Synopses & Reviews
In this book, Lori D. Ginzberg examines benevolent work performed by middle- and upper-middle-class American women from the 1820s to 1885 and offers a new interpretation of the shifting political contexts and meanings of this long tradition of women's reform activism.Ginzberg offers a carefully nuanced interpretation of antebellum women reformers. . . . Her] determination to juxtapose issues usually studied in isolation could stand as a model for American social historians of any period. Her questions about the intersections of gender, morality, class, and politics will remain significant for years to come.-Peggy Pascoe, American Historical ReviewTo read Ginzberg is to confront the difficult questions which face today's feminists. Is it possible for feminism to empower women without adopting an essentialist stance? Can a feminism that focuses on difference still fight for equality? Can feminism cross class lines and not simply mask class goals? These are the larger questions Ginzberg's ambitious book ultimately poses. The boldness of her thesis and the significance of the issues she raises within the historical context of female benevolence have already provoked debate and made her book required reading in women's history.-Sarah Stage, Reviews in American HistoryCOWINNER OF THE 1991 NATIONAL HISTORICAL SOCIETY'S BOOK PRIZE IN AMERICAN HISTORY
Nineteenth-century middle-class Protestant women were fervent in their efforts to "do good." Rhetoric--especially in the antebellum years--proclaimed that virtue was more pronounced in women than in men and praised women for their benevolent influence, moral excellence, and religious faith. In this book, Lori D. Ginzberg examines a broad spectrum of benevolent work performed by middle- and upper-middle-class women from the 1820s to 185 and offers a new interpretation of the shifting political contexts and meanings of this long tradition of women's reform activism. During the antebellum period, says Ginzberg, the idea of female moral superiority and the benevolent work it supported contained both radical and conservative possibilities, encouraging an analysis of femininity that could undermine male dominance as well as guard against impropriety. At the same time, benevolent work and rhetoric were vehicles for the emergence of a new middle-class identity, one which asserts virtue--not wealth--determined status. Ginzberg shows how a new generation that came of age during the 1850s and the Civil War developed new analyses of benevolence and reform. By post-bellum decades, the heirs of antebellum benevolence referred less to a mission of moral regeneration and far more to a responsibility to control the poor and "vagrant," signaling the refashioning of the ideology of benevolence from one of gender to one of class. According to Ginzberg, these changing interpretations of benevolent work throughout the century not only signal an important transformation in women's activists' culture and politics but also illuminate the historical development of American class identity and of women's role in constructing social and political authority.