UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

"By nature’s law designed" : the definition of womanhood in mid-nineteenth century America Green, Anna E.


This thesis explores how 'womanhood' was defined by a group of sixteen women publicists in mid-nineteenth century America, through their books, newspapers and journals published over a twenty-five year span leading up to the Civil War. Of the publicists, nine attended woman's rights conventions and were active in the movement, seven were adamantly opposed to the call for woman's rights. The sixteen publicists fall into three categories, conservative, liberal and radical; however, these do not correspond with membership, or non-membership, of the woman's rights movement. The conservative publicists believed that woman's nature rested upon the natural laws of her anatomy and physiology, which had been designed at the Creation to fulfil a specific function in God's ordered universe. Drawing upon the Bible, and popular scientific methods and concepts, the conservatives emphasised the structure and function of woman's body, and drew by analogy conclusions about the structure and function of her mind. The liberal publicists shared the belief in a fundamental sexual dualism permeating the natural world, and employed the same matter-mind analogies. However, pre-occupied with the cause of the exceptional woman, the liberals argued that the sexual dualism was not rigid, that women were born with exceptional creative talents that should be accepted as part of their womanhood and not repressed. The radical publicists denied the application of any such physiological determinism to the definition of womanhood, and argued that nurture, not nature, moulded women to fulfil cultural expectations.. Womanhood, they declared, was subject to the same natural laws as manhood, with the same needs, abilities, and capacities. Upon these three definitions the publicists rested various injunctions and prescriptions that were intended to show American women what their true function was, and how best to fulfil it. However, these prescriptions do not correspond with the public/private sphere dichotomy that historians have identified as the fundamental difference between members and non-members of the woman's rights movement. Rather the distinction to be made between the publicists is one of 'moral influence' versus 'self-realisation'. The conservative publicists argued that woman's function was to exercise her 'moral influence', and this could be extended into clearly defined public activity, including that of suffrage. The liberals fluctuated between this approach and that of the radicals, who argued that woman needed to achieve 'self-realisation' through the medium of labour and participation in public affairs.

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