BGSU historian’s book examines contradictory portrayal of women
While women have made strides toward equal rights in the United States, some cultural attitudes about them haven’t budged much in 200 years.
Striking comparisons can be made, for example, with early 19th-century temperance literature, which Dr. Scott Martin, history, examines in his recently published book.
In Devil of the Domestic Sphere: Temperance, Gender, and Middle-class Ideology, 1800-1860, published by Northern Illinois University Press, Martin points out the contradiction in the portrayal of women by antebellum temperance reformers, who saw alcohol abuse as a male vice that imperiled women in an increasingly urban, industrial world.
Martin explains “there were competing conceptions of women as both good and evil” in the literature, which painted them as angelic but also as “Eve the temptress leading men astray.” The image of a wife battered by a drunken husband was common, but writers often hastened to add that male abuse wouldn’t have happened if women hadn’t driven men to taverns with peevish or nagging behavior at home, or offered them “the poisoned cup” themselves, he says.
“Some of these patterns of blaming the victim still do persist,” the author notes.
So does a fascination with violence against women, which was vividly described in the temperance writing, says Martin, also the history department chair at BGSU. Part of the reason for the graphic depiction was to convey the harm of alcoholic violence and build sympathy for temperance reform. The descriptions were so extreme as to be almost pornographic in effect, however, undercutting the goal of promoting morality.
Temperance reformers were part of a segment of society that was just taking shape then but is taken for granted now. “This was a period when the middle class had not really formed,” he points out, so the reformers in the emerging class, to generate cultural authority, used temperance literature to propagate ideas about the nature of women and their role as guardians of the home.
Temperance was an important issue to women because drinking essentially represented encroachment by the outside world, Martin explains, and they couldn’t fulfill the guardian role if their husbands were coming home drunk. They needed protection, but it wasn’t forthcoming, he says, through legislation—70 years before Prohibition, starting in Maine in 1851, a number of states and territories banned the production and sale of alcohol, but many of those laws were overturned in the courts.
Women were held up as morally superior to men and, as such, capable of exerting influence and convincing men to give up drinking, Martin relates. When that proved untenable, though, the reformers again reverted to blaming women, saying they weren’t trying hard enough or, in trying to be hospitable, were offering drinks to guests, he says.
And women who were drinkers themselves really presented a problem, as early 19th-century society regarded female drunkards as much more of a scourge than men, he says. That had to do in part with reflecting badly on male relatives and with the notion of motherhood—that women were responsible for raising good citizens and that alcohol was one of the few things, if not the only thing, that could make mothers lose their innate love for their children. But it was also difficult to jibe female drunkenness with the idea of women as angelic, he adds.
“Female drunkards undermined the whole middle-class ideology of gender,” Martin says, speculating that the number of women alcoholics was probably underestimated at the time because people didn’t want to deal with the issue.
Even today, most people would likely say a drunken woman is worse than a drunken man, he suggests. On the surface, Americans may have abandoned their notions of female gentility, he argues, but they have maintained the notion of female alcoholics being morally inferior to their male counterparts, who are expected to drink.
“It takes a long time for these deeply embedded cultural patterns to change,” Martin says, citing the lack of women’s suffrage until 1920. And that was 50 years after the 15th Amendment gave black men the vote, demonstrating the influence of traditional gender roles, he says.
Devil of the Domestic Sphere is the second book by the BGSU professor, who also wrote Killing Time: Leisure and Culture in Southwestern Pennsylvania, 1800-1850. In that 1995 book, he touched on the early 19th-century spike in alcohol consumption—more than twice today’s consumption per capita—that fueled the U.S. temperance movement. That topic intersected with his interest in women’s history and gender to produce the new book.