The debate raging in the years 1836-1837 over women's proper duties and roles in regards to abolitionism was publicly shaped primarily by two opposing forces: on the one hand, sisters Angelina and Sarah Grimke, abolitionists and champions of women's rights; and on the other, Catharine Beecher, who opposed suffrage and women's involvement in abolitionism and argued in favor of woman's place in the home. After the printing of Angelina Grimké's pamphlet Appeal to the Christian Women of the Southern States (1836), Grimké and Catharine Beecher engaged in a written debate over woman's public role in regards to the slavery issue. Beecher responded to Grimké's assertions that Southern women should actively protest the system of slavery in her Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism (1837), in which she claimed that women, true to their naturally subordinate natures, were not fit to interfere in such matters. In light of these facts, it is surprising to note that Harriet Beecher Stowe was Catherine Beecher's sister. How could the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin be related to the same woman who wrote Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism-- an anti-abolitionist document which pleaded with women to keep their thoughts on slavery to themselves? In Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe not only frames both sides of the debate, but also actively incorporates it into her female characters and into her narrative voice, fictitiously dramatizing the issues with which Grimké and Beecher were concerned fifteen years earlier.
Uncle Tom's Cabin, if racist by modern standards, is at least clearly anti-slavery: Stowe's intent in writing the novel, as she states in her Preface, is "to awaken sympathy and feeling for the African race, as they exist among us" (Stowe xviii). In her Concluding Remarks, she goes even further, imploring
you, generous, noble-minded men and women, of the South,--you, whose virtue, and magnanimity, and purity of character are the greater for the severer trial it has encountered,-- to you is her appeal...cannot the ruffian, the brutal, the debased, by slave law, own just as many slaves as the best and the purest? (Stowe 440)
However, despite these statements, Stowe remains ambivalent, even conservative about what women's roles and duties in the cause of abolitionism should be, and this is revealed in the representation of many of her female characters. Where can we say Stowe herself stands on the issue of woman's sphere in regards to slavery? Is there anything which is contradictory between her own narrative voice and the stance she takes in the representation of her female characters? By examining three female characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin such as Mrs. Shelby, Mrs. Bird, and Miss. Ophelia in light of this debate, I intend to show that despite the revolutionary gesture which is inherent in the novel, Stowe sets forth a conservative message of women's responsibilities to the cause of abolitionism.
Angelina Grimké's An Appeal to Christian Women of the South...