Beyond Hearth & Home: Role of Women in Uncle Tom's Cabin
"O, ridiculous, Emily! You are the finest woman in Kentucky; but still you haven't to know that you don't understand business; -- women never do, and never can ..."
Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin was one of the most talked about novels of the nineteenth century and is still widely read and discussed today. It was a powerful tool in the abolitionist movement as it encompassed many contrasting views and experiences of slavery within a popularized novel. In addition to its contribution to the anti-slavery movement, Uncle Tom's Cabin is considered one of the earliest examples of a text advocating women's rights. At the time that Uncle Tom's Cabin was published the political climate was filled with unrest and revolutionary spirit as a result of both the controversial anti-slavery storm, in addition to, this new idea regarding women that was gaining momentum as well. This movement went well beyond the idea of women's suffrage, as it would be seventy years before women would be granted the right to vote by the Nineteenth Amendment, but instead focused more on women's emergence as public citizens with the ability to participate and have a role in society that went beyond the domestic domain. Through the personalities and actions of the female characters in her novel, Stowe reveals the power and influence that women can hold outside the domestic.
During the nineteenth century women were considered inferior and expected to be submissive to men; their place was in the home raising the children, running the household and managing the house servants. This concept was based on domesticity, the cultural ideal of the time "which separated matters of home and hearth (women and children) from matters of public opinion, self interest, and law (men and marketplace)" (MacKethan, 223). It was a disgrace for a woman to interfere in the marketplace as it was deemed a solely male domain, so much so that it was considered detrimental to a business if women's opinions were included. In Uncle Tom's Cabin, when Mrs. Shelby asks to help her husband with the plantation finances he replies, "O, ridiculous, Emily! You are the finest woman in Kentucky; but still you haven't to know that you don't understand business; -- women never do, and never can... You don't know anything about business, I tell you"(Stowe, 372). Even though Mrs. Shelby is very intelligent and has "a force of character every way superior to that of her husband"(Stowe, 372), because she is a woman her husband will not even entertain the idea of allowing her to directly help him with business affairs; her place is in the domestic affairs of their home. Although women were perceived to be insignificant and completely unattached to the business affairs of men, Stowe suggests that this was not the case. Instead, she argues that, as wives and mothers, women have the ability to shape the morals, values and actions of the men around them.
Throughout Uncle Tom's Cabin there is an underlying theme of the importance of the role of women in the mid-nineteenth century plantation culture; Stowe addresses the issue of women's rights with the employment of strong and influential female characters. Instead of encouraging the belief that women are less than men she promotes the idea that they are more than meek and submissive homemakers but, in fact, have a profound influence on the men around them. In her article "Domesticity in Dixie: The Plantation Novel and Uncle Tom's Cabin," author Lucinda H. MacKethan explains that Stowe uses her novel as a venue for "converting essentially repressive concepts of femininity into a positive (and activist) alternative system of values in which women figures not merely as the moral superior of man, as his inspirer, but as the model for him in the new millennium about to dawn"(MacKethan, 225). This idea, that as wives and mothers women have the ability to shape the morals, values and actions of the men around them, can be seen frequently throughout Stowe's work.
Within the novel, Stowe reveals that mothers play a pivotal role in shaping their son's personality, values and beliefs. In Uncle Tom's Cabin "mothers are the agents of power ... Stowe contends that polemically that motherly love is sacred, demonstrated in pity tenderness and prayers"(Jenkins, 162). This is illustrated by Mr. St. Clare's revering attitude of his mother; he praises, "She was divine! ... She probably was of mortal birth; but as far as ever I could observe, there was no trace of any human weakness or error about her ...She was a direct embodiment of the New Testament" (Stowe, 333). Furthermore, St. Clare "revered and respected her above all living beings" (Stowe, 336). Likewise, Quaker Rachel Halliday's children recall how the sound of their mother's rocking chair was always comforting because "for twenty years or more, nothing but loving words and gentle moralities, and motherly loving kindness had come from that chair; -- head aches and heart-aches innumerable had been cured there, -- difficulties spiritual and temporal solved there, -- all by one good loving woman"(Stowe, 215). Stowe portrays these women as moral, trustworthy and courageous. The profound influence that mothers had on their sons shaped the values, ideas and beliefs of the men who would one day develop into prominent decision makers. In this way, these women indirectly influenced the decisions that affected the world around them.
Similar to the strong influence that mothers have on their sons, throughout Uncle Tom's Cabin wives play a pivotal role in shaping the morals and actions of their husbands as well. In "Moral Influence on the Husband" from the book From The Young Wife, author William A. Alcottt explains, "Every wife has it in her power to make her husband either better or worse"(Alcott). This influence is seen in the relationship between Senator and Mrs. Bird. When Senator Bird explains to his wife that the government may pass a law forbidding people to give food to escaping slaves, she is appalled, "Poor, homeless, houseless creatures! It's a shameful, wicked, abominable law, and I'll break it, for one, the first time I get a chance; and I hope I shall have a chance, I do! ... John, I don't know anything about politics, but I can read my Bible; and there I see that I must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and comfort the desolate; and that Bible I mean to follow"(Stowe, 144). Mrs. Bird scolds her husband for supporting such an unchristian law and forces him to explain himself. A few moments later, when a distraught Eliza stumbles into their kitchen, the Senator, swayed by the scolding of his wife, agrees to shelter her. Once again, a seemingly unimportant woman has a profound influence in a man's life and, in turn, indirectly begins to influence the decisions that he makes.
A woman's influence could be felt, not only within the realms of her immediate family, but in the plantation community as well. Women's roles in men's lives are considered so great that "conditions that produce unwomanly women subvert the natural order of things, for without women in their proper place as administrators of the home, the rest of society cannot function"(Jenkins, 174-175). Without a strong female figure, the domesticity of a home suffers and, in turn, affects the character and relationships of the men in her home. For example, cruel slave master Simon Legree's plantation is unkempt and his home squalid, "The place had that peculiar sickening, unwholesome smell, compounded of mingled damp, dirt and decay ... and the dogs of whom we have before spoken, had encamped themselves among them, to suit their own taste and convenience"(Stowe, 525). Legree does not have a respectful and Christian wife; instead he has a meek and equally filthy slave woman that lives in his home. This reveals the effect that the absence of a strong and pious female figure can have on a man and his home; Legree is a cruel, abusive and heartless master who lives in squalor. This illustrates Stowe's theme that women are the moral and trustworthy counterparts to the decadent males; without their voice of reason and good values, men such as Simon Legree will become malicious, heartless and filthy.
Throughout her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe draws a parallel between the plight of enslaved African Americans and the repressed women of the time; both lack the rights and social standing of white males. Throughout the story she uses female characters to speak about women's rights and the roles of the men in their lives. Even though, at that time, women were viewed to be inferior and subordinate to men, they in fact shaped the men in their lives. Stowe offers a more positive stance, that instead of being silent submissive wives and mothers, they in fact have a quiet but powerful influence on the men around them. She suggests that women have the ability to shape the morals, values and actions of these men and, in turn, help sway the decisions that affect the world around them. In this way, women have the ability to encourage the condemnation of, and perhaps influence leaders to end the institution of slavery. Although Stowe does not say that Uncle Tom's Cabin is a specifically feminist work, the novel nonetheless is regarded as an example of early feminism. Stowe's suggestion that women retained subtle but great power and influence over their husbands was not only empowering but revolutionary; this implication provided further fuel to the feminist arguments of the time.
Currier & Ives prints courtesy of Amanda Lewis.