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  • Reorienting “Lost” Time: Reading Godey’s Lady’s Book in the American Civil War
  • Charlotte Hand (bio)

Since Frank Luther Mott disparaged Godey’s Lady’s Book, the most influential women’s magazine of the American antebellum period, for being “absolutely untouched by the great conflict” that was the American Civil War, scholars have often claimed that the publication was apolitical during the sectional crisis.1 Susan Belasco, for one, argues that Sarah Hale, Godey’s editor from 1837 to 1877, “made no reference to the Civil War throughout the years of the conflict.”2 Scholars who have acknowledged the political impulse of Godey’s during the sectional tensions nonetheless suggest that the magazine only responded indirectly to them, never actually addressing partisan politics. Joseph Michael Sommers claims that in the years before the Civil War. Hale “appropriated seemingly innocuous sentimental modes and devices already present in the magazine” to rally her female readers against the secession of the southern states from the Republic.3 Despite recognizing Hale’s obvious call for national unity in her promotion of Thanksgiving in Godey’s, Patricia Okker writes off this effort for political peace as “idealistic and naïve.”4 It should be noted, too, that neither of these scholars examined Godey’s political effort during the Civil War. Yet the studies of Sommers and Okker demonstrate that Godey’s was very much concerned with the sectional tensions. It is high time, then, to re-examine Mott’s influential claim.

These scholars’ dismissal of Godey’s participation in the partisan politics of the Civil War, whether as a refusal or as an oblique and thus politically ineffectual campaign, may be traced to two intersecting critical inclinations. First, an understanding of the Civil War as a battle between Union and Confederate forces over ideological differences and, eventually, slavery. Second, a rigid interpretation of the ideology of separate spheres as a spatial phenomenon. A predominant framework in criticism of nineteenth-century American literature during the mid-1960s, the ideology of separate spheres, [End Page 172] which determined that the proper roles of women and men were within the private and public domains respectively, has retained a spatial focus despite extensive revisions since. The metaphor of the separate spheres has also continued to occupy discussions on the ideology’s counterpart, the Cult of True Womanhood, an idealized image of the wife and mother as a domestic Madonna, and which set the social, aesthetic and political terms for the definition and performance of white middle-class womanhood. Indeed, modern scholars who have argued that the reality of white middle-class American women was vastly different from these ideologies that they themselves subscribed to—that the private sphere of white middle-class womanhood often converged with the public realm—relied on a spatial conception of these ideologies to demonstrate their claim.5 The spatial focus of their critique of these gender ideologies has led scholars to overlook Godey’s political attempt to ease sectional tensions. According to these strands of scholarship, Godey’s had refused to let its female readers venture into the male sphere of partisan politics and war—in other words, to keep the respective spheres of men and women separate, Godey’s had remained spatially removed from the Civil War. The current trajectory of nineteenth-century American studies does little to promote a re-examination of this assessment. Rightly recognizing that issues of race, sexuality, class, religion and other variables complicate the paradigm of the separate spheres, scholars of American studies have sought to move beyond a binary understanding of nineteenth-century America, rendering the ideology of separate spheres and True Womanhood obsolete concepts in the process. Consequently, publications like Godey’s that appear to promote the rigid gender demarcation of nineteenth-century American society that were aimed at white middle-class and elite women have garnered little critical interest from modern scholars. Yet Godey’s popularity demonstrates that the concept of separate spheres was influential in nineteenth-century middle-class society, even if it did not effectively condition gendered behaviors. It seems premature, then, to disregard these gender ideologies. As this essay will show, revisiting these ideologies sheds light on a critical battle that...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1499
Print ISSN
1098-7371
Pages
pp. 172-208
Launched on MUSE
2022-04-29
Open Access
No
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