A Conversation with…
What can a love triangle from 200 years ago reveal about the quelling of women’s ambition? Quite a bit, according to UD professor and religious historian Christine Leigh Heyrman. Her latest book, Doomed Romance: Broken Hearts, Lost Souls and Sexual Tumult in Nineteenth-Century America, explores the paradoxical nature of the 1800s evangelical Protestant movement, which elevated women as swiftly as it undermined them. Told through the story of Martha Parker, “It Girl” of the 1820s, we learn how a jilted suiter and his network of powerful allies vengefully turned the young Parker into a cautionary tale for ambitious women of her generation.
What do you make of the contradictions within the evangelical movement?
I find them fascinating. On the one hand, evangelicals were founding schools for women that were the educational equivalent of colleges for men. They were providing the first opportunities for women to influence life outside the household and make themselves heard in public. But some (and ultimately, a majority) began to ask, “Where will this lead? Will it undermine traditional gender roles? Will we get a bunch of gals like Martha who get engaged to one guy but then see an opportunity to broaden their world and take it?” And so, Martha becomes a casualty of the very opportunities that, ironically, evangelicals themselves created.
What aspect of your research surprised you most?
I was struck by the letters and documents of the time, which revealed these informal, subterranean ways that women were kept in line. It was interesting to glimpse how male networks operated to contain women and deal with the consequences of women’s empowerment; how they created a cadre of educated women who were effective outside the household but then used that same machinery to cut them down to size.
What exactly is evangelicalism, and why does it interest you?
Evangelicalism is a religious style. It teaches that you come to understand God through your heart, not your head. You don’t reason your way to faith; you feel your way to faith. I’m interested in evangelicalism because it contained so many possibilities. It’s often viewed today as a conservative movement, but if you look closely at its origins, it has been associated with very progressive causes: women’s empowerment, criticisms of slavery and racism [which Heyrman explores in her previous book, Southern Cross]. I write with one eye on the newspaper. It seems many evangelicals don’t know their history, and it’s important for them to reckon with that history.
Why write this book now?
I’m 71. Women in my generation are very concerned with the legal and structural barriers preventing women from getting ahead. In many ways, 2021 is a much better world, but what persists are those informal, subterranean, sneaky ways of making sure that women are contained. I was looking for the counterpart to that in early 19th century.
Do you find any hope in Martha Parker’s story?
I saw this as a bleak tragedy when I was first putting it together, but then I realized how formidable [Martha’s sister] Ann Parker Bird was. I was glad to learn about her resistance to the guys who were trying to trash her sister. But what really lit up my dashboard was discovering that Martha’s eldest daughter Eliza was able, with Ann Parker Bird’s assistance, to fulfill her mother’s dreams and become a major figure in foreign missionary work. It’s a snail’s progress, but it struck me as a much more hopeful ending for the book.
What do you want readers to take away?
The pleasure of a tale told well enough to think about the ways—right up to the present—that women are still being both empowered and undercut.