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Bowling Together: Women's Voluntary Organizations and American Civic Life

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 31, Number 3, September 2003
pp. 379-388 | 10.1353/rah.2003.0052

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Reviews in American History 31.3 (2003) 379-388

Anne M. Boylan. The Origins of Women's Activism: New York and Boston, 1797-1840. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992. 218 pp. Appendices, notes, and index. $49.95 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).

In 1995, political scientist Robert D. Putnam published a short article in the Journal of Democracy in which he observed that, while the numbers of bowlers was increasing on alleys across the country, league bowling had dramatically declined. Putnam suggested that this apparently minor development symbolized much larger and worrisome social changes, that the nation's associational bonds have been dissolving as Americans have withdrawn from civic life. The book that emerged from his work, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000), quickly became a national bestseller, as many readers shared Putnam's longing for days when Americans were more engaged in community organizations that were more participatory, more democratic, than those that followed. Arguing that school performance, public health, crime rates, clinical depression, philanthropy, community development, teen suicide, economic productivity, and many other indices to social well-being are all affected by how (and whether) we connect with our family, friends, neighbors and colleagues, Putnam urges us to try to recapture the spirit of associational life he believes is vanishing, at great cost.

Anne M. Boylan seeks to challenge what she takes to be Putnam's misplaced nostalgia for a past society in which widespread civic engagement reflected thriving democratic practice. Specifically, she reminds readers that nineteenth-century voluntary associations "served and extended the interests of the powerful often at the expense of the powerless:" "women's associations," she writes, "especially the most visible and well-funded, produced and reproduced the political and economic inequality that marked the nineteenth century, entrenched the power of their class and racial groups, and defended their interests when that power was contested" (p. 13). Boylan's impatience with Putnam and his admirers (which emerges in the closing notes to both the introduction and conclusion) is grounded in her long and deep study of both the achievements and the limits of voluntary associations in the late-eighteenth and nineteenth-century United States, work that comes to fruition in The Origins of Women's Activism.

While Boylan is clearly concerned with the broadest implications of voluntary activity for American civic life in the early Republic and the decades to follow, her argument here also seeks to explain a key development in the history of American women, with particular impact among white women of the middle and upper class; through what is in many ways a prosopographical analysis of organizationally active women in Boston and New York City, she attempts to explain nothing short of "how the nineteenth-century gender system came into being," by tracing the course by which the 1790s "republican mother" became the 1830s "true woman"(pp 5-6).To track that development, Boylan surveyed the records of more than 70 groups and considered the life histories of nearly 1200 voluntarist women in Boston and New York. Beginning with 1797 founding of New York's Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children, she considers the next forty-three years of women's associational life in these two urban contexts and concludes that the transformation occurred as the "republican version of womanhood disappeared into an evangelical construction, largely as a result of evangelical efforts to capture and define republicanism" (p. 8). The evangelicals' success "rested on strong appeal that their principles held for post-Revolutionary urban America, particularly the belief that social discipline stemmed from self-discipline, and conviction that true personal freedom required voluntary submission to God's authority" (p. 8). The key decades, Boylan posits, are the 1810s and 20s, when evangelical impulses suffused benevolent work; politics and piety edged closer together, shifting associational activity's center of gravity from the obligations of citizenship to the duties of Christianity, reworking relationships between voluntary activity, the household, and public life.

Boylan perceives three initial waves of organizational activity: 1797-1806; 1812-1820; and 1823-1840. In the first wave, a variety of factors—including improved education, enlarged business opportunities, expanding awareness of international...