Daniel Walker Howe taken to task for slighting gender in his Oxford history





Daniel Walker Howe's brisk, encyclopedic excursion through the years 1815 to 1845 lingers for a generous number of pages over one of Andrew Jackson's cabinet appointments, that of treasury secretary John Henry Eaton. The political controversy provoked by the risqué reputation of Eaton's wife Peggy garnered nearly as much attention as that landmark event of the Jackson administration, the assault on the Bank of the United States. This is not to suggest that matters of gender and sexuality are beginning to rival questions of economics and presidential politics as the staples of United States history. Yet it does offer telling evidence about how women have been integrated into the historical record and how gender can become a part of historical synthesis as represented by this prize-winning book and distinguished publishing series.

Howe is to be commended for welcoming women and gender into the Oxford History of the United States. More than just including female characters, of whom there are many in this volume, Howe acknowledges the efficacy of women actors in making history. When wives of Washington leaders snubbed Peggy Eaton, as Howe tells it, they succeeded in thrusting their "separate gender identity" into national politics: "The women saw themselves defending the interests and honor of the female half of humanity" and learned that "women acting collectively could advance the moral state of society" (p. 338) Taking instruction from books like Catherine Allgor's _Parlor Politics_ (2000), Howe attributes power to women who "although legally disfranchised were not necessarily politically apathetic or inert" (p. 338).

Howe puts women (even so unsavory a woman as Eaton, whom he calls "brash, demanding, and voluptuous in appearance") squarely on the stage of antebellum history. Although he treats this particular female subject with some frivolity ("Peggy seldom seems to have been lonely"), Howe demonstrates that gender operates on the most elevated plane of history, in the federal circles of political power (pp. 335-336). Although he does not press the point, the drama of the Washington drawing rooms also illustrates how women and their sexuality can be exploited for partisan political purposes. Eaton was largely a pawn in the political machinations of the familiar cast of central historical characters; Martin Van Buren garnered favor from President Jackson, outwitted Henry Clay, and advanced his own presidential prospects, all by defending the wife of the Secretary of the Treasury. Eaton is also something of a pawn in the historian's interpretive game. Howe uses the Eaton scandal as an occasion to vent his undisguised contempt for Andrew Jackson, who "expected to be able to control his cabinet members, and thought they in turn should be able to control their wives" (p. 337). The induction of Peggy Eaton into mainstream history may seem a sobering and bittersweet, if not entirely pyrrhic, victory for the field of women's history. After the extraordinary scholarly efforts of a generation, women are issued another reminder that they are the second sex, both in history and in the U. S. historical synthesis.

To those of us who labored for close to forty years to write women into history, this can be a painful recognition. It is enough to provoke a feminist to take up a double-edged sword and critique both the current state of women's and gender history and the whole project of the grand synthesis of national history. Howe is fully cognizant of the altered epistemological conditions under which we write history now that powerful white males no longer hold exclusive title to historical relevance. He concedes that the complexity and variety of past experience cannot be reduced to a single argument and chooses instead to tell multiple stories including those of people previously excluded from the master narrative of U. S. History. While particularly attentive to African Americans, and giving relatively shorter shrift to lower classes, he makes women his favored Other. Although the women actors are often minor players in a drama staged around male political leaders, selective members of the second sex are given a story of their own, and even a privileged position in the closing chapters. The endpoint of the women's story is the Seneca Falls convention, whose bold proclamation of women's rights Howe anticipated even in the Eaton scandal of 1829. Jumping ahead to 1848 Howe predicted that "Although most or all of them would have been shocked if had been pointed out," the wives who patrolled sexuality during the Jackson administration "would lead in a few more years to an organized movement on behalf of women's rights" (p. 342).

On close inspection the thread of this argument seems somewhat thin, gnarled and frayed. Thin in supporting evidence and gnarled in its convoluted chronology, it frays all along the ragged edges of the social and cultural differences within the female population. Howe himself acknowledges that the empirical foundation of this story is weak; only a small minority of women or men endorsed women's rights by 1848. Careful recent studies also indicate that gender politics took a detour away from women's rights during the period 1815-1848.[1] The convolutions in Howe's line of argument are exposed when he strays away from the history of the women's rights movement into his favored domain of religious history. Speaking for antebellum advocates of women's rights he contends that "Nineteenth-century feminists, when they invoked the Enlightenment language of natural rights, typically interpreted it in the light of the Second Great Awakening of religion" (p. 845). Yet, as many women's historians have demonstrated women's rights took intellectual root in ideas that were often outside of, if not antagonistic to, evangelical Protestantism, chiefly those of Quakers, Unitarians and freethinkers.[2] Conversely, Howe fails to mention the potent evangelical opposition to women's rights, most notably Catherine Beecher's rebuttal to Sarah Grimké's _Letters on the Equality of the Sexes_ (1837) and pastoral admonitions that women should practice their religion in unobtrusive ways.

The peculiar slant of this construction of the women's rights movement is in fact a subplot of the dominant storyline that runs through _What God Hath Wrought_. If not evangelicals, Howe's favored women, like his favored men, are aggressively Protestant members of an emerging middle class. While scores of women find entry into Howe's narrative, they represent a relatively narrow segment of the population. Howe inadvertently reveals his personal vantage point on antebellum America at the very outset of the book when he chooses first a male and then a female character to introduce his narrative. Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph and fierce Nativist, serves as his male persona, while the prologue to the female subplot is drawn from a Methodist woman's magazine that praised the telegraph as a "means of extending civilization, republicanism and Christianity over the earth" (p. 3). Elsewhere he credits "Bible-centered Protestantism, synthesized with the Enlightenment and a respect for classical learning," for helping to "shape the culture, determine patterns of intellectual inquiry and define the terms of debate in the antebellum American republic. It supplied a young and rapidly changing society with a sense of stability" (p. 482). Women's claim to influence in _What God Hath Wrought_ is confined chiefly to these narrow social and cultural channels, awarded on the condition that they be "moral" and act in the service of "civilization."[3]

It is the insistent middle-class and Protestant slant of Howe's synthesis that opens up a prominent role for women in American history. Of the westward movement, for example, we are told that "the shortage of women also contributed to the temporary drop in the level of civilization among the new arrivals. ... The presence of respectable Anglo womanhood in California became a dream, part of an aspiration to the civilization the migrant had left behind" (p. 819). Those who might oppose or reject this orthodoxy, like Fanny Wright, whose forthright call for gender equality and sexual freedom is slighted in a single reference to "Wollstonecraft feminism," are all but ignored (p. 540). Similarly, Howe seems oblivious to Sarah Grimké or Elizabeth Cady Stanton's rejection of the notion of female moral superiority, which would contradict his account of the intellectual origins and meanings of the antebellum woman's rights movement. At least some humorous asides, like the references to Anne Royall, tried for harassing Presbyterian ladies on their way to church, leave some hint that not all women signed on to the middle-class Protestant civilizing mission (p. 495).

In 1840 the subplot of Protestant womanhood converged with the Howe's major storyline of partisan politics. In the presidential campaign of that year, the Whig Party invited women to express their support for their nominee, William Henry Harrison. While Howe concedes that women were never Whig leaders and remained excluded from nominating conventions, he pointedly takes note of the exceptionally rare occasions when a woman gave a speech or marched in a partisan procession. Not just women, but gender difference more broadly was implicated in the Whig political culture that occupies so prominent a position in _What God Hath Wrought_. "Recognizing that theirs was the party of the middle class, the Harrisonians presented their candidate as the custodian of the domestic values cherished by the middle class, as the guardians of hearth and home" (p. 607).

The gender ideology of female domesticity as championed by the Whigs is contrasted with the "insistent masculinity of Democratic ranks" (p. 607). Howe aligns the code of Democratic masculinity with a violent urban "male tavern culture" where "youths proved their manhood by drinking, fighting each other, attacking members of different ethnic groups or political parties, and beating up or gang-raping women" (p. 528). Although a careful search through urban history would find some brawling gangs affiliated with the Whig party, Howe codes his favored party as a different style of masculinity characterized by "literacy , thrift, impulse control, respect for diligent work, honesty and promise-keeping, moral involvement with the world outside one's local community" (p. 580). This capacious volume does not exclude entirely those magnetic American personalities who cannot be constrained within the Whigs' gender discipline. He quotes Walt Whitman, for example, proclaiming "O the joy of manly self-hood/ To be servile to none, to defer to none" (p 528). Yet he does not take this as cue to celebrate with Whitman that distinctively un-Whiggish love of the freedom, tumult and delirium of the city, not to speak of his homosexuality, though these too are a vigorous, if not a particularly godly, part of antebellum American history.

Howe's way of mapping male and female onto the partisan landscape identifies important aspects of the political culture of the antebellum period. But by leaving that ideology largely unexamined and undisputed he skirts the most critical and complicated issues in gender history. Among other things he tends to obscure the inequity and hierarchy that undergirded codes of masculinity and femininity. While Howe is attentive to the ways in which the Whigs paid rhetorical homage to femininity and domesticity, he tends to avert his gaze from gender inequities: for examples, the denial of women's rights--to property, child custody and individuality--or the sexual double standard, for example. He opines that "despite the common law of 'coverture' which deprived married women of legal independence from their husband, women almost always looked forward to the prospect of marriage" (p. 36). The burdens of gender inequality for widows sentenced to the almshouse house or the young females in sweatshops are also greeted with relative complacency. They are acknowledged only in muted references to Lowell girls who "put in long hours under unhealthy conditions and contracted not to leave until they had worked at least a year. But twelve to fourteen dollars a month was a good wage and the new town had attractive shops" (p. 133). (This is at a time when the typical women's wage was one third that earned by a man.) While Howe never shrinks from indicting America for its crimes of slavery and racism, his account of the gender relations of African Americans is cursory. "In their aspirations for a modicum of personal security, dignity, and tangible reward for hard work, enslaved American families resembled other American families" (p. 59). Speaking of such a resemblance seems glib given the fact, documented by numerous studies, that the majority of enslaved men and women could not expect to reside in households composed of two parents and their young children.

No single volume, not even one as expansive as _What God Hath Wrought_, can fully record all the fine gradations and variations in the experience of gender, especially as they are refracted by class and race. Still, to so homogenize them is to neglect one of the most important historical transformations of the period from 1815 to 1848. While Howe showcases a "communications revolution" that transformed America in fundamental ways, he treats gender largely as a static phenomenon, subject only to superficial variations within a priori categories of manhood and womanhood. Modifications in gender roles and practices appear as byproducts of economic or technological changes. Of the Erie Canal, for example, he writes that the effect was "particularly felt by women, causing some to turn from rural household manufacturing to management of middle-class households based on cash purchases" (p. 218). This hardly does justice to the magnitude and complexity of gender change enacted by the men and women who inhabit the pages of _What God Hath Wrought_. Over the course of Howe's narrative, the productive unit of the farming couple of 1815 is seen to disappear in a generation, replaced by two separate flanks of the middle-class, the domesticated but reform-minded wives and the independent hard- driving breadwinners of the Victorian age. Howe offers general economic factors and scattered references to the decline of "patriarchal authority" as explanations of this transformation. Given all the energy women and gender historians have paid to charting and then critiquing the notion of separate spheres (an issue that is especially germane to the period covered here), Howe's decision to forego the opportunity to make gender analysis a more integral part his historical synthesis is specially regrettable.

Both gender and women, while admirably included in _What God Hath Wrought_, are subordinated to another story, and inevitably suffer some distortion in the process. This is the author's prerogative and the result of difficult decisions about what to include in a work of historical synthesis. More pertinent is the larger question: is it possible to write a satisfying and comprehensive synthesis after historical writing has been sufficiently democratized to give representation to women and an array of other social differences and cultural groupings? Some might consider giving up on the whole enterprise, and try a different tack. Recent historiography has shown us that in-depth, highly-focused, micro studies can better evoke and explain the events of the past. For example, studies of one prostitute by Patricia Cohen and one document by Lori Ginsberg speak to gender with more complexity and completeness than any synthetic compendium could possibly realize. Similarly a concentration on a single or circumscribed space, a town in Tennessee (Lisa Tolbert) or a mining camp in the West (Susan Johnson) can condense both intimate knowledge and social breadth within one small compass.[4]

Yet books that attempt the national range and thematic generality of _What God Hath Wrought_ meet a real need of both professional historians and general readers. Daniel Walker Howe has served that purpose with grace, erudition and the vitality of his distinctive point of view. He has also been more attentive to women and gender than most authors of big synthetic history books. This admirably inclusive history has, however, the ironic effect of calling attention to the remaining lacunae in big-picture history. This conundrum should at least serve as reason to disavow the attitude of the omniscient narrator and instead to admit to the inevitable selectivity or biases of any single author. (In the case of this reviewer that means owning up not just to a feminist perspective, but a preference for taking historical excursions to city taverns rather than genteel parlors or Sunday schools.)

Finally, a more pluralistic and less omniscient synthesis would convey the volatility and ultimate incomprehensibility of history itself. Daniel Walker Howe has deftly demonstrated and finely detailed the massive transformation that occurred between 1815 and 1848. But this volume, like most such synthetic works, leaves those who experienced these changes somehow unruffled by change, still encased in the same rigid boxes, be they labeled Whigs or Democrats, middle class or their shadowy others, male or female. Yet these boxes were fabricated by human beings and hence are always protean in themselves. In terms of Howe's front story of politics, the period between 1815 and 1848 saw not just a rivalry between two parties, but the invention of a whole new political regime, characterized by expanded suffrage, wider democratic participation, the assertion of the foreign-born and the non Protestant, all worked out not just in party conventions, but at the polling places, on the streets, and yes, in churches and private households. That history requires more than placing Whigs on a par with Democrats or women on the sidelines of presidential history. Antebellum Americans did haltingly re-arrange themselves into two separate, ill-fitting boxes, one labeled male and the other female. It was certainly not clear at the time that women were on a teleological path to equality that would take a century and more. Neither was it ordained that men or women would docilely file into separate positions within the public realm, nor that one sex or the other would construct and then preside over a separate domestic realm. To invest the whole unwieldy American story with this uncertainty, diversity and possibility, is to see the history that human beings hath wrought.


comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


Ellen Carol Dubois - 12/17/2008

First of all, the headline of this piece is terrible. The subtheme of Ryan's comment is how very much attention Daniel WAlker Howe pays to gender. It does real disservice to this book to so label Ryan's critique. Compared, for instance, to Sean Wilentz's synthetic work on the same period, Howe's book soars on the attention to women's active role in the antebellum years.
Second, I think, with all respect, that Ryan's critique is one of those reviews: why didn't this guy write the book I should/would/could have written? This is a history of reform and electoral politics. As has been his lifelong task, Howe is interested in having us revisit and reappreciate the Whigs (cf Jean Baker). His "errors" -- as RYan constructs them-- are shared by many/most overviews of this period, my own included. She basically takes him to task for not writing a comprehensive history of gender -- not his task. I for one am happy that some historians are turning their attention from microhistories to syntheses.
PS To see a comprehensive gender focused overview of this period, see Lynn Dumenil and my Through Women's Eyes: An American History. A close reading will show many similarities to Howe's basic argument.