'Women's Sphere' and Religious Activity in America, 1800-1860: Dynamic Negotiation of Reality and Meaning in a Time of Cultural Distortion

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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The thesis uses the case study of the experience of middle-class northern white women in America during the period 1800-1860 to explore several issues of wider significance. Firstly, the research focuses upon the dynamic relationships between the culturally-constructed categories of public/formal and private/informal power and participation at both the practical and symbolic levels, suggesting ways in which they intersected on the lives of women. Secondly, consideration is given to the validity of the stereotyped view that 'domestic' women were necessarily disadvantaged and dominated relative to those who aspired to public political and economic roles. Thirdly, the relationship of religious belief to these two areas is discussed, in order to discover its relevance to the way in which women both perceived themselves and were perceived by others. In seeking to explore these issues, the research has analysed the patterns of social and cultural change in the era under question, indicating how those changes influenced the perceptions and experiences of both women and men. Their reactions in terms of discourse and activity are located as strategies of negotiation in redefining both social role and participation for the sexes. The rhetoric of 'separate spheres', which was used by men and women to order their mental and physical surroundings, is reduced to its symbolic constituents in order to illustrate that the distinction between male and female arenas was more perceptual than actual. The motivating forces behind the activities and ideas of women themselves are investigated to determine the role of religion in the construction of both female self-images and wider negotiational strategies. The context of nineteenth-century social dynamics has been revealed by detailed analysis of extensive primary sources originated by both women and men for private as well as public consumption. Feminist tools of analysis which enable the conceptualisation of 'meaningful discourse' as including female contributions have further enhanced the specific focus on how women constructed their own world-views and approaches to reality. 'Traditional' approaches and tools are shown to have seriously skewed and misrepresented the reality and variety of both discourse and female experience in the era. Great efforts have been made to allow women to speak in their own words. This has produced an insight into a richness of female social participation and discourse which would otherwise be obscured. The research indicates that women were indeed actors and negotiators during the period. Those women who advocated as primary the duties of women in the domestic and social arenas were by no means setting narrow limitations on female participation in both society and discourse. The religious impulses and eschatological frameworks derived by women (varied as they were) served to order and renegotiate reality and meaning, whilst they produced female roles and influence of great significance. Women were not passive victims of male oppression. Religion can thus be perceived as a positive force which women were able to approach both for its own sake, and for their own particular ends.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
  • Kealey, Diana, Supervisor, External person
Thesis sponsors
Publication statusPublished - 1992


  • History
  • American history
  • Social history
  • American social history
  • Religious history
  • American religious history
  • Women's history
  • American women's history
  • Feminist history
  • American feminist history
  • Antebellum Period
  • Reform movements
  • American reform movements
  • Feminism
  • American feminism
  • Anti-slavery movement
  • Temperance movement
  • Female charitable organisations
  • Christian denominations
  • American Christian denominations
  • Religious conversion
  • Evangelicalism
  • American evangelicalism
  • Quakerism
  • Methodists
  • Baptists
  • Missionaries
  • Female missionaries
  • Religious tracts
  • Religious literature
  • American religious literature
  • Vegetarian history
  • History of the medical profession
  • American domesticity
  • Women's Sphere
  • Public and private spheres
  • Catherine Beecher
  • Sarah Grimke
  • Sarah Josepha Hale


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