- Family Values and Nineteenth-Century American Politics
In a now-classic essay on gender as a useful category of historical analysis, Joan Scott challenged historians to reconceptualize their notions of “the political” by taking account of gender. “Political history,” she boldly asserted, “has . . . been enacted on the field of gender.” 1 In launching such a challenge, Scott was implicitly blurring the lines between political, social, and cultural history in ways that not only opened up endless possibilities but generated skepticism and even apprehension. It is not hard to understand why specialists in nineteenth-century American political history have had so little to say about either women or gender, given the prevailing emphasis on electoral politics and the disfranchisement of women. Still, the fact remains that the doctrine of separate spheres, which has been seriously undermined in women’s history, seems to have been reinscribed in much of the scholarship on nineteenth-century American politics.
The image of an all-male, nineteenth-century political world with distinctively masculine rituals, however, has been under subtle revision for some time. Those historians who have taken the challenge to explore the intersections of gender and politics seriously have devised strategies for moving beyond the impasse of women’s disfranchisement. One response, which expands on the work of Jürgen Habermas, has been to redefine politics to encompass a Habermasian public sphere inhabited by women as well as by men and concerned, among other things, with relations between the sexes. A second response, spurred by the rise of cultural studies, has entailed probing the rhetorical and conceptual links between family and polity in American [End Page 687] political culture. 2 A third response that is emerging is to locate women and gender in high politics where they have somehow escaped the scrutiny of traditional historians. This last tack is essentially the one pursued in both of the books under review here.
In Angels in the Machinery, Rebecca Edwards does nothing less than map out the intersections of gender and politics from the Civil War to the Progressive Era. And what a welcome map it is! At the heart of Edwards’ readiness to chart the twisting course of gender in the arena of electoral politics is her conviction that American politics in the second half of the nineteenth century revolved around an ever-shifting debate over the proper relationship between women and men and between the family and the state. The original contours of the debate, she argues, which took discernible shape on the eve of the Civil War, pitted Republican evangelicals, who embraced the idea of maternal influence in the family, against Democratic patriarchalists, who insisted on white male control over individual households.
Edwards’ emphasis on the political primacy of family values is never simplistic and is tempered with caveats. She portrays parties as broad-based coalitions with serious internal tensions, including tensions at times over the family, and she consistently demonstrates her appreciation for the significance of other issues. Nonetheless, in focusing on the competing familial ideologies of the parties, she has captured something fundamental about what divided voters, and in the process, significantly bolstered the notion that political parties before the Progressive era were, as she puts it, “communities of shared faith” (p. 151). Whether the parties demonstrated their respective stances through specific policies, as in the Republican support of pensions for the widows and dependents of Union soldiers, or through rhetorical patterns, as in the Democratic testaments to the virtues of the patriarchal family, Edwards sees national elections at some level as contests over women and the family. Emphasizing the pervasive tensions between maternal and paternal power, moreover, enables her to link familial ideologies to women’s partisan activities. Thanks to their belief in the moral superiority of...