Kennedy, Katherine Mary.. Headnote to "Angel Over the Right Shoulder." The Online Archive of Nineteenth-Century Women's Writings. Ed. Glynis Carr. Online. Internet. Posted: Fall 1999.

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps' The Angel Over the Right Shoulder:
Conflicts Between Domesticity and Female Identity Development

By Katherine Mary Kennedy

"The Angel Over the Right Shoulder" is fascinating because of the conflict it uncovers between a woman's need to fulfill her domestic role and her need to develop as an individual. The story was published in 1852, when the American people were struggling with the role of women in society. The author, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, introduces two opposing possibilities for this role. One is the woman whose entire being revolves around her domestic sphere and who has no individual identity. The other is an individual who, although fulfilling the role of mother and wife, takes time to cultivate and develop her own interests and person. I do not want to take away from the reader's enjoyment of the text by giving away the events of the story; therefore I will focus on discussing the social and historical concepts intertwined with these two opposing viewpoints concerning the role of women in the middle 19th century rather then evaluating them in terms of the story. This will give the reader information necessary to better understand and analyze the events of the text.

The first possibility of woman's ideal social role, revolving entirely around her domestic responsibilities, has its origin in the past. Women of white middle class standing had historically taken on the responsibilities of clothing, feeding and caring for all members of the family, while the men had ensured that the raw materials for these duties existed. Stereotypically, the husband would work the farm cultivating the crops and caring for the animals, while the wife would turn these raw materials into the necessities of life, including food and clothing. When industry began to take over in the early 1800's the specific tasks of gender shifted, but the general spheres did not. One of the main concepts that came out of the domestic ideas of the 18th century and lived on into the 19th century was the great contrast in the roles allotted to men and women. "Men were aggressive, exploitive, materialistic, physical, unchaste, impious, and mobile; women were pious, pure, selfless, delicate, domestic, nurturant, passive, conservative" (Melder 7). The adjective listed that relates most closely to Phelps' story is selfless. A woman dedicating her entire being to her family and abandoning any chance to develop her individuality is certainly exhibiting the utmost selflessness.

This is exactly what Phelps gives the reader as one option of the new definition of the role of women in society. This selflessness includes the woman's always acting on behalf of her family, caring for them in every possible way without stopping to consider whether she believes her actions are benefiting those involved. She is asked to have blind faith that all deeds done on behalf of the family are, by definition, beneficial to society as a whole. This concept fits very well into the ideas that were evolving through social changes of the early 19th century. The feminist movement which had recently begun held firmly to the idea that women were vital through their interactions with the family and their influences upon the new generations. "Woman's crowning glory was motherhood: in the bearing, nursing, and rearing of her offspring she could most fully carry our the responsibilities of her appropriate sphere," (Melder, 9). This implies that women needed do nothing more than devote themselves entirely to family and children in order to be complete, socially beneficial people. No matter how trivial an act of kindness toward a child may seem it was inevitably necessary and would have a positive effect on society. A woman could not go wrong if her actions were directed toward the needs and comforts of her family. This role of women in society was accepted and advocated by most people, men and women, of the times because history dictated that women's place was caring for the family. And although she may be capable of other things, there was no reason to even consider them.

In contrast, Phelps also introduces the reader to the idea that a woman should be able to cultivate her own identity as well as the family's well being. The exact opposite of the concept stressed above, this idea of women's new role in society states that a woman is capable of doing more than just raising a family; that she is able and has the right to establish herself as an individual. This was a very radical idea. Even feminists of the time were stating, not that women were equal to men and should be able to act accordingly, but that women were vital to society in their own way. The former is approached by Phelps' second option for women in that allowing the woman to develop an individual identity is to give her power outside the domestic sphere (if that is what the woman chooses to develop). Most people were opposed to giving women the ability to go beyond their domestic sphere, for fear that the homes and families would suffer the consequences. Mrs. A. J. Graves had more faith in women than most and stated, "If women are taught to feel rightly, to think deeply and to use their own powers in reaching an elevated standard of female character, they will be the most competent judges of their own duties, and best able to graduate for themselves the scale of their obligations" (iiv-iv). This suggests that the consequences of allowing women to develop individual identities would be beneficial to both families and society. The development of women does not have to be one that turns away from and excludes families and the domestic sphere, but rather by allowing women to discover themselves, society is increasing its chances of having women who are successful in the role of wife and mother.

I urge the reader to consider both of these ideas about the new role of women in society while reading "The Angel Over The Right Shoulder", and to consider the ways in which Phelps encourages or discourages each one. I also encourage the reader to delve more deeply into the wealth of information surrounding this very important time period in the history of the United States, to understand where Phelps' ideas were generated and why she may have seemed to favor of one role of women over another.

List of Works Cited and Suggestions for Further Reading

Works Cited

Graves, A.J., Mrs. Woman in America: Being an Examination into the Moral and Intellectual Condition of American Female Society. New York: Harper, 1847,c1841

Melder, Keith. Beginnings of Sisterhood: The American Woman's Rights Movement, 1800-1850. New York: Schocken Books, 1977.

Phelps, Elizabeth Stuart. The Angel Over the Right Shoulder. Andover: Warren F. Draper, 1852.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Alden, Henry Mills and Howells, William Dean, Ed. Their Husbands Wives. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1904.

Berg, Barbara J. The Remembered Gate: Origins of American Feminism : The Woman and the City, 1800-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978

Graves, A.J., Mrs. Woman in America: Being an Examination into the Moral and Intellectual Condition of American Female Society. New York: Harper, 1847,c1841

Melder, Keith. Beginnings of Sisterhood: The American Woman's Rights Movement, 1800-1850. New York: Schocken Books, 1977.

Tonkovich, Nicole. Domesticity with a Difference: The Nonfiction of Catharine Beecher, Sarah J. Hale, Fanny Fern, and Margaret Fuller. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi,1997

West, Mrs. (Jane). Letters to a Young Lady: In Which the Duties and Character of Women are Considered Chiefly with a Reference to Prevailing Opinions. Troy: O. Penniman and Co.,1806

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