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  • A Picture of Piety:The Remaking of Mary Dyer as a True Woman in Arthur’s Home Magazine
  • Stella Setka (bio)

As feminist critics Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Barbara Welter have noted, there was a significant shift from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth century regarding the way in which women’s social and domestic roles were defined.1 In Good Wives, a study of seventeenth-century role definition, Ulrich suggests that while early New England women were certainly subservient to men, they could exercise agency within the framework of several distinct roles: housewife, deputy husband, consort, mother, mistress, neighbor, Christian, and, when circumstances demanded, heroine.2 These duties, however “discrete,” still allowed women a certain degree of agency and independence that was challenged significantly in the nineteenth century.3 By that time, feminine agency operated almost exclusively within the confines of the private sphere, and the roles associated with seventeenth-century women were distilled into what Barbara Welter identifies in her seminal essay “The Cult of True Womanhood” as “four cardinal virtues—piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity.”4 As a result, nineteenth-century historians and writers who sought to resurrect seventeenth-century women as archetypes of American womanhood—and to do so in a way that aroused reader sympathy—had to mythologize these women in terms of the ideal nineteenth-century American woman.5

The most popular outlet for such mythmaking was the women’s journal. Just as magazines like Cosmopolitan and Vogue today inform women of the latest trends in fashion, literature, and social mores, so too did popular women’s periodicals of the nineteenth century prescribe for their readers the parameters of femininity and womanhood. Immensely successful women’s magazines such as Godey’s Lady’s Book, Arthur’s Home Magazine, and Peterson’s Magazine were committed to defining the nature and role of women, both in society and in the home.6 Further, although men tended to own and manage these journals, [End Page 61] women actively shaped the conservative content of the magazines by writing editorials, short stories, and poems.7 As Amy Aronson notes, “the effort to define and realize ‘the women’s sphere’ was a consistent topic in the popular women’s magazines of the 1850s.”8 Indeed, such journals sought to provide their readers with models of wifely comportment and motherhood and offered melodramatic examples of the consequences of failing in these endeavors.

Although most women’s periodicals of the day appealed to a mainstream Christian audience, Arthur’s Home Magazine—owned by the prolific writer and temperance activist Timothy Shay Arthur—aligned its advocacy of mainstream conceptions of the True Woman with Quaker and Swedenborgian sensibilities, beliefs that, as Natasha Kraus argues, “further consolidated the web of social meanings embedding True Womanhood.”9 This article analyzes the ways in which Martha Allen, a Quaker and regular contributor to Arthur’s Home Magazine, worked to resuscitate, through a series of articles, the seventeenth-century Quaker martyr Mary Dyer as a prototype for the True Woman. Although generally overlooked by scholars of early American history and overshadowed in American letters by her more infamous contemporary Anne Hutchinson, Mary Dyer nonetheless emerged in one of the leading women’s periodicals of the nineteenth century as a model of the pious True Woman. Turning our attention to the representation of Mary Dyer in the nineteenth century is long overdue, not only because it sheds light on the long-lasting impact of the Antinomian and Quaker controversies of the seventeenth century, but also because it reflects the efforts of nineteenth-century periodicals to locate in America’s early history the roots of True Womanhood. By focusing specifically on the writings of Martha Allen as a case study, I trace the process by which a seventeenth-century Quaker martyr was refashioned as an arbiter of nineteenth-century American womanhood.10

Mary Dyer, Quaker Martyr

The project of myth-making with which writers like Martha Allen were involved was not unusual for its time. As America entered the nineteenth century, it was a fledging state struggling to form its own identity, based on the principles of democracy and freedom upon which it was founded. To some degree, America...


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