A Review of Ann Braude’s “Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America”

October 23, 2018 |  Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off on A Review of Ann Braude’s “Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America”

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America by Ann Braude serves as a watershed in the historical understanding of the American Spiritualist movement.  Previous authorship by Frank Podmore in his 1963 book From Mesmer to Christian Science: A Short History of Mental Healing had insufficiently conveyed the importance of the Spiritualism movement, even though it played a major role in shaping public opinion about the nature of personal religion.  Ann Braude’s analysis progresses the research conducted by Lois W. Banner and R. Laurence Moore; that there was something more to the American Spiritualist movement of the mid-1800s than just charlatans out to make a buck on the too-easily-impressed.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The thesis of Braude’s book is that nineteenth century American Spiritualism served as the religious bastion for the women’s rights movement that began to gain traction around the same time, whereas Protestant religions did not take up the charge.  Not only did Spiritualists politically advocate for women’s rights, they actively usurped societal norms by placing women at the head of the religion.  While both men and women acted as mediums for the spirits, it was only the men who possessed passive, feminine qualities that served as spiritual translators.  This ideal placed women in a position of religious authority they had previously been denied, due to lack of opportunity and education.  Braude argues passivity was the key trait to becoming a successful medium and the more innocent one looked, the more trusting and receptive was the audience.  She postulates these attributes allowed mediums (and specifically women) to influence public opinion on a number of reform topics.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 While Braude primarily focuses on how Spiritualism gave a voice to the concerns of women during the Civil War era, she also delves into other social reforms championed by the movement.  Women’s rights were seen as a national cause for Spiritualists but issues such as slavery and labor reform were scarce topics in the divinations in the American South.  An important discussion in Radical Spirits is Braude’s ancestry of the Spiritualist movement, beginning with the split of the Quakers and Hicksite Quakers over ideological minutiae, and the varying splinter groups of “Friends” that arose from them.  While Quakers allowed more freedoms for women in their religion, they still did not offer them authority in religious context, nor did they outwardly condemn slavery.  Hicksite Quakers and the “Friends of Quakers” believed in individual autonomy and felt they could not morally participate in groups that did not agree to the extreme.  Ann Braude attributes the Quaker split and the introduction of the pseudo-sciences Mesmerism and Phrenology as the leading forces for the inauguration of Spiritualism.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America is an essential read for anyone who wishes to understand the religious and political obstacles faced by women of the 1800s.  Ann Braude details American female culture before, during, and after the height of the Spiritualist movement with information from a spectrum of primary sources.  By examining the religious, political, and social customs and expectations of men and women, Braude has swept away the cobwebs and misinformation surrounding the American Spiritualist movement.  She has shone a light on an underreported aid to the women’s rights movement that affected ordinary citizens to take the charge for reformist ideals; and in doing so has contributed an invaluable work to the history of women in religion, politics, and society in the United States.


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