Life in 19th Century America
At the dawn of the nineteenth century, women’s roles in the American republic were generally confined to a “domestic sphere,” a realm whose boundaries were restricted to family and home. Although called upon to exhibit piety and civic virtue in their capacities as wives and mothers, women were excluded by social convention and institutional prohibition from active participation in the affairs of church, state, and public life.
Throughout the first half of the century, laws governing the legal status of women varied from state to state and according to racial, marital, and socio-economic class. White women who were married, for example, were often not allowed to hold property or keep their own wages as they had no legal identity apart from their husbands. If divorced, these women were often not permitted custody of the children. It is notable that, as a young widow, Mary Baker Eddy (then Mary M. Glover) never had custody of her own son; her father, Mark Baker, was his guardian. The two could not agree on the boy’s upbringing, which led to decades of tragic separation for Eddy and her only child.
Professional occupations such as the ministry and medicine were often closed to women during this period. One of the few ways that middle- to upper-class women could respectably earn a living and have their voices heard was by writing for newspapers and popular “ladies magazines,” to which they contributed poems, essays, and memoirs that reflected women’s spiritual and domestic lives. Mary Baker Eddy’s first publication, for example, was a poem, “When I was a Wee Little Slip of a Girl,” which appeared in Hill’s New Hampshire Patriot in 1840.
Dissent from rigid social and theological ideology began to be heard in mid-century. The Women’s Rights Convention in 1848, adapting Jeffersonian language of independence, declared “all men and women are created equal …” Other voices increasingly challenged institutional authority in sermons and in literature.
Mary Baker Eddy too challenged the ideology of “separate spheres” in several important ways. With the publication of the first edition of Science and Health in 1875, writing for men and women alike, without regard to gender either in her audience or her theology, she used the breadth and depth of her knowledge of the Bible to create a unique language of faith. However, while she shared some common ground with radical theologians and was in ideological agreement with many of the human rights movements of her time, her goal was a different one. She was urging recognition of what she called the “divine rights” of both women and men. As she writes, “Above the platform of human rights let us build another staging for diviner claims …”1 And, elsewhere, “Citizens of the world, accept the ‘glorious liberty of the children of God,’ and be free! This is your divine right.” 2 In her public role as a minister, author, publisher, and successful businesswoman, Mary Baker Eddy was a woman of courage as well as controversy, a spirited pioneer in validating women’s full range of possibilities.