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Beryl Satter examines New Thought in all its complexity, presenting along the way a captivating cast of characters. In lively and accessible prose, she introduces the people, the institutions, the texts, and the ideas that comprised the New Thought movement. This fascinating social and intellectual history explores the complex relationships among social reform, alternative religion, medicine, and psychology which persist to this day.
Each mind is a kingdom of thought. We have all power over the kingdom of our own thoughts.
Emma Curtis Hopkins, Bible Interpretations, 1891
The Era of Woman and the Problem of Desire
This is a time known pre-eminently in the history of the world as "woman's era."
Mrs. Theodore W. Birney, President,
National Congress of Mothers, 1897
One great law permeates the whole sentient world, that before there can be action, there must be desire.
Lester Ward, 1882
In a memoir written in 1899, the women's suffrage, social purity, and temperance activist Mary Livermore described the closing decades of the nineteenth century as a thrilling time for American women "Great organizations of women for missionary work were formed, and managed solely by themselves. Women by the hundred thousand wheeled into line for temperance work. Women's clubs sprang into being, clubs for social enjoyment and mutual inspiration and help. Women Suffrage Leagues multiplied. Everywhere there was a call for women to be up and doing, with voice and pen, with hand and head and heart."
By the end of the nineteenth century, white middle-class women had reason to feel supremely confident about the future of (white) American womanhood. In the decades following the Civil War, the numbers of middle-class and elite women in higher education had increased dramatically, from only 11,000 in 1870 to 56,000 in 1890. The number of women employed as teachers had quadrupled, from 84,000 in 1870 to 325,000 in1900. White women were making progress in the professions as well; for the first time, they won positions in medicine, journalism, education, and government.
Most exciting of all was the fact that growing numbers of women were involved in all aspects of social reform. Some middle-class women devoted themselves to aiding poor wage-earning women. They investigated the labor conditions of working women, established boarding houses, employment agencies, and referral services, and offered training, legal aid, and structured entertainment for wage-earning women. Small numbers of college-educated women formed the first settlement houses in the midst of urban slums. The women's suffrage campaign continued, receiving an added impetus when the nation's two major women's suffrage groups merged in 1890 to form the National American Woman's Suffrage Association.
Even larger numbers of women devoted themselves to uplifting the nation's moral character. Women across the nation joined the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. Founded in 1874, it experienced a fivefold increase in its membership in the 1880s under the dynamic leadership of Frances Willard. By the end of the 1890s, it was the largest women's organization in the nation. Women's missionary organizations were thriving. Middle-class women also organized mother's clubs, moral-education societies, and kindergartens. They joined social-purity leagues, which were devoted to holding men and women to a single, high standard of sexual morality. By the 1880s, the social-purity crusade had merged with moral-education societies and expanded to encompass campaigns to rescue prostitutes and raise the age of consent (of women for sexual intercourse), provide sex education for children and traveler's aid societies for women, and improve facilities for women in prison. By the 1890s, local social-purity groups had organized into the American Purity Alliance, while the moral-education and mothers' groups had formed the National Congress of Mothers. All of these groups received strong support from the General Federation of Women's Clubs, the structure organized in 1890 to unite the white women's clubs of the nation.
Contemporaries referred to this new activism of women in the professions, higher education, and economic, political, and moral reform as the "woman movement." More conservative social-purity-oriented woman-movement leaders often justified their political behavior not in terms of their rights as citizens, but in terms of the ways in which their high-minded service could benefit the nation. "Woman," they argued, was naturally pure and refined. Unlike man, who was motivated by selfish desire, woman was motivated by her altruistic "mother-heart." She entered the realms of politics and reform because her maternal self-sacrificing service was precisely what was needed to save a nation riven by class conflict, amoral wealth, and rampant political corruption. As suffrage and temperance activist Elizabeth Boynton Harbert argued in 1883, "Forever be silenced the selfish assertion, `all the rights I want....' [T]he time has come when the patriot men of America must ... summon women to the glorious service of aiding to save our nation from the combinations of vice and selfishness.... [O]ur hour for self-sacrificing service is here."
Many also believed that women had a unique weapon in their struggle to save the nation—the pure "moral force" of their almost mystical powers of "influence." The "irresistible" power of womanly influence was invoked repeatedly by a wide range of authors in the final decades of the nineteenth century. Womanly influence was institutionalized as a method of cross-class uplift. The Charity Organization movement, for example, was based on the premise that the urban poor had degenerated morally because they had been separated from the refining influences of their social superiors. Charity Organization administrators therefore sent a "friendly visitor," usually a middle-class woman, to call on slum dwellers. She was to spread her moral influence like "a tidal wave" over the slums, "flooding every part" with "sweetness and light." Charles Sheldon's 1896 bestseller In His Steps included accounts of how womanly influence transformed the idle rich and vicious poor alike. He described how the "dirty, drunken, impure, besotted" residents of an urban slum were "subdued and tamed" simply by hearing the prayerful song of a refined Christian woman: the slum "lay like some wild beast at her feet, and she sang it into harmlessness," Sheldon wrote in a typical passage. Womanly influence even had its own iconography. A pamphlet for the Salvation Army depicted an Army matron saving a prostitute through her "influence"—graphically depicted in the form of rays of light pouring from the outstretched hands of the matron onto the head and hands of the prostitute (see figure 1).
Given woman's innate purity and powerful influence, there was no limit to what could be expected from the concentration and conscious focusing of her "moral power." The avowed goal of many late-nineteenth-century women's clubs and congresses was to enable just such a concentration to form. As Jane Cunningham Croly, the organizer of the first Woman's Parliament (in 1869), explained, "The function of the Parliament is to crystallize the intelligence and influence of women into a moral and reformatory power, which will act definitely upon all the varied interests of society." Indeed, many white middle-class women activists did not hesitate to assert that if moral, loving, selfless women came together, their powerful influence would save the republic, elevate "the race," and inaugurate a new millennium—that is, a new era of spiritual peace and harmony. As one member described her expectations of the 1873 Woman's Congress, "We regard this association for the advancement of women as a step toward the coming millennium. God grant that woman with her refinement, her love, and her religion may be the means in the hands of God of helping the weak, ennobling humanity and converting the world."
As proof that a new millennium, inaugurated by refined womanhood, was about to dawn, growing numbers of women pointed to an exciting new "science" that was spreading across the nation. The origins and even the name of this science were obscure. Some said it was founded by a rural New Hampshire mesmerist named Phineas Quimby. Others spoke of the Boston leader Mary Baker Eddy or the Swedenborgian minister Warren Felt Evans. Some called it Divine Science, Christian Science, or Spiritual Science. Others referred to it as Mental Therapeutics, Mental Healing, or Mind Cure. But whatever its name and origins, all agreed on the miraculous abilities of this new religious science. The mental healers, who often called themselves "teachers of science," were able to mentally or spiritually influence the minds of patients whom they did not speak with, touch, or, in some cases, even personally visit. Like other recent scientific breakthroughs, such as electricity and the telephone and telegraph, this mental science was immaterial and unbounded by constraints of time and space. Mental or Christian Scientists also taught their clients, frequently long-suffering nervous or neurasthenic patients whom doctors had pronounced incurable, to heal themselves. They did so, in the main, by training patients to deny the power of matter and desire, and to affirm the power of mind and spirit. By simply meditating upon "denials" (such as "There is no life, substance, or intelligence in matter") and "affirmations" (such as "Your desires are Spiritual, not carnal"), invalids were miraculously healed, and "unspeakable" lifelong vices were overcome. Newly healed women and men proclaimed the new Christian Science a revival of the healing ministry of Jesus, who also "healed with a word."
Small but growing numbers of women believed that in the hands of today's high-minded and spiritual woman, Christian or Spiritual Science could be a tool that would speed the millennium—and inaugurate a new "woman's era." As Helen Wilmans, who had once been a reform journalist and who had become a mental healer, declared, "It is a noticeable fact that the Mental or Christian Science movement is a woman's movement.... [I]n this movement woman's real voice has been heard for the first time in the history of the race." Temperance and women's suffrage activist Louisa Southworth argued that the recent emergence of mental healing marked a "New Era" in which "women ... [go] forth to do both moral and physical healing by the power of the Spirit." Southworth added, "Christian Science with a depreciatory air is frequently termed a woman's religion. We accept the gift, and glory in the fact that a richer inspiration ... has come at last to give woman her proper status in the world." Elizabeth Boynton Harbert explained the full implications of the new mental-healing techniques: "when woman recognizes that she is free ... she will give to the world a new race, and the golden age will dawn. It is dawning even now.... Woman is at last free, because she ... has discovered the spiritual laws through which her work is to be accomplished." These "mental and spiritual laws," Harbert explained, included the power to heal by thought, the "law of the spoken word" and "thought transference."
The conviction of many leading woman movement activists that (white) women were pure and spiritual beings, that their influence could bring forth a new era in the history of "the race," and that Christian Science or Mind Cure techniques of healing by "thought transference" might be the "spiritual laws through which [their] work is to be accomplished" all require explanation. Why would the new "Mental or Christian Science" techniques of affirming "mind" and spirit, and of denying "matter" and desire, appear to have healing potency for nervous or neurasthenic Americans? Why would woman-movement leaders view these healings as the obvious harbingers of a "woman's era"? Why would some white middle-class women believe that they could use new "spiritual laws" to transform society and bring about a new era in the history of civilization? Why were they sure that they could heal a world sickened by lust, intemperance, and brute economic competition—"manly" qualities now grown out of control—simply by drawing upon "womanly" qualities of spirituality, self-sacrifice, and love?
The turn-of-the-century debate over "manly" values versus "womanly" ones had extremely broad ramifications. The two sides proposed starkly competing visions of how the nation's personal, political, and economic life ought to be organized. Yet their arguments often hinged on competing definitions of the seemingly abstract terms of "mind," "matter," "spirit," and "desire." These concepts were central to the issue at hand—first, because Victorians believed that they represented the essential components of male and female identity, and second, because Victorians used competing visions of manliness and womanliness to symbolize competing visions of the larger social order.
The terms of the debate were set earlier in the century, when intellectuals, religious leaders, and activists argued over whether "matter" was female, and its opposite the masculine mind, or whether matter was male, and its opposite the feminine spirit. Later in the century, the debate focused more sharply on whether manly "desire" was the fuel of competition and hence progress, or whether it was the poisonous threat to civilization that must be contained by womanly altruism and spirituality. Competing understandings of progress were thus debated in terms of mind, matter, spirit, and desire. They were tied to contrasting ideals of gendered selfhood—that is, contrasting views of what constituted ideal manhood and ideal womanhood.
The debate between manly and womanly values came to a head in the late nineteenth century, when prominent white male theorists drew upon medical, anthropological, and evolutionary discourses to demonstrate "scientifically" the ironclad linkages between male desire, female domesticity, industrial capitalist society, and the development of the Anglo-Saxon race. These theorists argued that competitive manhood and passionless, sheltered womanhood formed the basis of civilization itself. But an articulate group of white female activists quickly inverted these arguments. These women heralded themselves as the epitome of Anglo Saxon racial development, claimed science as a womanly spiritual discourse, promoted cooperation over capitalism, and strategized toward the final eradication of devolutionary male desire.
To understand fully the millennial claims of these late-nineteenth-century middle-class white women, and to understand why they interpreted what would soon be called "New Thought" meditation and healing as both a religious and a scientific sign of the coming woman's era, we must first survey the century-long struggle over the constitution and respective value of white middle-class male and female selfhood or subjectivity. Arguments about the nature and gender of mind, matter, spirit, will, science, and desire were in many ways a coded debate about the larger issue of whether middle-class white women should have expanded opportunities, or whether their activities should be limited to the physical reproduction of the middle class. It was a debate in which New Thought healers, whose meditations explicitly reworked their patients' understanding of mind, matter, spirit, and desire, were well qualified to intervene.
GENDERED HIERARCHIES OF MIND, MATTER, AND SPIRIT, 1820-1870
Middle-class white men of the antebellum North claimed to embody rationality, will power, and self-control. Political theorists had justified the gradual extension of suffrage to broader groups of white male citizens by arguing that since all had an inherent capacity to reason, all should be given both an equal opportunity to develop this reason and an equal say in political decision-making. At the same time, however, middle-class white men justified their social dominance by claiming that those excluded from power simply did not share the basic prerequisite for political independence—that is, a rational nature. Nineteenth-century doctors and scientists "discovered" that African Americans, American Indians, women of any race, and sometimes even the working class as a whole were biologically incapable of the abstract, rational thought that characterized the white middle-class male.
If white middle-class men identified themselves with the rational mind, they increasingly linked women to emotions and the body. Nineteenth-century physicians made women's reproductive systems the explanatory center of women's existence. Statements such as "[i]t is only because of the ovary that woman is what she is" (from 1844) and "the Almighty, in creating the female sex," has "taken the uterus and built up a woman around it" (from 1877) typified the nineteenth-century medical view. These theories of women's subordination to their reproductive functions nicely matched the long-standing Christian association of men with mind and reason and of women with the dangerous body.
Nineteenth-century medical theories were one strand of a complex of ideas that linked religious, economic, and political norms to an ideal of health and character that only white men were deemed capable of achieving. Regular medical theories were predicated upon a belief in the power of manly will and human intervention to control the body. This belief in will over matter aligned mainstream medicine with evangelical Christianity. Medical doctors insisted that although people physically suffered from the sins of their parents, this bodily inheritance could be overcome through will power under the guidance of doctors. Evangelical Christianity held that although all inherited a sinful nature, this flaw could be overcome through iron-willed struggle under the guidance of ministers.
Doctors' emphasis on the role of the will in taming an unruly body intersected with and promoted the specific economic ideologies that were also supported by evangelical Christianity. The Christian desire for salvation impelled believers both to work incessantly (to demonstrate their devotion to God's will) and to abstain from enjoying the fruits of one's labors (since excessive pleasure was sinful). This perspective meshed with the laissez-faire view that any man could succeed as long as he was assertive and frugal rather than weak-willed and profligate. The closed-energy interpretation of human physiology encouraged a similar willed asceticism: like economic advancement or religious salvation, physical health was dependent upon mastering the body's wasteful impulses. Weakness, illness, madness, or even death would result if one allowed one's body to "spend" its vital energies on debilitating sensual pleasures.
Willful self-control was also central to republicanism, one of the chief strains in antebellum political ideology. According to this ideology, the government of a republic was distinguished by its unique devotion to the public good. Such a government was dependent upon the morality of its citizens; they must be virtuous and concerned with the welfare of the whole. The virtue of the republic's male citizens was ensured by their economic independence, since men who were independent would not be easily corrupted. This is where male will came into play. Only the man whose will was powerful enough to control his disruptive desires could achieve the economic independence that was the cornerstone of political virtue.
The links between physiology, religion, politics, and economy were particularly explicit in medical understandings of male sexuality. Ministers regarded excessive sexuality as sinful, while republican thinkers viewed it as a symbol of political corruption. Medical understanding of sexuality linked its abuse to moral and economic as well as physical ruin. The nineteenth-century slang for orgasm was "spending," and semen was identified with the "vital force" men needed to conserve if they were to have the necessary drive to compete socially and economically. The dreaded male diseases of the century were masturbation and "spermatorrhea," or nocturnal emissions—that is, the voluntary or involuntary loss of semen. These diseases were dreaded because they demonstrated "moral bankruptcy." They epitomized the power of body over mind, and so represented a dangerous reversal of the rule of mind over body upon which economic, political, and moral order depended.
The healthy, moral, civic-minded, and financially stable individual—that is, the person of character—was depicted as controlled yet strong-willed and aggressive. That this paradigm of health excluded middle-class women by definition becomes clear when one contrasts medical ideas about menstruation with those about semen. Mainstream physicians viewed menstruation as an illness; adult women were therefore unhealthy by nature. They believed that obstructed or irregular menstruation, broadly defined, caused all illnesses suffered by women. Doctors argued that mental or emotional exertion was dangerous for women because it diverted blood from their reproductive region and so created a hysterical mind and a barren body. While male health depended upon will-power and self-control (necessary if men were to retain their vital spermatic fluids), women's health required that they dull their minds and remain placid (in order to allow their potentially dangerous menstrual fluids to be regularly released).
The passive and retiring behavior deemed essential to middle-class women's health clearly disqualified them from active participation in the competitive economic world. There was nevertheless a fit between the behavior enjoined upon white women by doctors (and by ministers) and the actual economic contributions of middle-class women. Women's physiology demanded that women react to the needs of others rather than initiate activity. The woman who selflessly devoted herself to providing food, clothing, shelter, and education to her brother, husband, and son provided her family with critical though invisible economic support. Her unpaid and hidden labor gave the men who benefited from it the illusion of being "self-made" and made them feel more in control of their destiny.
There was an incipient gender conflict built into this system, however. Home production declined steadily, so that by mid-century middle-class women's economic role revolved more around the purchase of goods than it did around the production of them. Women were expected to be ignorant of economics, yet they were given the task of "spending"—the very trait men so feverishly battled, both economically and physiologically, within themselves. Some feared that unworldly wives would spend hard-working men into financial bankruptcy.
The medical image of woman as little more than a placid, reproducing animal is contradicted by the popular image of the nineteenth-century woman as moral guardian. This contradiction is lessened by the fact that it was not all women, but only white women of the middle class, who were depicted as angels in the home. White middle-class women were members of the dominant social class, and their attributes symbolized not only the difference between all men and all women, but also the difference between men and women of the middle class and all others.
White middle-class women were therefore understood as the opposites of working-class women and non-white women. If working-class and non-white women were animalistic, strong, and active, then white middle-class women were passionless, weak, and passive. White middle-class women could be both ruled by their uteruses and without sexual passion because their reproductive organs were believed to perform maternal rather than sexual functions. Any lingering fears that women's passions might exist were assuaged by the belief that women were naturally self-denying, and would therefore readily sacrifice the very longing for pleasure that men claimed did not exist in women.
The idea that white middle-class women, like all women, were more animal than spiritual was supported by the fact that their adult lives often centered around childbearing, child-rearing, and the daily care of their families' bodies—all labors uncomfortably close to the animal side of existence. White middle-class women transformed the cultural significance of these labors, however. They presented their maternal role not as animalistic reproduction but as the epitome of spiritual, selfless service to others. Drawing on the Christian association of superior morality with self-sacrifice, they claimed their maternal self-sacrifice to be evidence of a superior spirituality, and thus an ambiguous model of power. As author Catharine Beecher explained, only the morally superior should have public power. The highest proof of morality was self-sacrifice. Self-sacrificing women were therefore the paradigms of morality, and should have public power. This argument, which drew upon the prevailing norms of its time, proved enduring. Middle-class women used the idea that their maternal natures were indicative of a superior, self-sacrificing spirituality to justify their engagement in religious, philanthropic, and reform activities before the Civil War.
Middle-class women's claims to be moral, spiritual, and self-sacrificing also provided them with an important though indirect political role. They were to encourage the moral virtue upon which republican government depended. Though the virtue of male citizens was grounded in their economic independence, it could be further enhanced by the spiritual influence of their mothers and wives. In a young democratic culture obsessed with "self-government" and in which selfishness and sin were seen as equivalent terms, women were enjoined to impart to their sons and husbands the selflessness that would make them good citizens. Some of the earliest calls for advanced education for women were based upon the claim that in order to impart moral and political virtues to their children, women needed first to be trained in those virtues themselves.
Middle-class women's claims to power based upon self-sacrifice and spiritual superiority were inherently problematic, however. They did not challenge the idea that women were naturally passive. Women were not, therefore, supposed to actively inculcate moral values through lessons or arguments. Instead, the mother was to "influence" her children by strictly controlling her own behavior. The mother was to be, not merely to speak about, the moral, peaceful, selfless person she wished her child to become. She could do this only by harshly suppressing any hint of "selfishness" in herself.
Middle-class women's claims to spiritual power also reenforced the ultimately debilitating association of women with the "feminine heart." For nineteenth-century Americans, the heart symbolized love and self-sacrificing concern for others, and was gendered female. A faith in the existence of the feminine heart within man played a critical role in the American ideology of competitive individualism. It allowed man to compete freely, since his worst excesses would be checked by both the feminine without (the influence of virtuous mothers and wives) and the feminine within (man's own gentle heart). Competitive individualism and sentimental selfhood were two sides of a coin.
The ideology of sentimental selfhood defined man as a whole, containing both an active, aggressive "outside" and a moral, intuitive "inside." It defined woman, however, as a half, though supposedly the "better half," since she contained only the internal virtues of intuition and morality, lacking the external virtues of endurance and drive. Claims that middle-class women embodied spirituality and intuition, therefore, crippled women (since a purely spiritual and intuitive person could not act independently), while they enabled men (who could pursue their dreams unimpeded, since any behavioral excesses were checked by their "feminine heart" within).
Middle-class women's claims to an empowering spiritual nature also failed to challenge their exclusion from mainstream paradigms of health. Indeed, in some ways their claims to spiritual power only aggravated their situation. Because the spiritual was defined as the opposite of the physical, "spiritual" women went to great lengths to downplay their physicality. Their efforts to demonstrate their lack of physicality were encouraged by the dictates of both medicine and fashion. The results, however, only made their bodies more problematic. For example, nineteenth-century white women were expected to be delicate, with narrow ribs and tiny waists, to emphasize both their differences from men and their ethereal nature. Women wore corsets both to achieve a fashionable waist size and because of doctors' insistence that women's muscles were so delicate that a corset was needed to hold them in place. Extreme tight-lacing of corsets contributed to the fainting spells, headaches, and uterine disorders believed to be widespread among nineteenth-century white women. Contradictory medical claims about women's simultaneously animal and ethereal nature might have caused the damage that doctors were then called upon to alleviate.
Medical doctors reinterpreted women's claims to a superior spirituality as proof of their subordination to their unstable, reproduction-oriented physicality. As one British doctor explained, "If the corporeal agency is thus powerful in man, its tyrannical influence will more frequently cause the misery of the gentler sex. Woman, with her exalted spiritualism, is more forcibly under the control of matter.... She is less under the influence of the brain than the uterine system ... [I]n her, a hysteric predisposition is incessantly predominating from the dawn of puberty."
In sum, mainstream Victorian thought viewed the relationship between mind and matter, or matter and spirit, as both gendered and adversarial. Middle-class men were to use their minds or will to control matter (or their bodies), their spending, and their women. Such efforts simultaneously brought them moral, physical, political, and economic benefits. In response, middle-class women asserted that their selflessness and passivity were evidence of their moral and spiritual superiority. They used such claims to distance themselves from matter (or their bodies). Yet women's power of spirit was at the expense of the strength of their bodies, and did not fully break their association with matter, nature, and spending—that is, with all that a man of character must repress.
EVOLUTIONARY THEORIES AND ANGLO-SAXON DESIRE, 1870-1910
Older paradigms that based white middle-class male identity on will, independence, and the repression of desire were shaken by the economic and cultural changes of the post-Civil War years. In a society of increasing economic complexity, white men found that hard work and self-discipline bore little relation to economic success. Small-town manufacturers were relentlessly overtaken by corporate-run industries. As independent businesses failed in record numbers, white middle-class men found work as clerks or managers for large corporations. Mid-century ideals favored the independent male producer as the foundation of the republic. But what exactly did the corporate "brain worker" produce?
Even the abundance brought about by the new industrial order posed threats to older ideals of middle-class manhood. A "manly" man practiced self-denial and kept his desires rigorously directed toward production. But as the fate of businesses began to lie as much in their ability to market their goods as it did in their ability to produce them, consumption was encouraged by advertisers, who increased their volume ten-fold between 1870 and 1900. Advertisers went beyond the sober description of a product's features and attempted instead to incite in consumers a generalized, omnivorous desire. Did this imply that desires should be not denied, but, rather, expressed? Could it mean that economically, the consuming woman was more important than the producing man?
The mushrooming growth of cities was another source of concern. Mainstream Victorian culture insisted that the "low" aspects of life, including sexuality, irrationality, passions, and even materiality, must be rigidly controlled. The goal was to achieve a world in which middle-class understandings of morality reigned supreme. But as cities filled with immigrants whose patterns of work, leisure, and sexuality sharply differed from those of middle-class white Protestants, some of the latter felt that this goal was threatened. They feared that the newcomers were creating an urban world of sensuality and vice that they, the high-minded portion of the population, could not control.
A final challenge to the self-image of white middle-class men came from a more intimate source—namely, white middle-class women. Beginning in the 1870s these women competed with white men in higher education, asserted themselves in movements for social reform, and attempted to eradicate saloons, brothels, and other arenas of male pleasure. With the emergence of female typists, even business was no longer an exclusively male domain. White men could not always identify the economic forces that were undercutting their self-image as disciplined producers. They could, however, see that white women were infringing upon their turf. In response to women's unwelcome presence, some professional white men began to mobilize the arsenal of elite scientific discourse against them.
The first attacks came, not surprisingly, from the medical profession. In 1873 Dr. Edward H. Clarke published a study entitled Sex in Education. Clarke revived the old claim that the development of women's minds would damage the health of their reproductive organs. Higher education would produce women with "monstrous brains and puny bodies," he insisted. His arguments were taken seriously and sparked a thirty-year debate over the question "does higher education unfit women for motherhood?"
Clarke insisted that his findings were supported by science, which was the true and impartial arbiter of social questions. The "problem of woman's sphere ... is not to be solved by applying to it abstract principles of right and wrong. Its solution must be obtained from physiology, not from ethics or metaphysics," Clarke explained. British physician Henry Maudsley agreed that the claims of science superseded those of morality. Women's exclusion from higher education was "a matter of physiology, not a matter of sentiment," he seconded.
Further scientific support for women's domesticity came from the new evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer. At the heart of both men's theories were the ideas of Jean Lamarck (1744-1829), who believed that acquired traits could be inherited. Building upon this theory, Darwin and Spencer concurrently developed the thesis that over the past millennia, the physical forms and mental capabilities of human beings had changed in response to the actions of individuals engaged in a "struggle for existence." Those individuals who developed superior physical skills, mental abilities, or social institutions were most successful in this struggle. The accomplishments of superlative individuals were passed on to their descendants through the inheritance of acquired traits and thereby eventually altered the basic form and capability of human groups.
Evolutionary theories challenged biblical accounts of creation and the Christian belief that nature progressed by an orderly divine plan. The theories nonetheless became immensely popular, at least partially because of the ease with which mainstream ideals could be recast in evolutionary language and so given a scientific grounding. Evolutionary science proved particularly useful in shoring up hierarchies of race and gender, which had been challenged by the abolition of slavery in the South and by the movement of white women into the wage labor force in the North.
Evolutionary science was quickly integrated with anthropological theory in order to support mainstream ideals of public manhood and private womanhood. Victorian anthropologists speculated that the earliest human societies had been characterized by sexual promiscuity, communal land ownership, and matriarchal family organization. Gradually both private property and a patriarchal family structure had emerged. The two grew in tandem because men would strive to accumulate goods or land only if they knew they could leave their possessions to their offspring. To leave private property to a descendant, the heir must be known; and heirs can be identified with absolute certainty only if men have monogamous, faithful wives. Women's faithfulness could be best ensured by their sheltered maintenance in the private home. Strict monogamy and separate spheres for men and women were therefore essential for private property to exist, and developed in tandem with it.
This anthropological scenario depicted male desire—for money, offspring, fame, or success—as the driving force behind progress and civilization. The primary value of the domestic woman lay in her ability to motivate productive male desire. Yet women's own morality was seen as contingent rather than innate. Since women's virtue depended upon their domestic isolation, any movement of women into the public sphere would destroy the sheltering conditions that ensured their morality. Women would become competitive and worldly, like men, and thus no sphere of life would remain to both tame and reward male aggression. Furthermore, these theories implied that the sexuality of the publicly active woman would be less regulated. Legitimacy would be less certain. Men's motives for personal striving, consequently, would decline. The public activity of women would leave men unmotivated and the world in chaos.
Herbert Spencer synthesized these Victorian anthropological theories into a biologically based evolutionary framework. He explained that not only had patriarchal family organization evolved historically, it was sanctioned by the law of natural selection. According to Spencer, children raised in patriarchal families were better guarded and therefore healthier. These children passed on their superior strength, as well as a tendency to form stable monogamous couples, to their own children via the inheritance of acquired characteristics. The sons of protective fathers also grew to become superior warriors. Societies who followed monogamous patriarchal family forms necessarily triumphed, therefore, over societies with "lower domestic arrangements." The mind and body of the sheltered woman increasingly differed from that of her bread-winning husband. The divergence between the active, public man and the passive, domestic woman was not merely one of the crowning features of advanced civilization, Spencer argued—it was also bred into the very minds and bodies of "the race," via evolutionary processes of natural selection.
|List of Charts and Illustrations|
|Introduction: New Thought in Late-Victorian America||1|
|1||The Era of Woman and the Problem of Desire||21|
|2||The Mother or the Warrior: Mind, Matter, Selfhood, and Desire in the Writings of Mary Baker Eddy and Warren Felt Evans||57|
|3||Emma Curtis Hopkins and the Spread of New Thought, 1885-1905||79|
|4||Sex and Desirelessness: the New Thought Novels of Helen Van-Anderson, Ursula Gestefeld, and Alice Bunker Stockham||111|
|5||Money and Desire: Helen Wilmans and the Reorientation of New Thought||150|
|6||New Thought and Early Progressivism||181|
|7||New Thought and Popular Psychology, 1905-1920||217|
|Conclusion: New Thought in American Culture after 1920||249|