- “A Word or Two on the Other Side”: Harriet Beecher Stowe in the Debate Over Women’s Health
From the mid-1860s to the early 1870s, Harriet Beecher Stowe devoted much of her energy to a series of domestic advice books and society novels that engage with some of the era’s most vexing social questions—in particular, the uncertain status of women in a rapidly changing northern society. Scholars have noted how Stowe courts gender controversy in those books, as when she attacks Victoria Woodhull in My Wife and I (1871) and “free love and French novels” in Pink and White Tyranny (1871).1 Equally controversial, though unnoted by scholars, was Stowe’s engagement with one of the era’s most hotly debated aspects of the woman question, physiology. That issue is especially prominent in the domestic advice essays that Stowe published in the Atlantic Monthly before revising and collecting them as House and Home Papers (1865), Little Foxes (1866), and The Chimney-Corner (1868).2 Despite her transatlantic celebrity, Stowe published these books under the name of her narrator, Christopher Crowfield. As Joan Hedrick has argued, Stowe likely saw her decision to speak through a male persona (about domestic matters no less) as “the price of admission to the Atlantic club” (HBS, 314). Hedrick contends that Stowe secured a place in the club by modelling her persona on that of Oliver Wendell Holmes, whose Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table had dazzled [End Page 593] Atlantic readers the previous decade.3 Like his predecessor, Christopher Crowfield is a witty, genteel New England man of letters, who entertains a lively circle of friends (gathered in this case in a cozy study rather than a boardinghouse breakfast room) by previewing his writings and leading conversation on a range of topics. Also like Dr. Holmes’s persona, Crowfield is preoccupied with the questions of physiology, particularly when they concern the rising generation. But whereas the Autocrat frets about the health of both sexes (as when he imagines a dismal future for two “poor and pallid” young tablemates who seem to be in love), Crowfield reserves his deepest fears for the females.4
Even after setting Crowfield aside in the 1870s to concentrate on her three “society novels,” Pink and White Tyranny, My Wife and I, and We and Our Neighbors (1873), Stowe would continue to display a deep concern with the health of women, especially in her native New England. In many cases, Stowe’s worries anticipate the debates over women’s health that would rage over the next two decades between feminists and a group of conservative medical men whom historians Carroll Smith-Rosenberg and Charles E. Rosenberg have dubbed “medical moralists” because of their penchant for moralizing about lifestyles and cultural practices they disapproved of.5 In New England, the medical moralists typically directed their censures at the female members of their own old-stock Anglo-Protestant (aka Yankee) community. They attacked the Yankee female for engaging in an array of behaviors that supposedly undermined her health, maternal instincts, and reproductive capacity, most notably: over-relying upon immigrant servants to do her housework, cultivating her mind to the detriment of her body, and indulging in a fashionable lifestyle of late hours, rich food, constricting clothing, and, most scandalous of all, contraception and abortion. The medical moralists found those sins particularly unforgivable in their fellow Puritan descendants. While acknowledging that not all Yankee women were guilty, the conservative physicians believed enough [End Page 594] had sinned to put their entire ethnic group at risk. Indeed, the medical moralists believed that the only women in New England who were immune to these physiological temptations were immigrants. The conservative physicians warned that unless the Yankee female changed her ways, it would be up to her immigrant rivals to supply the next generation of New Englanders.
The medical moralists’ critique of the Yankee female proved extremely popular—both inside and outside New England. Many people took it as strong evidence that descendants of the Puritans were in a state of moral and physical decay. As scholars have discussed, it was by no means the only such evidence. To the contrary, in...