Bruce Dorsey. Reforming Men and Women: Gender in the Antebellum City. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002. xi + 299 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8014-3897-4.
Reviewed by Kathryn Tomasek (Department of History, Wheaton College, Norton, Massachusetts)
Published on (September, 2004)
Bruce Dorsey has written a significant book. Examining reform movements that addressed issues surrounding poverty, drink, slavery, and immigration in Philadelphia, he demonstrates the centrality of gender to cultural, economic, and political changes in the early republic and antebellum United States. Multiple meanings of masculinity and femininity, inflected by race, ethnicity, and class, he demonstrates, illuminate ongoing cultural struggles stretching from the 1770s to the 1850s.
A strong sense of the gendered meanings of citizenship underlies Dorsey's analysis. In the first chapter, he outlines the significance of gender to republican ideology, noting that independence and virtue were masculine traits predicated on women's dependence under the provisions of coverture in English common law. Republican concepts of masculinity competed with notions of sentimental manhood, creating ambiguities around gender that opened the way for women's movement into benevolent reform. Thus women and men together constructed a public sphere of social and civic action out of the private sphere of individual conscience, and white women relied not only on ideas of republican womanhood but also on spiritual authority to justify their benevolent work. Dorsey presents reform movements addressing poverty, drink, slavery, and immigration in subsequent chapters, carefully tracing the development of each. Concerns about citizenship, dependency, and gender arise in each case.
Noting a trend toward moral and spiritual analysis of poverty, Dorsey traces the shift from eighteenth-century humanitarianism to evangelicalism. The feminization of poverty produced divergent responses from white middle-class benevolent men and women. Men, more focused on poor men as a problem, were more likely to recommend work relief, whereas women tended to urge a more compassionate view of the poor. Notions that it was unmanly to be soft on paupers suggested a fading of the sentimental ideal of the man of feeling. Black benevolent societies recognized the effects of racial discrimination and recommended self-regulation of poor members to combat it. The rise of evangelicalism resulted in greater efforts on the part of white middle-class reformers to mold the character of the poor through Sunday schools, home missionary societies, and the temperance movement. Both black and white reformers shifted away from using the language of civic virtue to describe women's benevolence, promoting ideas of women's influence as innate, and leaving the concept of power to men and their political authority.
Ideas of manhood and womanhood also pervaded discussions of the problem of drink, illuminating the social transformations that accompanied economic development in the North. Dorsey traces shifts from the egalitarianism expressed in the culture of drink that existed in the early republic through the withdrawal of elites to more exclusive spaces and the identification of drinking with white working-class men's culture. He notes that reformers focused on the young man as the problematic figure, despite the fact that some women also drank to excess. Drink was depicted as a masculine problem, to be worked out in relation to other men. White middle-class temperance reformers most often presented their messages about the ravages of drink as stories of generational conflict, whereas African-Americans saw young black men as continuing the struggles of their fathers to have their own manhood recognized. For both white and black temperance reformers, masculinity was grounded in self-discipline and restraint. The rise of the Washingtonians marked a move toward mass appeal. Women appeared chiefly as victims in temperance tales, where their influence was women's most important characteristic. On the whole, the relationship of independence to masculinity was central to the temperance movement, with dependence on drink depicted as unmanly.
Similarly, masculinity and messages about gender and independence permeated reform movements that addressed the problem of slavery. The American Colonization Society promoted notions of men as natural colonizers, presented sexualized images of Africa as female, and impugned the manhood of African-Americans who resisted colonization. White men's fears about black men's sexuality underlay much of this rhetoric, and pamphlets that argued against amalgamation fueled race riots and the burning of Pennsylvania Hall. Masculinity was also contested ground among black men; Martin R. Delany and Frederick Douglass debated the merits of emigrating or staying in the United States to claim their rights. Emigrationist editor Mary Ann Shadd (Cary) subverted masculine notions of independence to her own purposes. White women learned about racial discrimination from black women, adopting the kind of anticlericalism exhibited by Shadd and presenting a feminized, sentimentalized image of the slave. Such feminization gave white abolitionist women opportunities to identify with the dependence of enslaved African Americans, using the rhetoric of both citizenship and women's influence to promote their cause. For white women, black women, and black men, independence was linked to the rights of citizens.
Immigration brought together concerns about race, ethnicity, poverty, and religion, again calling up questions about citizenship and gender. Irish immigrants brought with them their own ideas about masculinity, introducing another element into a contested arena already inflected with class and racial distinctions. In Philadelphia, debates over the use of the King James Bible in public schools raised fears of foreign influence among native-born white Protestants and resulted in ethnic rioting. Nativist women supported the anti-immigration movement through their own female associations and through a newspaper, the American Woman. Immigrant men saw African-American men as challengers to their own masculinity, adopting minstrelsy and its ridicule of black manhood as their favorite form of entertainment. Convent tales emphasized fears of priestly and papal influence and presented the priest as confidence man. Catholicism, nativists suggested, ran counter to the independence required for citizenship. Irish immigrants, Catholic priests, black men, working-class and poor white men, and white middle-class women, Dorsey suggests, all challenged the ideal of entrepreneurial masculinity that was emerging within the white middle class in the wake of the economic changes of the early-nineteenth century. Gender, especially constructions of masculinity inflected by class, race, and ethnicity, was as important to men's and women's views of their world and its problems as religion, republicanism, and market capitalism.
Dorsey characterizes his book as participating in an ongoing transformative project that aims to make the invisible visible. It is, thus, a book at once synthetic and grounded in significant original research, building especially on African-American history, women's history, feminist theory, and the growing literature on the history of masculinity.
This is, as other reviewers have noted, an ambitious book. Dorsey does not shy away from pointing out where previous historians have failed to note significant developments. The feminization of poverty is only one example. The author offers a convincing argument for impulses beyond republican womanhood that led women into the realm of benevolent reform. His choice to include colonization, emigration, and nationalism in his discussion of antislavery does indeed present a more comprehensive view of the many movements that addressed the problem of slavery than do other studies that have focused on white women's abolitionism or political developments after 1840. Dorsey's attention to black perspectives is notable throughout the book. Including immigration sheds light on the broad effects of religion and nationalism that would be lost had this topic been excluded. Broad claims of comprehensiveness are sometimes undercut, nevertheless, by the book's strong grounding in research on Philadelphia. The reader may share the author's evident frustration when sources on black women's activism are unavailable, for example. The achievements of this book outweigh any shortcomings.
Dorsey has presented a compact yet solid account of a variety of reforms in Philadelphia in the early-nineteenth century. He has also demonstrated the centrality of gender to the social and cultural changes that accompanied the economic and political developments of the period. His book is an excellent example of the ways in which the work on gender, race, and class of the past thirty years can lead to a more nuanced understanding of social movements. It is a welcome and valuable addition to the ongoing development of a history of the United States that recognizes the complex interactions of multiple experiences of gender, race, and class in the social, political, and economic changes of the early-nineteenth century.
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Kathryn Tomasek. Review of Dorsey, Bruce, Reforming Men and Women: Gender in the Antebellum City.
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