- Domestic Devils, Battlefield Angels: The Radicalization of American Womanhood, 1830-1865
Barbara Cutter's Domestic Devils, Battle W eld Angels examines ideas about women's appropriate sphere in the nineteenth century. She begins with an [End Page 109] overview of the ideology of separate spheres as first outlined by historian Barbara Welter many years ago. Welter and others since then have argued that antebellum women were expected to be moral and religious leaders within their families but largely confined to the domestic realm and subject to men's authority at all times. Cutter questions the degree to which antebellum women were as passive as earlier historians supposed. She believes "redemptive womanhood" is a more appropriate term to characterize society's view, arguing that "the key to the properness of a woman was not her submission to male authority or her presence in a domestic sphere, but her ability to use her special moral, religious, and nurturing nature to redeem others" (7).
The author examines four categories of women: murderesses, sexual transgressors, public speakers, and Civil War workers. She believes these groups represent "a unique window into the relationship between nineteenth-century ideals of proper womanhood and the lives of actual women" (4). Cutter looks at several sensational criminal trials involving antebellum women. She finds that while eighteenth-century trials frequently led to conviction, nineteenth-century juries often acquitted even those with substantial evidence against them because so many Americans had come to believe in middle-class women's purity, respectability, and virtue. She moves on to discuss redemptive women who became public figures: anti-prostitution crusaders and public speaking women, including preachers who justified their public role as god-given, and abolitionists who believed they waged a holy war against slavery. Cutter argues that the Civil War did not represent a break with antebellum notions of womanhood but rather a continuation of those notions. The national crisis called upon women to "redeem" their country and also allowed women to act as soldiers, spies, and nurses in ways that often freed them from male control.
One of the strengths of this book is its inclusion of African American women. While many historians have argued that black women were excluded from the belief system of separate spheres because they entered the public sphere as wage earners, Cutter argues convincingly that "if racist whites assumed African American women lacked a redemptive nature, African Americans did not accept this assessment of themselves" (67). She examines a variety of African Americans newspapers to find numerous articles emphasizing the need for black women to use their moral and religious sensibilities to assist both their families and their communities. They were important players in the Civil War as Union spies, nurses, and propagandists.
Barbara Cutter is to be commended for looking at the broad sweep of nineteenth-century womanhood and for demonstrating that the boundaries [End Page 110] of woman's sphere were more fluid than many historians previously acknowledged. At times her conclusions are too far-reaching. While she makes her case that female reformers pushed the boundaries of woman's sphere by grounding their activism in the language of redemptive womanhood, she does not demonstrate that very many did so or that they were accepted by the public at large. Cutter's chapters tend to focus on a few well-chosen stories. Southern women are almost entirely missing from her discussion. For example, while acknowledging the controversy that antebellum public women speakers created, Cutter concludes that "Americans gradually became accustomed to female lecturers and other politically active women the more they were exposed to them" (125). While this is true up to a point, it would be many years before public speaking women were truly accepted by mainstream America.
The author concludes by noting that public acceptance of the concept of redemptive womanhood remained largely unquestioned until the 1920s and that the concept continues to be a topic for debate to the present day. Few would argue with this conclusion, and as a result her...