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Reviewed by:
  • Divine Feminine: Theosophy and Feminism in England, and: Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-Century America
  • June Hadden Hobbs (bio)
Divine Feminine: Theosophy and Feminism in England by Joy Dixon. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001, 293 pp., $46.00 hardcover.
Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-Century America by Ann Braude. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001, 300 pp., $49.95 hardcover, $19.95 paper.

Verena Tarrant, the young trance speaker of Henry James's The Bostonians (1886), gives riveting public lectures on the topic of women's rights—but only under the influence of spiritual powers over which she has no control. As she tells her mother, "It's not me" who speaks." Tellingly, members of one audience who hope "that Miss Tarrant is in good trim" are reprimanded "by others, who reminded them that it wasn't her—she had nothing to do with it—so her trim didn't matter" (1984, 80). Both James's narrator and his other characters hold Verena's spiritualism in contempt in this satire of the women's movement. It is a weapon to suppress her voice and a tool for manipulating a public hungry for sensational entertainment.

Over a century later, feminists still frequently construe mainstream religion as oppressive to women and esoteric spiritualities as embarrassing. Even those who recognize religion's potential for empowering women [End Page 221] will find the claims of Ann Braude's Radical Spirits and Joy Dixon's Divine Feminine startling and original. Braude claims "that Spiritualism formed a major-if not the major vehicle for the spread of women's rights ideas in the mid-nineteenth century" (xx). Dixon argues a similar view of theosophists, who may be distinguished from spiritualists by their emphasis on ancient esoteric knowledge and occult practice. She claims that many of these women saw women's suffrage as "a spiritual crusade" (180).

As Dixon points out, we find it is hard to see the connections between religion and feminist politics because "post-Enlightenment discourses of modernity" have polarized the sacred and the secular, associating the former with tradition and the latter with modernity. Accordingly, we find it "difficult to perceive those moments when a 'progressive' politics, such as feminism, has been founded on and grounded in claims that are as much spiritual as political or economic" (232). Moreover, historical treatments of spiritualism and theosophy have usually focused on their more scandalous manifestations. Ruth Brandon's The Spiritualists: The Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (1984), for example, is a highly entertaining exposé, illustrated with pictures of a medium exuding ectoplasm through her navel and nose and a diagram of the secret cabinet in the bedroom of theosophy's founder, Madame Blavatsky.

Braude brilliantly situates spiritualism within the larger context of nineteenth-century America, in which technological advancements were challenging faith and Calvinism was in decline. As she explains, the idea that human beings could communicate with the dead was astonishing—but so was the claim that people could communicate across hundreds of miles with the use of electricity. In fact, communication with the beloved dead via a human medium came to be known as using the "spiritual telegraph" (5). Popular philosophies such as Transcendentalism, evangelicalism, Swedenborgianism, and the cult of True Womanhood fueled the beliefs for all Americans that true religion is located within the self; that the physical and spiritual worlds connect in intricate, satisfying ways; and that spiritual formation demands personal autonomy. Braude claims that "every practice or idea developed within spiritualism was an extreme form of an idea already afloat in American culture" (199).

The influence of nineteenth-century spiritualism on contemporary popular culture is incalculable, and Radical Spirits lays the groundwork for investigating spiritualism's current material and non-material manifestations as evidence of ongoing gender negotiations. Books, articles, and television shows highlighting the work of mediums such as James Van Praagh are flooding the media. Scholars of gravestones and cemeteries notice a nationwide trend toward highly esoteric grave goods left as gifts for the beloved dead—a trend rooted in spiritualist mourning practices [End Page 222] that emphasize, in...


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