Tag Archives: spirituality

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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