"The Bible is an antique volume, written by faded men": Duty and desire in nineteenth century American women's writing

Beth Anne Olivares, Fordham University


Harriet Beecher Stowe's The Minister's Wooing (1859), Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's The Gates Ajar (1868), Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World (1851) and My Desire (1879), Emily Dickinson's “Master” letters, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton's political writings and speeches rely heavily upon the language and symbols of Christianity. Working from within the patriarchal framework of nineteenth-century American society, these women used Christianity as a powerful force for the articulation of their own specific personal, social, and political desires, thereby affording themselves the opportunity to explore experiences for which a society anxious about women's place in an evolving economic, political, and technological world offered no other discourse. Female-authored texts work to legitimize a whole panoply of female desires: intellectual, sexual, material, social, and spiritual, and often do so in explicitly Christian terms. When examined in light of mid-nineteenth-century thought and writings, they can be seen as indicative of a contemporary debate—the emergence of the concept of woman's rights, particularly her right to self-fulfillment and self-determination, as it relates to the teachings of traditional Christianity. Along with many others, the writers under discussion here appropriated the language and discourse of the institutionalized Christian church to communicate with readers in a familiar language, and to teach those readers a new idiom with which to articulate desires that had previously been silenced. Christianized discourse empowers passionate expressions of longing and need, it authorizes those expressions, and lends agency to the one who desires. I argue here for a critical recognition of the role revisionist Christianity played in the articulation of women's experience, wants, and needs. Traditionally, American literary history has dismissed women's writings as unworthy of literary study and culturally suspect. However, reading these texts with an awareness of the cultural matrix within which they were created, and an openness to the ways in which nineteenth-century women defined their world, their relationships to others and to the divine, can bring us to a fruitful discussion of the praxis of religion, articulation, and desire.

Subject Area

American literature|Womens studies

Recommended Citation

Olivares, Beth Anne, ""The Bible is an antique volume, written by faded men": Duty and desire in nineteenth century American women's writing" (1999). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9917499.