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Today, the majority of American women earn a wage outside the home, regardless of marital status, age, or race. ?Career Girls? and Working Moms have become an accepted part of the American culture and economy. Behind our culture?s acceptance of women at work outside the home is a long and complex history. Opinions about the kind of work women should do, and the meaning of that work to individual women and American society as a whole have fluctuated throughout the centuries. Harriet Beecher Stowe?s Uncle Tom?s Cabin has helped to shape and mold equality for women as we know it today.
Stowe?s ideas about domestic feminism, economic and social reforms, and the value of these reforms, are still controversial. The primary message Uncle Tom?s Cabin, that slavery is morally wrong and should be abolished, is quite clear, but the methosd that Stowe offers for the abolition of slavery, creating a world in which women are moral leaders, is not. A close examination of the kitchen is a starting point for the examination of the nature of domestic feminism and the nature of women?s work in Uncle Tom?s Cabin. For Stowe, meaninful work for women must center on the home, and the kitchen is the symbol of woman?s work and networks.
The first kitchen we see in Uncle Tom?s Cabin is Aunt Chloe?s. In her own kitchen, as well as in her master?s, she is a mixture of military commander and culinary scholar: She delegates certain responsibilities to her ?inferior officers? and her corn cake is ?a sublime mystery to all less practiced compounds? (Stowe 66-67). Her skills as a cook are a source of power during her enslavement. She can even dismiss her own mistress from her kitchen:
Now, Missis, she wanted me to do this way, and she wanted me do to dat way; and, finally, I got kinder sarcy, and, says I, ?Now, Missis, do jist look at em beautiful white hands o? yourn? and look at my great black stumpin hands. Now don?t ye think dat de Lord must have meant me to make de pie-crust and you to stay in de parlor?? (72)
Chloe?s ktchen is more than a refuge from slavery; it is a place where she is the leader. Needless to say, most twentieth-century readers find it offensive that her complete lack of freedom might be compensated by some pittance of power gained by mastering a menial task. However, Stowe presents Aunt Chloe?s mastery in the kitchen as something that allows her to transcend her lowly position. When necessary, Chloe turns these domestic skills towards the outside world, where she nearly earns money enough to free her husband. When women like Chloe work outside the home, they are motivated to improve their home life, not to earn a profit for profit?s sake. Douglas has a different opinion of the importance to Aunt Chloe?s capitalism. She writes:
Chloe?s plan to buy back her husband? is obviated by Tom?s martyrdom, a radicaly extra-market form of domestic economy; once Tom has died he is free by virtue of being forever outside the market? (44)
There is a strong connection between a well-kept and productive kitchen and the spirituality of its keepers. The orderliness and superiority of Aunt Chloe?s kitchen reflect the orderliness and Christian example that Mrs. Shelby sets for the greater household. There is an exchange of benevolence between Mrs. Shelby and Aunt Chloe: Mrs. Shelby is a type of ?home minister? who creates an atmosphere of goodwill that allows Aunt Chloe to produce in a superior manner. Tompkins? description of Mrs. Halliday?s kitchen is apt here: ?Stowe?s image of a utopian community? is not simply a Christian dream of cooperation and harmony; it is a reflection of the real community bound practices of village life, practices which depend upon cooperation, trust, and a spirit of mutual supportiveness?? (144). That the institution of slavery could encompass this kind of cooperation and trust shows the merit of the individuals in the relationship, but it also makes it easy to argue that slavery is not entirely evil.
In contrast to Mrs. Shelby, Marie St. Clare lacks spiritual and moral authority, as evidenced in Dinah?s chaotic kitchen. Dinah is as much of a cooking genius as Aunt Chloe, but she lacks Chloe?s ability to make the kitchen an inviting place. Stowe compares the two cooks:
Dinah was a native and essential cook, as much as Aunt Chloe? but Chloe was a trained and methodical one, who moved in an orderly domestic harness, while Dinah was a self-taught genius, and, like geniuses in general, was positive, opinionated, and erratic, to the last degree. (310)
There is no spiritual order in the house of Marie St. Clare, and so the kitchen and cook produce in a wasteful manner. Miss Ophelia?s New England sensibilities are offended by the waste, the disorder, and the uncivilized, almost pagan nature of Dinah?s kitchen, but she cannot impose order on the house because she is morally lacking in her own way. She has no Christian love for the lowly people around her. Although she opposes slavery, she does not recognize the humanity of the slaves surrounding her. Only when she comes to love Topsy does Miss Ophelia become a moral leader. Little Eva is themoral center of the household, but, as a child, she has no real power. Without a moral leader, the St. Claire family?s home economics are in a state of disarray. St. Clare rightly claims that we must judge Dinah by her success-she makes excellent food-but we must judge the house and its leader by its method of production. And the St. Clare method is of ?chaos and old night? not divine order (317).
As Tompkins points out, the kitchens of the Quakers and the Hallidays are for Stowe ideal kitchens, in which the moral leader of the household rules with a gentle and loving hand. Eliza and Harry both find a refuge in this house, and in it, for the first time ever, ?George? sat down on equal terms at (a) white man?s table? (223). At the end of the story, George and Eliza find equality and freedom and a kitchen of their own, and it is not surprising that their family reunion takes place just as Eliza is about to serve an evening meal. Her preparation of food is a symbol of domestic harmony and the spiritual nourshment it provides. The domestic harmony that Eliza creates is spiritually powerful because it quickly restores the ?shattered and wearied? Cassy to a state of grace (607).
Stowe?s ideal housekeeper is not a mere maid, but a capitalist manager and consumer. In Uncle Tom?s Cabin, we see this in Mrs. Shelby, who not only runs her house well but after her husband?s death, manages the household?s business affiars much better than Mr. Shelby did. Stowe admired at least one domestic or capitalist endeavor: the cooked food delivery service. Hayden includes a portion of a letter from Stowe for publication in ?The Revolution?: ?The future model village? shall have.. a town laundry? bakery? and lastly a town cook-shop where soups and meats may be bought, ready for the table? (60).
Furthermore, Ann Douglas also notes that even Stowe herslef sought professional success as well as domestic bliss. In her essay entitled ?At War with Herself: Harrel Beecher Stowe as Woman in Confilct within the Home? Woman?s Being, Woman?s Place? Female Identity and Vocation in Americh History, she writes:
Whatever earnings Stowe derived from her writings were used to meet the monetary demands of her family, and, as familial circumstances changed, those earnings became more crucial? Stowe?s correspondence with various members of her family reveals her continuing need to juggle the private and the public, the domestic and the literary, to accommodate the needs of her family? Alternating between sentimental effusions of affection and graphic descriptions of her financial difficulties, Stowe?s letters to her children document her attempt to fulfill both roles simultaneously. (206-207)
Stowe admits to struggling with two roles-that of home manager and that of money earner-in her letters to her children, and we can see that some of Stowe?s heroines, like Mrs. Shelby and Chloe, manage to balance both roles better than Stowe herself did.
Corresponding to the two roles Stowe played, there are also two kinds of meaningful work in Uncle Tom?s Cabin: work inside the home, which is symbolized by the kitchen, and work outside the home that is centered on maintaining the home. For example, George and Aunt Chloe were motivated to capitalism by a Christian desire (or ?right feeling?) for the reunion of their families. And it is one of Mrs. Shrlby?s goals in managing her family?s financial affiars to reunite Tom with his family. This kind of sentimental motivation is fundamental to creating a better marketplace. A more humane form of capitalism is dependent on what Stowe calls ?feeling right?:
There is one thing that every individual can do, they can see to it that they feel right. An atmosphere of sympathetic influence encircles every human being; and the man or woman who feels strongly, healthily and justly, on the great interests of humanity, is a constant benefactor to the human race. See, the, to your sympathies in this matter! (624)
Sentimental feeling is fundamental to creating a better marketplace. George and Aunt Chloe were motivated to capitalism by a Christian desire (or right feeling) for the reunion of their families.
Yet sentimental feelings also add a value to objects and people that is beyond capitalism. For example, Eva?s locks of hair, the coin young master George gives to Tom, and Mrs. Halliday?s rocking chair become infused with a sentiment value that makes them no longer mere object; the embody a sentimental feeling that makes teir emotional value transcend their market value. One cannot imagine Tom ever spending the coin that George gave him. The sentimental value Uncle Tom has in the Shelby and St. Claire households cannot protect him once he has stepped outside from them. The value that sentiment gives to objects and people can only have meaning in an economy of sentimental feeling. Stowe?s plan to free American slaves is to combine capitalism and the Christian love of God and family to allow sentimental feeling to circulate in the capitalist economy. Only then can slaves be recognized as people, not objects.
As women?s work moved away from the home and into the larger society, women did not give up their need for sentimental feelings. In keeping with the idea of the Protestant work ethic of the time, Sentimentalists sought to promote a morality they deemed idiosyncratic to women?s work. They were portrayed as busy and hard working people, regardless of whetehr they performed household chores, earned a wage outside the home, or hunted for a wealthy husband, but also as seeking and creating connections to other women. This idea of a sentimental economy gives a spiritual value to women?s work that transcends its monetary value.
Regardless of class, age, or race, or whether they work inside or outside of the home, all women are sisters. This kind of sentimental economy softened the harsh effects of industrialism on women because it based value on sentimental terms: love, compassion, and emotions, as well as monetary terms. Harriet Beecher Stowe?s writings and ideas can be seen in society by observing women in the workplace. The simple fact that there are women in the workplace proves that Stowe?s impact has been felt heavily by all.
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