Austen, Beecher & Stowe

October 16, 2014

In the years leading up to the Civil War, Catharine Beecher’s influence was eclipsed when her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin ignited a movement to abolish slavery. In 1869, Beecher and Stowe collaborated on combining Treatise on Domestic Economy and Domestic Receipt-Book into the American Woman’s Home. However, Beecher’s legacy was established in her arguments that women’s roles in the domestic and educational sphere were the foundations for social advancement and the cornerstone of American democracy. Whereas the Grimké sisters used Christian rhetoric to fight for the abolition of slavery, Beecher used the same rhetoric to wrap women in a new schema for creating professionalism domestic work. She sought to illustrate how rationalism and utilitarianism could give women the opportunity to turn ordinary female activities into a means to achieve success that echoed masculine models for success

The literary landscape dramatically expanded when American writer Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) – who was born the year Austen’s Sense and Sensibility was first published – reached into the American consciousness to engage its sentimentality for the abolitionist cause. Stowe picked up the threads from female authors of the early Republic when she wrote “A New England Sketch” for Western Monthly Magazine in April 1834. Stowe’s collection of stories and sketches called The Mayflower (1843), modeled after Addison and Steele’s The Spectator, utilized Enlightenment rhetoric to inculcate moral lessons, and launched her career as a leading abolitionist writer. However, Stowe is best remembered for her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or, Life among the lowly (1852), which introduced American readers to a new genre of “family novels” featuring short chapters that were read aloud with the entire family present, similar as to when families gathered around their radios for entertainment during the early-twentieth century.

Utilizing contacts with the abolitionist newspaper the National Era, Stowe had her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or, Life Among the Lowly (1852), published in installments over a forty-week period. Family stories were often published in serial form so they could be read aloud by at least a dozen people, thus serials crossed economic regions that expensive books might not reach. This aspect of popular culture often occurred in connection to women’s communal activities including sewing or quilting bees and similar to today’s book club where people shared an experience and discussed its implications.

Austen’s work never carried the label “bestseller” during her lifetime; she was not widely read even in England. Relevant to American history, this nineteenth century American bestseller (still second only to the Bible) evangelized against slavery as the cornerstone of the Southern plantation system. After borrowing a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin from her neighborhood “Reading Circle” a young Vermont mother named Chastina Rix wrote in her diary: I hate slavery and always did. This Work although a fiction, is calculated well to touch the feelings & enlist ones sympathies for this unfortunate race, a curse upon our country will surely come if men will persist in keeping these poor creatures in such a degraded condition aye & hold there [sic] children in bondage too! It makes my blood burn when I think on it. (Bonfield and Morrison 1995, 70).” Lincoln met Stowe at the start of the Civil War, and credited her with laying the moral groundwork for the conflict over the abolition of slavery, “So this is the little lady who wrote the book that made this great war (Stowe & Smiley 2001: xxii).” Today most Americans are more familiar with the plotlines of Austen’s British classics. The semantics of conversation presented in Austen’s novels must have seemed to innocent, quaint, and guileless to later generations as middle-class affluence increased with the industrial revolution. The two cousins once-separated by a family dispute no longer felt any animosity as Victoria of England grew as a national and international icon for feminine morality.


Beecher, Catharine. Miss Beecher’s Domestic Reciept-Book: Designed as a Supplement to Her Treatise on Domestic Economy. New York: Harper, 1850.

Bonfield, Lynn A., and Mary C. Morrison. Roxana’s Children: The Niography of a nineteenth-century Vermont Family. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher, and Jane Smiley. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or, Life among the Lowly. New York: Modern Library, 2001.

Housewife guides during the nineteenth century provided women with written scripts to follow in organizing daily household tasks as well as their roles in society. First written by men, housewife guides written by women reveal the intellectual thinking of women over the centuries. Within popular culture, even as changing societal attitudes loosened the some of the restrictions on younger women — virtue, humility, and purity remained prized in American women, and women worked within these parameters to run households as they began to organize grassroots reform.

Barbara Welter wrote about the “cult of true womanhood” a sensibility held between 1820 and 1860 that American women were expected to pursue lives of sheltered passivity and ennobled domesticity. In a separate “private” sphere, women had authority over moral and family issues. Women created an “anti-materialistic” world in the home that balanced the “sordid world of men and public life.” In the cult of true womanhood women were encouraged to be pious, pure, domestic and submissive. Mrs. Hester Chapone (1727-1801) in her epistolary book, Letters on the Improvement of the Mind Addressed to a Young Lady (1797) asserted, “A worthy woman is never destitute of valuable friends, who in a great measure supply to her the want of nearer connections.”

Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880) wrote from experience when The American Frugal Housewife (1829) offered practical knowledge for women with husbands who could not provide for families. Child had a prescient mind seeing that one of the great challenges within the American home was the economic and emotional consequences of slavery. Child’s popular compendium, The Little Girl’s Own Book (1833) included maxims for a girl’s health and gracefulness suggesting that girls wake up early and wash frequently in pure cold water and that girls get a lot of outdoor exercise. Beyond offering household advice, she was instrumental in the publication of Harriet Jacobs’ account Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) and An Appeal for the Indians (1868), and her views were seen as radical by the mainstream press.

The efficiency with which women ran their households enabled them to organize and network and accomplish substantive reforms. Catherine Beecher (1800-1896) who organized women’s schools and colleges intellectually reconciled, through her writing, how existing patterns of female subordination attributed to the “cult of true womanhood” was necessary to sustain American democratic sensibilities in antebellum America. In her Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841), she illustrated the consistency of Christian ideals of democracy to American social hierarchies. Beecher proposed a new schema for professionalizing domestic work and schooling. She utilized Lockean theory to substantiate her argument that women’s activities required the same autonomous and practical critical thinking skills for domestic tasks in the private sector as were required of men in experiencing success in careers in the public sector. In the wake of the post-Civil War boom, Beecher and sister Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) in their American Woman’s Home (1869), attempted to direct women to prudently acquire and use the plethora of new consumer products available. The sisters advised, “The chief cause of woman’s disabilities and sufferings, that women are not trained, as men are, for their peculiar duties – the aim of this volume to the honor and remuneration of domestic employment.”

With coverture, the legal sensibility was that wives and children needed to be treated in the same way, and therefore needed to be malleable. Reverend Daniel Smith in his book The Parent’s Friend, or Letters on the Government and Education of Children and Youth (1845) taught that female subordination within the family led to subordination to civil law and divine government: “Let your child understand that your commands must be obeyed. Parental government does not consist in so many whippings, or corrections of this or the other kind, but in fixing in the mind of the child this impression, ‘I must and ought to obey.’” Smith supported the patriarchal hierarchy of coverture that asserted, “Influence by reason when you can, by authority when you must.”

Julia McNair Wright (1840-1903), the wife of a clergyman, was a prolific writer of women’s novels, didactic literature, poems, cookbooks, and scientific works on botany. She carried on in the tradition of Rev. Smith, and was published by the Presbyterian Board of Publication as well as the National Temperance Society. Wright’s 584-page tome The Complete Home: An Encyclopedia of Domestic Life and Affairs (1879) was a text on domestic economy that reflected her influence and popularity with American female readers throughout her forty-year career.

Moving into the twentieth century, women’s voices in regards to domestic work shifted radically as they fought for and obtained the vote. Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) was seventy-seven years old when she wrote The Solitude of Self (1892) after stepping down from the presidency of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Stanton recognized the political ramifications and psychological resources of “self” or of a woman having an individual life, ”Whatever theories may be on woman’s dependence on man, in the supreme moments of her life, he cannot bear her burdens.” Later, Betty Friedan (1921-2006), a journalist writing for popular women’s magazines, in The Feminine Mystique (1963) called on women to seek satisfying and intellectually stimulating careers in public life without renouncing their roles within the home.

Detail of twentieth century stitching from Happy Hands Studio (Pendelton, Oregon) from unique artist book by Roberta Lavadour called "Happy Hands"

Detail of twentieth century stitching from Happy Hands Studio (Pendelton, Oregon) from unique artist book by Roberta Lavadour called “Happy Hands”

Further Reading

Hemphill, C. Dollett. Bowing to Necessities: A History of Manners in America, 1620-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.