresistingly" (Grimké 59). However, while Mrs. Bird remains true to her word, taking Eliza and Harry into her home, her rhapsodizing on the subject is moderated by the fact that she is a woman living in a free state. She does not own slaves herself and therefore is not subject to the daily dealings with the slavery issue as are other Southern slaveholding women, and is thus a poor model for how Southern women should respond to slavery. Thus, while Stowe's inclusion of her in her novel is slightly transgressive, the character remains outside of both Southern norms and laws regarding slavery. Like Mrs. Shelby, Mrs. Bird bases her thoughts on slavery on her belief that the institution is unchristian. As such, to Stowe, Mrs. Bird (as well as the Quaker women, whose acts of good will stem from their religious convictions) is doing the best she can given her circumstances.
However, it is the character of Miss. Ophelia which ultimately reveals Stowe's conservative ideas about women's duties in the cause of abolitionism. When we are first introduced to Miss. Ophelia, she seems to embody elements of both Beecher's and Grimké's doctrines. She is the pinnacle of Beecher's domestic orderliness, yet she also vehemently and vocally opposes the treatment of slaves and the institution of slavery itself. When Miss. Ophelia first arrives, she sets to work trying to organize the house into an exemplary domestic space. She prides herself on her orderliness and domesticity, yet she is also very outspoken on the slavery issue (p 204, 218). She is outraged when she hears of Prue's death, demanding of St. Clare, "How can you shut your eyes and ears? How can you let such things alone?...Of course, you defend it,--you all do,--all you Southerners. What do you have slaves for, if you don't?" (Stowe 218-19). Her opposition to slavery, like Grimké's, is based on the Bible, that "the Lord made them of one blood with us"; yet unlike Grimké's model woman, she never makes any gestures towards overt political action or towards convincing St. Clare to set his slaves free. In addition, when St. Clare buys Topsy for Miss. Ophelia to "train" and educate, Miss. Ophelia's true feelings are revealed: she sets Topsy to making her bed as well as whips her in a corrupt attempt at "educating her" (Stowe 244). Miss. Ophelia is hardly a model of Northern or Southern abolitionist activism. Indeed, despite Miss. Ophelia's abolitionist tendencies and rhetoric, it is the man of the house--St. Clare-- who is the more radical and vocal in his opinions about slavery, thus revealing Stowe's judgment that slavery is an issue to be dealt with by men. Furthermore, it is only after St. Clare's death that Miss. Ophelia takes Topsy up North to furnish her with a real education and allow her her freedom. It is important to remember, too, that Miss. Ophelia is a Northern woman--and thus, by the end of the novel Stowe never offers a viable fictionalized model of how a Southern woman should actively protest such an institution.
The question which remains, then, is how Stowe herself, as a narrator and as woman writing an abolitionist novel, sees herself as part of either Beecher's or Grimké's agenda. She clearly supports the abolitionist cause, and uses Christian and other rhetorical straetgies which are similar to Grimké's. For example, Grimké uses sentimental and Christian rhetoric to appeal to Southern women to protest against the evils of slavery, asking such rhetorical questions as "Are you willing to enslave your children" and "Can you for a moment imagine the meek, and lowly, and compassionate saviour, a slaveholder?" (Grimké 51). In directly confronting women with these questions, she appeals to them as women and as Christians who should be capable of placing themselves in their slave's positions to empathize with their plight. Harriet Beecher Stowe uses similar strategies in Uncle Tom's Cabin,
evoking sympathetic pathos from the reader by turning to them, mid-narrative, and pointing out the common humanity which whites share with the slaves. For example, when Eliza escapes with her son, Harry, after learning that he is to be sold, Stowe poses the following question to the reader:
If it were your Harry, mother, or your Willie, that were going to be torn from you by a brutal trader, to-morrow morning,--if you had seen the man, and heard the papers that were signed and delivered, and you had only from twelve o'clock until morning to make good your escape,--how fast could you walk? (Stowe 38)
Stowe's intended audience here is mothers, sons and daughters. Throughout the entirety of her Concluding Remarks, Stowe gives her audience suggestions of what they can do: "they can see to it that they feel right ...you have another power; you can pray," and they can educate (Stowe 442-43). However, there is an essential difference between Stowe and Grimké: it is clear that while Stowe strongly desires to effect some sort of change in the minds and hearts of her Southern readers, she never suggests that they act--a fundamental part of Grimké's program. She thus peculiarly ends up reiterating her sister's argument more closely than supporting
Grimké's. And while she does portray Northern women (the Quakers, Mrs. Bird) who act autonomously by virtue of their religious convictions, she never advocates the involvement of Southern women in the politics of aboltionism.
Therefore, while Stowe intends to enact a change in the sentiments of her readers--both Northern and Southern--towards slavery, she never offers a female Southerner who acts entirely autonomously in supporting the abolitionist cause. In this sense she cannot fundamentally be supportive of Grimké's plans, as she ultimately places the power of slaveholders to decide to liberate their slaves in the hands of the Southern men of the novel--Master George and St. Clare. It does little good to argue that Stowe was a creature of her time in her portrayals of the possibilities of women's role in the public arena, for she wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin several years after Elizabeth Cady Stanton's Declaration of Sentiments and Lydia Maria Child's On Women's Rights were published (Cain 449, 501). Both of these documents, as well as Grimké's, were concerned with ensuring that women had the right to be heard and respected in political forums. Rather, in accordance with Beecher's ideals, Miss. Ophelia and Mrs. Shelby use their feminine arts of gentle persuasion to intercede on behalf of the slaves, and remain completely outside the public sphere. It is true that Mrs. Bird is the exception who threatens to break the law in order to defend her beliefs, but since that never becomes an issue, Stowe ultimately manages to avoid placing a Southern woman character in an overtly transgressive or defiant role. Ultimately, Stowe places the power of decision-making and action in the hands of the males of the book, thereby sanctioning Southern female political inactivity and reinscribing Southern women into the domestic sphere. This is a particularly significant maneuver, as Southern women were in the greatest need of positive and active role models. In only portraying Northern women who were ultimately able to act (and with Stowe's praise), she ends up perpetuating beliefs that Southern women were naturally unsuited to engage in the abolitionist cause.
Beecher, Catharine. "Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism." The Limits
Sisterhood: The Beecher Sisters on Women's Rights and Woman's
Sphere. ed. Jeanne Boydston et. al. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P,
Cain, William E., ed. Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance.
Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's P, 1996.
Grimke, Angelina. "Appeal to the Christian Women of the South." The Public Years of Sarah and Angelina Grimké: Selected Writings 1835- 1839. ed. Larry Ceplair. NY: Columbia U P, 1989. 36-89.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin. NY: Bantam Books, 1981.
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