Copyright, Tracey Thornton, 1998
Instructor, English Department
Old Dominion University
Norfolk, VA 23529
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BETWEEN THE RHETORIC OF ABOLITION AND FEMINISM: HARRIET BEECHER STOWE'S UNCLE TOM'S CABIN

     In considering whether Harriet Beecher Stowe's book, Uncle Tom's Cabin, is an example of, or contains remnants of, feminist rhetoric or not, one must first solve the problem of defining what is meant by the term feminist. This is difficult to do when one considers that Uncle Tom's Cabin was written over one hundred and forty years ago, and that feminism has moved through so many different stages since that time. One must resist applying the standards of twentieth-century feminism to Stowe's time, and instead, try to view Uncle Tom's Cabin as it would have been viewed given the sentiment of the time. In order to do this, one must first define feminism within the historical context of the 1850's, when Uncle Tom's Cabin was published.
     Perhaps the term feminist itself was not commonly associated with women's rights in the 1850's, but certainly the ideal was. The climate of the time in which Stowe published her anti-slavery novel was fruitful with unrest, not only because of the slavery issue, but also because of women's rights issues. The focus of the women's rights movement, led by women such as Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Elizabeth Stanton, was not only women's attainment of the vote, but also the emergence of women as public citizens, a role that went beyond that of ruler of the domestic, private sector.
     Women's suffrage was first proposed in the United States in 1848 at the first women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, just two years before Uncle Tom's Cabin was published. At this convention, a Declaration of Sentiments that paralleled the wording of the Declaration of Independence was drafted, insisting on the adoption of a women's suffrage resolution. The Women's Rights movement of this time also advocated more liberal divorce laws, less restrictive clothing for women, coeducation, and the right of married women to control their property. Though it would be seventy years before women would be granted the right to vote by the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, the Women's Rights movement was in place and active during the time that Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin.
     Even so, Uncle Tom's Cabin is seemingly about slavery, not women's rights, and it is not erroneous to assume that Stowe's intention was to highlight the evils of slavery and the decay of human morality, rather than directly discuss women's roles when she penned the novel. However, in Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe speaks to women's issues and ultimately, takes a stand on women's rights and women's place in society, whether purposely or not.
     One of Stowe's biggest concerns in the novel is motherhood and the importance of women's duties as mothers. In fact, at the end of the novel, Stowe empowers women, in the role of mothers, to change the moral fiber of society. She states, "If the mothers of the free states had all felt as they should, in times past, the sons of the free states would not have been the holders, and proverbially, the hardest masters of slaves; the sons of the free states would not have connived at the extension of slavery" (472). Not only does Stowe speak directly to the importance of the role of mother in her concluding comments of the novel, but she also speaks of this in her characterization of women in the novel. There is a marked contrast between the women in the novel who possess this motherly conscience, this all-sacrificing, all-loving attitude towards not only their children, but any creature who is weak, and those who have no children, or who do not hold such a sentimental view of children as the center of their worlds.
     Rachel Halladay and Mrs. Bird are exalted in the novel, not only for the actions that Stowe has them take as caring and diligent mothers, but also in the very way in which she describes them. Stowe describes Rachel Halladay in benevolent terms: "Her face was round and rosy, with a healthful downy softness, suggestive of a ripe peach . . . and beneath shone a large pair of clear, honest, loving brown eyes . . . hers was just the face and form that made 'mother' seem the most natural in the world" (150). Mrs. Bird is similarly described as a ". . . timid, blushing little woman about four feet in height and with mild blue eyes and a peach-blown complexion and the gentlest, sweetest voice in the world" (91).
     These descriptions of Mrs. Bird and Mrs. Halladay as wholesome, lovely, and loving mothers startlingly contrast the description of Miss Ophelia in the novel, who is portrayed as a childless and husbandless old maid. Upon her introduction into the novel, Miss Ophelia is described as "tall, square-formed, and angular. Her face was thin, and rather sharp in its outlines; the lips compressed . . . with keen, dark eyes . . . all of her movements were sharp, decided, and energetic" (174). Other descriptions lend themselves to this "old maidish" vision of Miss Ophelia: "She sat with grim determination, upright as a darning-needle stuck in a board (italics mine)" (178). "Miss Ophelia seated herself resolutely . . . and marshalling all her goods and chattels in fine military order, seemed resolved to defend them to the last (italics mine)" (178). Miss Ophelia is certainly not described as soft and feminine, as Rachel and Mrs. Bird are, but, instead, as rigid and brutish, even manly. Also, Stowe specifically states that Ophelia is educated and "well and thoroughly read in history and the older English classics " (179). Clearly, this indicates that, on some level, Stowe places a higher value on motherhood than on women's independence and education.
     Stowe's valuing of all that is maternal is also evident in her negative description of Marie, Eva's mother, who is portrayed as a spoiled, bratty woman who cares about nothing so much as her own comfort. She is described as "A tall, dark eyed, sallow woman [who is] indolent and childish, unsystematic and improvident" (181). Because she is unable to lavish love and comfort on her angelic daughter, Marie is viewed as inadequate. St. Clare intimates this when he says, "Had his wife been a whole woman, she might yet have done something as woman can -- to mend the broken threads of life" (170).
     A tension between the private and the public, the male and the female, is seen consistently throughout Uncle Tom's Cabin. Stowe says about Mrs. Bird, when she argues with her husband about his stand on the Fugitive Slave Act, "Now it was a very unusual thing for gentle little Mrs. Bird ever to trouble her head with what was going on in the house of the state, very wisely considering that she had enough to do to mind her own (italics mine)" (91). Stowe empowers her female characters in the private sphere, not only as rulers over all that is domestic, but also as influences on the public through their husbands. She says, "All of these women's influence is through the men -- changing the men's minds in the private sector so the men would change something in the public sector" (91). This is what happens when Mrs. Bird convinces her husband to come to the rescue of the escaping Eliza and Harry, despite the fact that on that very day, he had voted for the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, which would prohibit such an action. The senator accepts Mrs. Bird's reliance on "intuitive feeling, on the dictates of the heart, rather than the reasons of state" (489).
     Stowe's emphasis on woman's roles as wives and mothers would probably have met with mixed reviews in her time. In one way, Stowe empowers woman to change the complexion of society through these roles; yet, on the other hand, this power is only handed to them in the private sector, not the public, where traditionally, men have ruled and women have been excluded. In Stowe's time, the concern of the Women's Rights movement was increasing women's power to influence public issues directly, in the form of the vote. Therefore, this limiting of women's power beyond the traditional domestic domain may be viewed, in the light of contemporary or 1850's feminism, as decidedly anti-feminist.
     Sentimentality and morality of feeling is attributed to three types of characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin: children, slaves, and women. But most especially women. Further, men in the novel who are drawn to this emotion-induced morality are described as having feminine characteristics. St. Clare's anguish at the plight of the slaves is described by Stowe as "more akin to the softness of a woman" (242). The reader is left with little doubt that Stowe views the emotions as the tool or domain of the feminine.
     Along with her refusal of power to women in the public sector, Stowe's linkage of women with the emotional and the sentimental can also be considered as opposing women's rights. Women who advocated the suffrage movement would have wanted to de-emphasize women as being driven by emotion so that they would be viewed as rational and stable enough to make judicious voting decisions. Despite the fact that Stowe equates this sentimentality to morality, this empowerment does not allow women to move beyond the private sphere into the public. In actuality, this view of women as in control of all that is inner, or domestic, or private (i.e. the emotions), buys into the traditional view of women as incapable of decisions that are typically made in the public sphere. And ultimately, this empowerment of women in the private sphere is even unsecured because the patient, submissive, and sentimental women in the novel are ineffective against the evils they face. So, ultimately, these women are left once again, powerless, not only in the private realm, but in the public one as well. They are unable to make few changes within their own lives and homes and even fewer changes outside of their domestic lots.
     In the end, Stowe abandons her empowered female characters. Eliza is unable to escape to freedom without dressing as a man. Not only that, but Eliza is not allowed to remain within society. She must retreat to another land -- Canada first, and finally Liberia. Neither is Rachel Halladay allowed to exist peacefully within the mainstream of society, but on the fringes. Not only this, but neither these women nor any other in the novel, are allowed to escape their domestic existence and produce change in the public sector.
     Ultimately, Harriet Beecher Stowe's use of domestic rhetoric reflects conservatism, not feminism, even as it would have been defined in her time. Her characterization of women in the novel is constrained by a conservative discourse that actually works against social change. In order for Uncle Tom's Cabin to be viewed not only as an abolitionist novel but as a feminist novel, it would have to challenge women's roles as exclusively domestic or private. Stowe fails to do this. Though she does address and discuss many women's issues, she falls short of a feminist perspective because of this failure. She does not allow her female characters to stand within society outside of their private domain. Stowe does empower women within the private sector with indirect influence over society through their roles as wives and mothers, but does not allow this power to stand on its own in the public sphere. Because of this and because of the emphasis that the women's rights movement of Stowe's time placed on women's inclusion in the public sphere, Uncle Tom's Cabin, though certainly an abolitionist one, can not be considered a feminist novel.



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