Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America

Indiana University Press; 2001

Ann Braude’s work[1] presents her incredible research findings about spiritualism and its influential partnership with the promotion of women’s rights in the mid-late 19th century America. When the Spiritualist movement arose, it is compelling to find that it was actually adolescent girls rather than adult women or men who were the most common spiritual mediums. This information raises numerous questions about the specific understanding authenticity and its popular association with girls in the late 1800s as well as the kinds of ideas that are circulating about the same issue in this modern century.

During previous centuries, words like “pious”, “pure”, and “moral” were customarily used to describe women. It was an obvious connection that Americans made, considering what they thought about the public and private spheres. Thus, even if spiritual participants were both male and female, most spiritual activities were conducted within the women’s private sphere—their homes—instead of the organized church. Braude expounds that spirituality was linked to femininity; therefore, mediums were most commonly women and girls.

More specifically, she argues “Americans throughout the country found messages from spirits most plausible when delivered through the agency of adolescent girl.”  While testimonies from children might be more likely to be dismissed as childish chatter, Spiritualists believed that a young girl had the potential to be more innocent—untainted and moral—than older women. This innocence further attached itself to the idea it also presupposed trustworthiness. Although Spiritualists’ primary reason for spurring this new trend was to find mediums who made it easier for spirits to speak through, the byproduct was that it offered girls a radical platform to experience and practice public work despite the discouraging backdrop of their current society’s norms on proper girl behavior. Unfortunately, Spiritualists’ efforts perpetuated the suppression of girl’s actual agency because, with their role as mediums, girls were only viewed and treated as passive vessels.

In the 21st century, a greater emphasis on the legitimacy and authenticity of children’s testimonies has allowed space for further implementation  in child empowerment—everything from self-expressive creations to the expansion of child’s rights. Dr. Marnina Gonick, professor and author, wrote Between Femininities chronicling her research on adolescent girls who actualized their own agency by creating fictional films that were in fact testimonies of their own life stories. Their stories allowed them to personally vocalize various types of issues they were experiencing as young, developing girls. Gonick and Yasmin describe the project to be an extension of “postmodernist privileging of girls’ voices, resistance and agency.”[2]

Although Spiritualists and postmodernists provided girls with the chance to stand and speak in wider public spheres, both groups chose to do so for drastically  different reasons. Spiritualists believed that pure, innocent, girls were  ironically non-participatory, transparent mediums whom the spirits could use to speak through. On the other hand, postmodernists continue to believe in encouraging girls’ agency on the basis that, regardless of age, girls thoughts, perspectives and experiences are valuable narratives that should be heard by their peers as well as the larger society.

[1] Braude, Ann. Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-century America. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2001. Print.

[2] Gonick, Marnina, and Yasmin Jiwani. “BETWEEN FEMININITIES: Ambivalence, Identity and the Education of Girls.” Resources for Feminist Research 31.1 (2004): 14-6. ABI/INFORM Complete; GenderWatch; Los Angeles Times; ProQuest Central; ProQuest Criminal Justice. Web. Oct. 2012.


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Women’s Well-Being: Ranking America’s Top 25 Metro Areas

How to Assess Human Development and Well-Being

Human Development of Women in the 25 Most Populous Metro Areas

U.S. Female Life Expectancy by Racial and Ethnic Group

Women’s Educational Attainment by Age

Male and Female Higher Education Enrollment


To get further information about Women’s Well-Being in America:

Download the Measure of America PDF

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Religion and Domestic Violence in Early New England: The Memoirs of Abigail Abbot Bailey

Indiana University Press; 1989

Abigail Abbot Bailey’s account[1] of domestic violence neither seems atypical nor surprising from many other women’s accounts of what they’ve experienced in abusive relationships. However, Abigail’s faith and trust in God coupled with her understanding  of it—what it actually means and the way in which it should be manifested in her life—is what sets her story apart from other women’s stories.

Abigail’s family upbringing explains how her understanding of trust in God had been shaped. She had a relatively peaceful and loving family. Submission to her parents was never a problem because they provided care and sacrifice. Her lack of experience in struggles and hardships did not allow her to understand what it meant to fully trust God and activate her faith.

Early on in her marriage to Asa Bailey, she notices that he exhibits sinful behavior in his life, but she is eager to show him grace because she believes he has yet to be converted and that every human being has sinned before God. Thus, she has no right to judge, but only to impart forgiveness on her husband. Abigail honestly explains that she “would rather suffer wrong than do wrong” (Taves, 57). Her first and foremost devotion is to please God and live in holiness. Her belief could also be explained through her understanding that any kind of earthly suffering was endurable because Christ’s life entailed the ultimate suffering on behalf of the world. She would simply be partaking in Jesus’ life and her duty as a Puritan woman to conform to the image of her Savior.

Multiple times she “trusted in the Lord to deliver” her (Taves, 60). Abigail believed that trusting in God meant praying and idly hoping that he would either rescue her hardships by changing her husband to be a better man even to convert. In fact, her hope that Asa would change was probably one of the main factors that encouraged her to remain in the marriage for so long. One psychology article[2] states that one of the factors that contribute to a person finally deciding whether or not to leave an abusive relationship is “belief that the abuser would change” (Strube, 837). If her own previous definition of “trust in God” did not change, I do not believe that she expected to separate from him by leaving him or attaining a divorce.

Nevertheless, in the latter part of their marriage (after Asa’s incest with their daughter was made known to her) together she began to consider a new definition—“that trusting in God implies the due use of all means” (Taves, 174). Her faith became active and she became a participant in the decisions she made for her life.

[1] Bailey, Abigail Abbot, and Ann Taves. Religion and Domestic Violence in Early New England: The Memoirs of Abigail Abbot Bailey. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989. Print.

[2] Strube, Michael J., and Linda S. Barbour. “Factors Related to the Decision to Leave an Abusive Relationship.” Journal of Marriage and Family 46.4 (1984): n. pag. JSTOR. Web. Sept. 2012. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/352531&gt;.

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Response to “Who Should Be First?”

When U.S. Senator of Illinois Barack Obama ran up against U.S. Senator of New York Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, many individuals in America were in an uproar—pressuring people to take sides on whether they would elect a Black man or white woman for president. Besides 2008, mainstream discussion about race and gender has not been covered so “generously” by the media since 1870 when the 15th amendment was passed granting Black men the right to vote before white women. Though, many feminists felt the need to exclude and demean others who chose the “other” candidate, it was clear that more importantly feminists worldwide would give and speak up about their own inputs on the issue.

Beverly Guy-Sheftall and Johnnetta Betsh Cole’s “Who Should Be First?: Feminists Speak Out on the 2008 Presidential Campaign” shares a collection of various essays, editorials, articles, and even personal reflections from feminists across diverse ages, races, classes, political stances and family backgrounds.

In “Why I’m Supporting Barack Obama,” Katha Pollitt sparks a new edge on the same conversation. She advocates Obama as a better potential president than Clinton. As Pollitt writes that she “wasn’t delighted to think that success would mean four more years of Bill Clinton either,” it is unfair how she cages Hillary in by associating her with negative feelings towards Hillary’s husband. There are other reasons Pollitt justifies choosing Obama over Hillary, but among these the one that stands out the most is that she believes “Obama is a candidate in a different mold” while Hillary doesn’t connect with people as naturally as Obama does. It is clear that she expects backlash from other feminists because at the end of her essay (with a defensive tone) she lists names of “plenty of feminists [who] support Obama].”

Ariel Garfinkel shares observations among the disparity of opinion between the younger and older generations of women about the 2008 primary elections. There is a higher popularity for Obama among young women while older women lean towards a vote for Clinton instead. Garfinkel states that Obama exuded more “values of feminism” than Clinton did during their campaigns as Obama defended Clinton when there were people urging for her withdrawal in the race. People picked up on Clinton’s racially divisive tactics of placing herself above Obama even within her speeches or interviews. Due to Obama’s frequent nice, supportive and collected self; young people viewed Clinton’s blows as part of “old politics” and Obama’s methods as part of a feminist way of approaching politics.

In “Yo Momma,” Linda Hirshman touches upon the trend for young American women to want to defy their mothers and choose to vote for Obama mostly based on that fact alone. Clinton not only reminds them too much of their own mother, but also knowing that their mothers (feminist or not) would probably vote for Hillary makes them want to rebel all the more and vote for the trendier, nicer candidate who is Obama. Hirshman believes that many of these attitudes come from the “stereotypes of second-wave feminists as overbearing, selfish mothers,” but that young women should not use that as a means of revenge in such an important election as this one. She advocates that Clinton should be president and closes with the note that feminists are allowed to vote whichever way they please, but young women should not dismiss Hillary because of their personal problems with their mothers back at home.

Betsy Reed , author of “Race to the Bottom”, talks about the to and fro attacks about both democratic candidates from the pool of supporters from both sides, Reed mentions that the sexist attacks on Clinton were unfair, but that Clinton’s own racists attacks on Obama were disappointing. Reed makes a significant point about the Catch-22 that every woman has to wrestle through in her life.  Clinton was scourged for being a woman that was too cold and aggressive. Yet, ironically, she was flogged for being too emotional and weak by shedding tears during an event in which she was asked a question about how she’s doing everything as a woman.  Reporters and comedians seemed to leave out her response to the question in which she replied that the reason for her tears was that this whole process was personal because “it is about our country. It’s about our kids’ future. It’s about all of us together. Some of us put ourselves out there and do this against some difficult odds.”

Certainly, Obama comes in a racially different shell considering that he became a representative of every minority racial group’s chance at ever being treated as an equal or getting ahead in the United States. Similarly, Clinton too comes in a gender different shell, as she became a representative for girls and women all across America in the hopes for equality or getting ahead as well. Yet, what needs to be clarified is that it is a misnomer to assume that simply by electing a black man or white woman as president, it will appease the racism and sexism that occurs in this country.

In “Generation Y Refuses Race-Gender Dichotomy,” Courtney E. Martin boldly shares that rather than looking at the 2008 elections as a “litmus test”, she chooses to use it as a platform for “a deeper, more authentic conversation” about the intersection between race and gender. Martin chose to vote for Obama, but shares that she will continue to be an “avid Clinton supporter”. Rather than creating divisions, she encourages Americans to use this event as an opportunity to engage in race-gender discussions that will help foster a united nation.

Expectations in the feminist community of keeping a single-minded opinion are confining and highly unlikely considering. This nation is formed from a myriad of people from varying races and ethnic groups, genders, and backgrounds. The beauty and privilege of this nation is that we are not shackled down to only believe one way or the other. Voting for a black man or a white woman for president should not lessen or increase one woman from being a true feminist over another.

So, with this in mind rather than causing bitterness, hatred and resentment towards people that do not agree with us on every issue in life, shouldn’t we be able to dialogue with one another in a loving, safe environment? Ideally, that would be the case, but some political issues are close to people’s hearts and passion arises out of even political elections especially when it is so closely linked to a person’s acceptance, discovery and empowerment of others of their own gender or minority group.

Then the real issue (among the pool of several essays mentioned above) is not that there are lively, passionate discussions about race, gender and the intersection of the two, but that the overwhelming majority of the discussion is about the candidates’ biological and physical aspects alone. Most of the news articles, essays and interviews have been about the racist or sexist attacks and how to combat them. Undoubtedly, there is a great need for people who are willing to do so, but how is that going to help them actually decide whom they will ultimately vote for in the ballot room.

It seems that there wasn’t enough discussion about both Clinton and Obama’s ability to actually become a good president based on their experience, skills, compassion, and ability as a nation leader. There is no need to dismiss their race and gender because it is a great part of who they are, but the concentrated discussions circling around only race and gender stirs the greater problem, which is that maybe there wasn’t enough focus on what kind of human being they are.

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