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"Women And The Work Of Benevolence: Morality, Politics, And Class In The 19th Century" By Lori D. Ginzberg

1048 words - 4 pages

In the book, "Women and the Work of Benevolence: Morality, politics, and class in the 19th century", author Lori D. Ginzberg places a wide variety of middle-class women reformers – benevolent workers, moral reformers, temperance advocates, and charity organizers – in the context of changing class relations and political structures over the course of the nineteenth century. Ginzberg offers a carefully interpreted look at women reformers immediately prior to the Civil War (antebellum). In two especially fine chapters, she argues that the “antebellum equation” of benevolence with female morality sheltered benevolent women considerable political influence and shielded their widespread involvement in businesslike activities, offering examples or women’s use of corporate organization forms that, as she pointed out, “contradicted everything we thought we knew about the legal status of married women in the antebellum (pre-civil war) era” (pg. 50). To account for her findings, she tempers the familiar interpretation of women reformers as proto-feminists with the caution that reform rhetoric also allowed for the emergence of an antebellum middle class that obscured its own class privilege by wrapping itself in the mantle of benevolent virtue.Each Ginzberg’s chapters has three guiding concerns. One is understand how, in the “rhetoric and then in fact, women’s influence leapt across barriers, permitting them to enter all but the most protected male bastions.” Ginzberg finds this rhetoric expressed both in public of the time and private correspondence and diaries. In the earlier years, ideas about morality and gender were conflated under rubrics of Christianity in such a way as to facilitate female activism while ostensibly eschewing direct political involvement. Later, the concept of benevolence became increasingly secular. Ginzberg ably describes the double thrust of benevolence rhetoric throughout the period. On the one hand, it provided a limited sanction for expansion of women’s interests and influence; on the other, the rhetoric of benevolence could also be invoked to limit the effect of more radical reformers who could be assailed with the charge of acting against propriety and femininity.A second major concern of each chapter is to describe the varying nature and course of women’s benevolence work itself. Ginzberg gives a fascinating account of how, as early as the twenties, the doctrine of feminine benevolence provided the cover under which women set up benevolent corporations having the legal and financial rights that were denied to individual women under contemporary property laws. While in the late twenties and through much of the thirties women were often the unsung and invisible auxiliaries to organized benevolent associations, by the sixties and seventies women had been official members of the government’s Sanitary Commission and were determined to hold on to newly...

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