“Come now, be consistent with your principles; allow me my equality as a woman, a human being.” ~Audacia Dangyereyes, My Wife and I
Was Harriet Beecher Stowe a Feminist?
If posed on a tour, I might answer this question with a noncommittal, Yes-ish, or a No, not exactly, not really, not even a little—and I’d be speaking a truth each time.
I can see why folks might assume she would be: bestselling woman author, contemporary of and even sister to a big-deal woman suffragist, even had her own name on the deed to the Stowe House! But a feminist? It’s not the word I’d choose for Harriet, and had it been in use during her time, I doubt she would have used it, either.
In part, words to describe political identities are necessarily fluid. We might use them to suggest a cluster of related principles, yet someone might self-identify by a word like “feminist” and not believe in all of those principles, or, maybe more likely, someone might believe in all of those principles and still hesitate to self-identify as a “feminist.” In addition, what those principles are would likely shift over time, or, more accurately, their expression would: as a contemporary feminist, I’m not advocating for the right to wear pants, but I may well still be advocating for the right to wear what I please without scrutiny or assumptions about what my pants supposedly say about me.
Perhaps the question, then, is not whether Harriet was a feminist, but whether she was an advocate for women’s rights—in which case the answer is “some rights.” Splintered by profound differences of opinion and disagreements about priorities, the woman suffrage movement of the late-nineteenth century fractured into two factions: the American Woman Suffrage Association, a single-issue organization solely focused on the right to vote (and gradually at that), and the National Woman Suffrage Association. For the latter, not only the right to vote, but the right to divorce, the right to own property, and similar issues of women’s autonomy were discussed and at times advocated. Trafficking in racial stereotype and allying with white supremacist ideas was also common in both organizations.
The primary source of Harriet’s discomfort with the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), though, seems to be her fear that legislation granting women rights beyond the vote would upset gender roles as she knew and accepted them. My sense of this draws from Harriet’s writings about the suffrage movement, particularly her books, My Wife and I; Or, Harry Henderson’s History and Pink and White Tyranny (both 1871). Each centered on male protagonists’ relationships with women (an interesting choice on Harriet’s part), My Wife and I caricatures NWSA activists, while Pink and White Tyranny warns against offering more autonomy to foolish women like Lillie Ellis, the love interest and eventual wife of the novel’s protagonist.
Neither novel is subtle and Harriet’s disdain for the NWSA suffragists and their values is palpable. Suffragist character Audacia Dangyereyes of My Wife and I—her name alone communicates that she is not to be sympathized with—is an outspoken advocate of women’s rights, and probably based on real activist Victoria Woodhull. Harriet depicts her smoking (oh no!), drinking (gasp!), openly speaking of her attraction to hero Harry Henderson while alone with him (unbelievable!), and more. Similarly, when beyond the reach of her husband, Lillie Ellis of Pink and White Tyranny is smoking, drinking, and flirting her way through Newport, Rhode Island, spending absurd sums of money on decorating herself and her home, and showing herself all around to be, in Harriet’s estimate, a bad and foolish wife.
And that’s the point: Audacia and Lillie are not good women, or, better, they do not meet Harriet’s definition of what a good woman should be. Steeped in stories directly and indirectly about suffrage, what grows clearer and clearer throughout each novel is Harriet’s hesitation to extend rights beyond the vote to women, because what would those women do with such rights? What would marriage be if divorce law were broadened? What would a woman be?
Ridiculous as Harriet’s caricatures may be, then, they speak to her deeply felt fears of re-imagining womanhood, fears every bit as present in debates about contemporary gender issues: the right to abortion undercuts an assumption that women are naturally mothers; the rights of transgender women undercuts an assumption that womanhood is purely genetics; the right to wear as many pants as I want and as short a skirt as I want undercuts an assumption that what I wear reflects my character, however others define it for me; and so on.
So really, no, I couldn’t call Harriet a feminist; I hesitate to call her an advocate of women’s rights. If I could somehow channel her spirit, I might ask her, as I’d ask any visitor on a tour, why she was so committed to the definitions of womanhood—wifehood, motherhood, modesty—that she defends throughout these novels. I’d ask what she felt she was giving up if those definitions changed, but also how changing those definitions might make life better for other women, living in circumstances—poverty, abusive marriages, abandonment—very different from her own. I’d ask her to consider what she might gain if those definitions broadened.
I don’t know what Harriet would say. I would probably confess that if I had a band, I would call it Miss Dangyereyes, and that I demand, as she demanded, “equality as a woman, a human being.”
Anita Durkin is the Visitor Experience Manager at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. She has a Ph.D. in 19th-century American literature, loves poetry, running, and native wildlife, and can be found with a guitar in her hands when not talking about social justice.