The Feminization of American Culture, by Ann Douglas
(New York: Knopf, 1977): 403 pp.

Reviewed by Jessica Wolpert


During the nineteenth century, two events, seemingly unrelated, occurred on the American cultural scene: the rise of liberal religion and the creation of the sentimental novel. Ann Douglas' The Feminization of American Culture attempts to link these two together, theorizing that a general move towards "feminization" was behind changes in both literary and religious culture. Douglas' thesis may be right, yet the reader is prevented from judging its worth by the wall of misogyny built around its features.
According to Douglas, both middle-class white women and the clergy were responsible for the feminization of American culture during the Victorian period. The two groups joined forces as they realized that their traditional roles were becoming obsolete in the face of household and religious innovations. Feminization was conceived as a reactionary tactic, a way to keep women and clergymen relevant to society through the pulpit and the pen.
Feminization is not just historical record. Douglas argues that the feminization of American intellectual life led to a retardation of culture from which the nation has still not recovered. As a rather poorly realized coda to her argument, Douglas adds that feminization's sentimental tendencies led to the modern excesses of capitalism and mass culture. (It is hard to critique the particular points of this idea, as Douglas alludes to it offhandedly throughout Feminization , as if it were a given.)
The problem with Feminization is that its author assumes first, that every effect of feminization was negative and secondly, that every negative effect on religion and literature came from feminization. At points, Douglas' attack on "feminine" tendencies in Victorian thought seems to be out of pure misogyny. Feminization relies heavily on a masculine/feminine, positive/negative dichotomy. This narrow field of vision both negates any outside historical influence and automatically denigrates the "feminine" virtues.
These tendencies are most obvious in Feminization's chapters on the feminization of American religion. Although she attempts to defend herself from such charges, Douglas writes from a standpoint in which old-style, "masculine" Calvinism is the "normal" American religion. From this viewpoint, the transformation of religion during the Victorian era is, of course, an unhappy development. For the sake of coherent argument, though, it is not enough to just declare "Calvinism good, Unitarianism bad." Douglas does realize this, and attempts to explain herself.
Unfortunately, Douglas does so by shoving the two religious styles into her masculine/feminine dichotomy. Unitarianism is associated with "weakness," which is associated with the feminine. Calvinism is "strong" religion, and therefore masculine - and better. Douglas' argument assigns wholly negative traits to the "feminine" - even the Victorians believed that women had their virtues! It also ignores any outside reasons for American, and indeed much of Western, Christianity's "feminization."
Feminization 'sstance on the "decline" of American religion extends to its critique of American literature. She states that she is not necessarily attacking the main themes of sentimental writing: female purity, religious devotion, the goodness of a childish heart. What she is attacking, or would like to attack, is the lack of thought that American writers devoted to those themes. Douglas compares the output of British writers, such as George Eliot and Charles Dickens, to the output of America's female writers and finds the latter decidedly lacking. Something happened, Douglas posits, to keep America's best literary minds from exploring the concepts of feminine writing. Feminization blames the aforementioned gang of middle-class ladies and their comrades-in-arms, the clergymen, for the poor quality of American output.
Douglas' position falls apart on a cursory examination. The sentimental writing that Douglas attacks is obviously not limited by gender or culture - the literary contemporaries of "campy" Little Eva were created by writers outside of the realm of American womanhood. To take Douglas' examples to task, the Englishman Dickens created Little Nell. This saintly child hears music and chants "God bless you!" as she dies. George Eliot wrote Silas Marner, the ultimate story of child as redeemer. Eliot's pure Eppie even outdoes Little Eva by staying on earth to comfort her adoptive father, even living with him after her marriage. These novels may be, by twentieth-century standards, better written than Uncle Tom's Cabin, yet they unquestioningly use the same young female type that Stowe employs. What, then, makes Dickens' and Eliot's depictions of the feminine so much more complex than Stowe's? Feminization never convincingly answers that question.
The Feminization of American Culture is interesting in that it provides portraits of little-known Victorian writers and clergymen. Unfortunately, that historical information is used in the service of a poorly structured, single-minded thesis.

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