Question for the day is women’s political culture a refinement of the concept of women’s culture or a complete rejection of it. 

Historians did not use the term “women’s political culture” until 1984 when Paula Baker introduced the concept.

Two political cultures operated throughout the remainder of the  nineteenth century. The female culture was based on the ideology of domesticity and involved continual expansion of the environs of the “home.” Women carried out social policy through voluntary action. They practiced a kind of interest-group politics, by directing their attention to specific issues and exercising influence through informal channels. Male politics consisted of formal structures: the franchise, parties, and holding office. For many men, this participation was as much social as it was political, and it contributed to a definition of manhood.  

Rather than questioning the relationship of women’s culture to the political, an approach that dominated until Baker’s article appeared, the concept of a “women’s political culture,” offered the approach that aspects women’s culture were in and of themselves political as women engaged in public policy, even as they remained excluded from electoral participation.

Baker offers a chronological  historical argument in support of the development of a separate women’s political culture by the mid-ish 19th century. Changes in Jacksonian democracy and emerging functions of government facilitated  a new ubiquitous white male political culture against which she positions an nascent women’s political culture, which

took on some of the tasks-the care of dependents and the enforcement of moral norms-that governments had abandoned.   Because “women’s moral nature gave them a reason for public action, and, since they did not have the vote, such action was considered ‘above’ politics.

 In other words, women were defined as “extra-political.” By the gendered norms that governed the era, they were literally beyond or outside the political world, and thus their reform work was contextualized as apolitical in the prevailing political discourse.

Baker draws on many of the same female reformers and organizations that scholars used to document women’s culture.  Sometimes Baker takes a different approach to these groups.  For example in the 1980 symposium in Feminist Studies on women’s culture, Mary Jo Buhle claimed

The WCTU obviously spoke to the inheritors of a tenacious women’s culture, defended that culture outside the home, and thereby pushed thousands of women into political activity,”

In this construction the WCTU is not part of women’s culture, but rather uses women’s culture to motivate women to political action.  The ideas of women’s culture may then lead to involvement in the political but women’s culture, per se, is not political.

By situating the reform crusades amidst the real experiences of mid-nineteenth- century women, we being to understand the mediation between the presence of distinct cultural values and their transformation into a political arsenal for the self-advancement of a sex. The significance of leaders’ ability to tap latent resources and to foster thereby an unprecedented women’s mobilization, becomes a compelling scholarly goal.

 Baker, on the other hand argues that the WCTU

which relied on Protestant teachings, women’s sense of moral outrage, and the belief in women’s moral superiority ,… cast the traditional concerns of women in terms of a broad vision and of the public good. 

That is to say, the linchpin of morality, which began entering political discourse at the time the WCTU became politically active meant that the characteristic attributed to women via the notion of women’s culture became themselves political, no transformation needed.  The result is, as Baker describes, it a sort of  “political domesticity.”

Women expanded their ascribed sphere into community service and care of dependents, areas not fully within men’s or women’s politics. These tasks combined public roles and administration with nurturance and compassion. They were not fully part of either male electoral politics and formal governmental institutions or the female world of the home and family. 

 Baker’s attention to the surrounding  political discourse allows her to see the changed meanings ascribed to women’s culture and to read women’s culture as political.

However scholars of women’s culture also contextualized their arguments in broader political worlds. Kathryn Sklar, in her 1973 biography of Catharine Beecher, often cited as an example of women’s culture, argued that

the house exemplifies a new set of social boundaries constructed and occupied by nineteenth-century Americans.  It defines a new kind of space within which they forged their identities and around which they organized their social and political interaction. 

Like Baker, Sklar ties emergence of domesticity to its political context, as the home became a place to”  “integrate personal and national goals” and mediate “the expanding thrust of Jacksonian Democracy and the continuing social need for coherence and stability.” The “domestic code” promulgated by Beecher, characterized by a tension between the domestic world and the one which lay outside the front door, meant that the it “contained the seeds of its own destruction” and ultimately allowed women to “subvert their assigned roles.

Beecher’s political assumptions led her to oppose the women’s rights movement, nevertheless her efforts to overcome the marginal status allotted to women constituted a central theme in her career.  It caused her to … design an ideology that gave women a central place in national life.  The home and the family, she believed could be redefined as the social unit that harmonized various national interests.  

Similarly, Baker, who argues that women’s sphere became “anywhere that women and children were, “ allowed “influential women writers such as Catharine Beecher” to argue for a ” ‘domestic economy’ in which women combined nurturance and some of the organizational methods of the new factory system to run loving, yet efficient, homes.”

That Baker and Sklar’s approaches as well conclusions are quite similar, leads to the question is Baker, whose article was take as quite revolutionary, drawing attention to a tendency already noted by scholars of women’s culture, and giving it a separate name “women’s political culture.”

Nancy Cott’s work would tend to offer further evidence for that conclusion. In her 1977, The Bonds of Womanhood, another hallmark piece of scholarship in the women’s culture canon, Cott concluded that women’s separate sphere had political significance as it shaped the emerging national identity and “reconnected woman’s ‘separate’ sphere with the well-being of society.”  Particularly crucial for Cott is the creation of a gendered group consciousness, which she sees as a necessary precondition for women’s political action.

A notion of gendered group consciousness leads us back then to the other founding document of women’s culture, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s Female World of Love and Ritual, (1975) and illustrates that even her seemingly privitized, emotional female world also facilitated the development of women’s political culture in that it bound women together through intricate networks of friendship and family.

As Gerda Lerner notes in the 1980 Feminist Studies symposium, even that interior world described by Smith-Rosenberg, could become part of women’s political reform.  Postbellum female reformers

transpose[d] the support systems and modes of communication of the more traditional female world into new institutional forms. The women of Hull House, Henry Street, and the other settlements created both new forms of the female family and successful reform coalitions.

Baker reaches different conclusions about “progresssive era settlement house workers” seeing them as part of the postbellum embrace of the social sciences and expanded government, which resulted in

acceptance and expansion of the woman’s sphere, professionalization, and the advancement of science over sentiment 

In the eaerly 20th century, as male political culture changed, the results of women’s political culture became even more evident according to Baker.  The seemingly”extra-political” women’s culture had led women out of the home and into the political world, whether people liked it or not.  Institutions once understood as part and parcel of women’s culture, women’s clubs, are read by Baker as vehicles of “social and cultural change” in a political context concerned with the ills of industrialization, urbanization and immigration.

In short, by the progressive era, according to Baker “politics became domesticated” and the very differences that once constrained women to their own culture, now became the rational for allowing them into politics.  Ironically this transformation contributed to the end of separate political cultures according to Baker.

What is not immediately clear, however, is whether Baker is also arguing that women’s suffrage meant the end of women’s culture as well

It represented the endpoint of nineteenth-century womanhood and woman’s political culture. In a sense, the antisuffragists were right. Women left the home, in a symbolic sense; they lost their place above politics and their position as the force of moral order. No longer treated as a political class, women ceased to act as one. At the same time, politics was unsexed. Differences between the political involvement of men and women decreased, and government increasingly took on the burden of social and moral responsibility formerly assigned to the woman’s sphere.  

Works discussed above

The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century
America Author(s): Carroll Smith-Rosenberg
Source: Signs, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Autumn, 1975), pp. 1-29
Published by: The University of Chicago Press

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3172964


The Domestication of Politics: Women and American Political Society, 1780-1920Author(s): Paula BakerSource: The American Historical Review, Vol. 89, No. 3 (Jun., 1984), pp. 620-647Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the American Historical AssociationStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/


Politics and Culture in Women’s History: A SymposiumAuthor(s): Ellen Dubois, Mari Jo Buhle, Temma Kaplan, Gerda Lerner, Carroll Smith-RosenbergSource: Feminist Studies, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Spring, 1980), pp. 26-64Published by: Feminist Studies, Inc.

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