- Purchase/rental options available:
Journal of Women's History 15.1 (2003) 221-226
[Access article in PDF]
Religion and Biography:
Re-visioning Feminism in the Gilded Age
Allison L. Sneider
Kathi Kern, Mrs. Stanton's Bible. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001. xi + 288 pp.; ill. ISBN 0-8014-3191-3 (cl).
Fran Grace, Carry A. Nation: Retelling the Life. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001. xiv + 374 pp.; ill. ISBN 0-253-33846-8 (cl).
Kathi Kern's new look at Elizabeth Cady Stanton's The Woman's Bible (Volume I, 1895; Volume II, 1898) and Fran Grace's revisionist examination of the temperance crusader Carry A. Nation point out the promise and problem of biography as a window into the complex history of Gilded Age feminism. Both Kern's and Grace's books are framed in terms of their biographical subjects' respective engagement with Protestant Christianity in its nineteenth-century American context. As Kern and Grace make clear, the diminished legacies of both women, in popular and professional histories alike, can be traced to their critical stance toward the liberal Protestantism that underpinned the majority of postbellum women's activist commitments. Stanton's longstanding anticlericalism and growing secularism placed her at the margins of a woman's movement increasingly oriented toward the Bible as the legitimating authority for women's rights and protections. In turn, Nation's "creative, opportunistic eclecticism" of religion and her "'spiritual entrepreneurship,'" (8) challenged notions of proper Christian female behavior in ways that made her brand of nondenominational moral crusade appear extreme.
The religious iconoclasm that located Stanton and Nation at the margins of organized womanhood in the postbellum period ironically also put both women at the center of a cultural milieu in which mainstream Protestantism was under attack . During the last decades of the nineteenth century, science, secularism, and an array of "troubling heresies from abroad" (Kern, 51) combined to undermine the social and cultural authority of the liberal Protestant clergy. Kern and Grace use these highly charged conflicts over religion and religiosity in public life as the backdrop for examining Stanton and Nation's lives. This perspective shifts our angle of vision, moving us away from more familiar histories of nineteenth-century feminism that chart the institutional development of such organizations as the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) through the [End Page 221] end of the century. Neither Stanton's nor Nation's forte was institution building; hence, organizational narratives often ignore Nation and show Stanton in an unfavorable light. Embedding Stanton and Nation firmly in the history of the religious enthusiasms of this period, Kern and Grace give us new contexts in which to appreciate the nature of both women's singular and radical contributions.
In Kern's carefully researched and wonderfully developed narrative, Stanton's commitment to produce and publish The Woman's Bible—an eclectic collection of commentary, exegesis, and interpretation solicited from a range of woman's rights activists across the United States and Europe—is at once the dramatic end point of a life dedicated to women's emancipation and a central turning point in the history of the suffrage movement as a whole. Kern's exploration of Stanton's Bible project reflects historians' efforts to revisit the Gilded Age suffrage movement and to rethink this "crucial moment of political accommodation" (11). In Kern's deft hands, support for and opposition to The Woman's Bible succeed in explaining the chaotic personal, regional, generational, organizational, and racial allegiances of the multiplicity of women who replaced Stanton and succeeded Susan B. Anthony at the helm of the NAWSA. This is a remarkable achievement.
Grounded in a desire to "illuminate the long-forgotten connections between radical politics and religious experimentation" (12), Kern's analysis of postbellum suffragism begins with a nuanced portrait of the religious possibilities open to the young Elizabeth Cady in antebellum New York. A "failed conversion" experience to evangelical Christianity during her girlhood provided Stanton with the basis for a life-long critique of the church, but more than that...