Virginia Lucas Poetry Scrapbook

The Role of Christian Womanhood in the Success of Lydia Sigourney's Poetry

         Nineteenth century American culture idealized true womanhood, setting a high bar for societal praise. These ideals carried over to expectations for women’s poetry, creating a clear, gendered line between writers. One aspect of this divide is the religious poetry written by women at the time. Women were expected to be the pious moral compass of society, the peak of purity, and the constantly faithful. These attributes were not considered learned, but the result of natural emotion and the goodness associated with women worthy of praise. Many women writers used these traits as themes in their poetry, gaining praise and popularity. Lydia Sigourney was one of these Christian poets who gained immense popularity and was considered an ideal woman. She often exemplified sentimentalism in gendered religious poetry and was greatly rewarded for it. Through an examination of nineteenth-century American womanhood, Christian women’s poetry, and Lydia Sigourney’s writing and reception, it becomes clear that a good female poet by nineteenth-century standards was inseparable from Christianity and that her success was dependent on her ability to meet the ideals of religious womanhood. 

         The ideology of gendered spheres in nineteenth century America created clear lines women could not cross. Things like business and science were part of the male sphere, while the female sphere included domestic and religious concerns. Even while formal female education rose, the scope of that education was limited. Marguerite Corporaal’s article “‘So Cold, So Lofty and So Distant’: Science, Religion and Gender in Nineteenth-Century American and Canadian Women’s Poetry” discusses academies for women, which “did not include mathematics, chemistry or physics, that were considered as unnecessary subjects for a woman whose role was to be restricted to the domestic sphere” (783). It was inappropriate for a woman to move outside of her domestic sphere, and any woman who did could expect a negative reception. Elizabeth Alvarez in her book The Valiant Woman: The Virgin Mary in Nineteenth-Century American Culture attributes part of this separation of spheres to crucial ideas of female purity: nineteenth-century American society felt that “the need to protect women from the corrupting influences of business and politics justified her enclosure in the home, while her ability to embody purity and resist sin enabled her to sacralize the domestic sphere and carry forward the Christian virtues Americans saw as necessary to a healthy society” (42-43). 

          Religious expectations for women were high; true Christian women within the domestic sphere were tasked with upholding not only the morality of their homes but of the entire country. As Marguerite Corporaal explains, “American women were charged with the important task of upholding the religious morality of the family, passing on religious values to her children and watching over her husband’s religious integrity,” an essential job for preserving American society as a whole (790). As Claudia Stokes writes in her book The Altar at Home: Sentimental Literature and Nineteenth-Century American Religion, “the minister was replaced by the housewife as the national arbiter of morality” (23). Women were the examples and teachers of Christianity in their homes. The ideal woman was modelled after the Virgin Mary, a symbol for Christian womanhood: pious and pure in the extreme. Christian Americans of all denominations “drew on the exaggerated purity of the Immaculate Conception to reinforce the female domestic ideal” (Alvarez 42). The women who most closely replicated the ideals of womanhood were the most highly praised, and those who failed to reach these seemingly impossible expectations were responded to negatively. Everything in a woman’s daily life took on a religious tenor, as “Domestic tasks [were] ennobled and [became] religiously significant when they [were] dutifully performed by holy women” (Alvarez 147). The daily actions of a woman’s domestic responsibilities to her family therefore were not only part of her duty as a woman but as a Christian. 

          These themes of Christian womanhood were addressed in women’s poetry, creating a particularly feminized way to write about Christianity. Often we see the point of view of the woman who is the moral compass of society reflected in poetry. There are themes of lost men brought back into the Christian fold by pure women and admonitions to have faith in God even in times of suffering such as losing a child. And we see many poems that offer lessons on Christianity to those who read them. The image of the faithful wife and mother was carried over into how women wrote (Wearn 2-3). Women were expected to be “moral agents” who carried out God’s word not only in deed but in bearing witness or writing (3). It makes sense that many women at this time, including Lydia Sigourney, wrote about religion in this personal and distinctly feminine way; they felt the religious calling highlighted in the Second Great Awakening to spread Christianity and to bear witness, and they knew the praise and success a religious woman could find (Stokes 22). 

          Christianity was often an element in sentimental writing, a category Lydia Sigourney fell into along with many other popular women writers of the time. While sentimentalism is often critiqued and trivialized in our time, its nineteenth-century popularity is undeniable, perhaps for the empathy it provided or its ability to unite Americans with a single common feeling. As Claudia Stokes explains in The Altar at Home, “sentimental novels and poems routinely depict religious faith as a balm to the restless spirit and a beneficent influence on unruly behavior” (1). Sentimentalism relies heavily on faith and religion, contributing to the femininity of the style. In sentimental writing, “salvation… seems to be available to anyone with faith, with neither ritual nor conversion required,” a universal effect that contributed to the popularity of this writing (Stokes 1). With the separation of gendered spheres, Christianity became a part of the domestic, and sentimental writing revealed a world “in which religious discourse [was] grounded in loving intimacy and religious observance restricted to the warm enclosures of private domesticity, showing how sentimental writing became womanly, personal, relatable, and widely popular” (Stokes 4). Sentimental writing held the literary role that women were given in society; it provided comfort, a sense of home, and lessons on faith.

          Lydia Sigourney is a prime example of a woman who carefully remained in the woman’s religious sphere, both in her writing and her life, and gathered a great amount of success as a result. As a poet, Lydia Sigourney was among the most successful of the nineteenth century, publishing 46 distinct volumes, supporting herself and her family, and making a valuable name for herself (Walker 1). She became known for the “moralistic sentiments” in her writing and for exemplifying Christian womanhood (Walker 1). Her writing often reinforced the ideologies of gendered spheres and Christian womanhood. For example, in her book Letters to Young Ladies, Sigourney dedicates a chapter to domestic concerns and duties, writing “True satisfaction, and cheerfulness of spirits, are connected with these quiet and congenial pursuits” (26). These traits and activities are often described as virtues, with everyday life taking on a religious tenor and a woman’s jobs becoming her duties. In this particular text, as in others, Sigourney reveals her own faith and religious beliefs as she writes, “The duty of submission, imposed both by the nature of our station and the ordinances of God, disposes to that humility, which is the essence of piety; while our physical weakness… prompt[s] that trust in Heaven… which is the most enduring strength, and the surest protection” (37-38). Here we see how Sigourney viewed the interaction between woman’s sphere and Christianity and can understand why she was so highly praised and considered an ideal Christian woman. This message, directed at young women seeking advice from Sigourney, encouraged the faithfulness and submission women in the nineteenth century were expected to hold.

          Sigourney gained much popularity for her poetry and was praised not only as a proper woman writer but as an ideal woman. The very existence of her advice book for other women, Letters to Young Ladies, which Sigourney says she was “requested” to write, is evidence of how highly she was regarded simply as a Christian woman. She was enough of an example of upstanding Christian womanhood to find success in guiding other women. She was widely successful in this way, largely because of her treatment of religious issues in a way that conformed to nineteenth-century standards. We can see an example of this praise from one of her contemporaries, E.B. Huntington, in his biographical sketch of Sigourney included in Eminent Women of the Age: Being Narratives of The Lives and Deeds of the Most Prominent Women of the Present Generation. Huntington described Sigourney as the woman who held a higher place “in the respect and affections of the American people than any other woman of the times had secured” (85). He went on to describe how she had achieved this, noting not only her poetic gifts but her personal traits that made her an ideal Christian woman, stating that “Her very goodness had made her great” (85). Perhaps this takes away from her poetic ability, as it suggests that really her fame had more to do with her piousness than her skill, in contrast to how a male writer might have been described. Huntington held her up as the standard, writing, “who, more worthily than she, can represent to us the best and highest type of cultivated womanhood?” (86). This makes it clear that Sigourney was put on a pedestal and viewed as an ideal woman, and that her religious reputation contributed greatly to her success. No matter what she had actually written, if she as an individual had not been viewed as pious and morally upstanding, she could never have succeeded on this scale, a fact that didn’t seem to apply to male writers. She was held up as “an epitome of the specifically female author in her range of allowed achievements and inadequacies” (Jackson 65). Despite the range of subject matter she addressed in her poetry, her Christianity and sentimental writing carried her popularity. Her success in “generic” sentimental writing largely overshadowed her more controversial work (Jackson 66). While a modern reader may have difficulty appreciating her popularity, Sigourney’s ability to relate to everyone and to write about common experiences was highly sought after in the nineteenth century. 

          The American woman’s role in religion is reinforced in much of Lydia Sigourney’s poetry and other writing. Some examples of this in her poems for sailors are explored by Bryan Sinche in “Lydia Sigourney’s Sailors and the Limits of Sentiment.” In these poems, Sigourney highlights the role of woman as a religious compass for men, particularly sailors who were “detached from the faith, home, and family” (Sinche 63). While sailors were praised for their duty to the country, they were also imagined as faces of debauchery. Sigourney wrote four volumes of poetry for these sailors, much of it containing the theme of rebuilding a connection to their country and their homes (Sinche 64). These poems also fulfilled woman’s duty to remind men of Christian values, so that “they might recall forgotten lessons that could, in turn, yoke them to the hearthside they forsook when they first took to the sea” (Sinche 69). One such poem, “Drink, Friends,” comes from the collection Poems for the Sea. In this poem, Sigourney commands the sailors to drink “only water” when they toast to the woman at home who “rules your heart.” Here, she reminds sailors of the moral compasses they have left at home and instructs them to avoid the debauchery associated with a sailor’s life for the sake of those they love.

          As identified by Allison Giffen in her paper “Dutiful Daughters and Needy Fathers: Lydia Sigourney and Nineteenth-Century Popular Literature,” Sigourney also wrote many poems that held up the Christian ideals of patriarchal family units and female submission through the voice of a model daughter. Giffen writes of Sigourney’s “The Father” that “the prevailing family dynamic seems to require the daughter’s submission to paternal need,” highlighting that submission is the duty of a Christian woman (259). Again as in the poems for sailors, Sigourney shows us the role of women as moral compasses for men, with the daughter showing the father how to live through her service.

          Lydia Sigourney and other female poets were certainly aware of gendered spheres and  female religious responsibility, as Corporaal notes in her discussion of Sigourney’s poem “Science and Religion.” The divide is made abundantly clear; both science and religion are personified, science as male and religion as female. The poem connects religion “to feminine qualities such as humility and empathy,” allowing it to “offer mankind a more adequate support [than science can] in its struggle with the questions of life” (Corporaal 790). The type of religion Sigourney describes in the poem is all about softness, emotion, and empathy, certainly falling within the woman’s domestic sphere, a shift that occurred following the Second Great Awakening, in which women became something akin to fireside preachers (Stokes 22). With a preference for the female religion, Sigourney subtly reinforces her own gendered role: a woman wouldn’t and shouldn’t side with science. 

         The ideology of Christian womanhood can also be seen in Sigourney’s poems about child death. As Mary Wearn writes in her book Nineteenth-Century American Women Write Religion, Sigourney’s “consolation literature” about child death “emphasizes the necessity of submitting to God’s will and focuses on the promises of resurrection” (154). An ideal Christian woman was expected to have unbending faith even in times of hardship, an idea often held up in Lydia Sigourney’s writing. One of Sigourney’s most anthologized poems, “Death of an Infant,” reflects these feelings and also gives insight into her popularity. Despite the sad, dark subject matter, the poem ends with the child’s “holy” smile, “the signet ring of Heaven” (Walker 19). Even with the loss of a child, Sigourney focuses on her faith and the promise of heaven. This poem is also one that many nineteenth-century readers could relate to, based on the commonality of the subject matter and the generic approach that any reader could apply to their own lost child. 

          While Lydia Sigourney’s poetry does often reinforce gendered spheres and high ideals for women, she also subverts them in certain cases. However, her subversion is carefully placed within the context of domesticity, as in her poem “To a Shred of Linen,” which allows Sigourney to simultaneously remain in her sphere and rise above it. Critic Joan Wry suggests that this poem positions the domestic sphere as a place where “poetic transcendence” is possible, something more commonly attributed to male writers (403). Even in this poem Signourney seems to sarcastically say, “For men have deeper minds than women—Sure!” (Walker 22). She directly questions the role she is put in as a female writer, but she keeps it all within a domestic venue and humbles herself at the end of the poem with her wish for the linen that a “worthier bard Thine apotheosis immortalize” (Walker 23). She claims her own right to be a poet and then immediately downplays her own abilities, maintaining the balance that enables her success. While creatively rising above expectations in this poem, Sigourney cleverly remains in the domestic sphere, leaving little for critique in that regard. 

          Through social and critical praise of the true Christian woman, women were positively reinforced to write in a certain way and to keep female religious ideals always in mind. While not doubting Lydia Sigourney’s genuine religious feelings, it seems likely that she knew exactly how to find success in a literary career. Joan Wry writes that “Sigourney was a shrewd and prudent manager of her own literary career, cultivating literary friendships in New England and Europe and carefully operating within the gendered cultural constraints of her day” (403). Even when Sigourney seemed to nearly step out of the bounds of womanhood, she managed to keep the balance of remaining in her sphere, which contributed greatly to her success. She did not seek poetic genius, a goal ascribed to male writers of the time, but “valued writing as a means of ‘doing good’ as well as winning approval and enlarging her sphere” (Wry 403). While she is often critiqued by modern readers for being sentimental, this is exactly what made her so successful in the nineteenth century, likely creating many copycats hoping to find success in the same way. 

          Lydia Sigourney’s own popularity and the excessive praise from her contemporaries for her writing and her character show the importance of religious considerations for successful female poets in the nineteenth century. In fact, as a popular public figure, Lydia Sigourney was inseparable from her Christianity. The application of her poetic talent would not have yielded the same results if she had written in what would have been considered a masculine manner or if she had in any way been considered un-Christian. She was “the most famous woman poet in America during the first half of the nineteenth century” for a reason (Walker 1). Lydia Sigourney struck a delicate balance between challenging her sphere by the very act of writing and conforming to her sphere by writing religion.

Written by Caroline Sutphin

Works Cited
Alvarez, Elizabeth Hayes. The Valiant Woman: The Virgin Mary in Nineteenth-Century American Culture. The University of North Carolina Press, 2016.
Corporaal, Marguerite. “‘So Cold, So Lofty and So Distant’: Science, Religion and Gender in Nineteenth-Century American and Canadian Women’s Poetry.” DQR Studies in Literature, vol. 47, no. 1, 2011, pp. 783-795.
Giffen, Allison. “Dutiful Daughters and Needy Fathers: Lydia Sigourney and Nineteenth Century Popular Literature.” Women’s Studies, vol. 32, no. 3, 2003, pp. 255-280.
Huntington, E.B. “Lydia H. Sigourney.” Eminent Women of the Age: Being Narratives of The Lives and Deeds of the Most Prominent Women of the Present Generation, edited by James Parton, S.M. Betts & Company, 1868, pp. 85-101.
Jackson, Virginia. “The Poet as Poetess.” The Cambridge Companion to Nineteenth-Century American Poetry, edited by Kerry Larson, Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp. 54-75.
Sigourney, Lydia. Letters to Young Ladies. William Watson, 1835.
Sinche, Bryan. “Lydia Sigourney’s Sailors and the Limits of Sentiment.” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, vol. 29, no. 1, 2012, pp. 62-82.
Stokes, Claudia. The Altar at Home: Sentimental Literature and Nineteenth-Century American Religion. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.
Walker, Cheryl, editor. American Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century. Rutgers, The State University Press, 1992.
Wearn, Mary McCartin. Nineteenth-Century American Women Write Religion: Lived Theologies and Literature. Ashgate Publishing, 2014.
Wry, Joan. “Lydia Sigourney’s ‘To a Shred of Linen’: Lineaments of the Domestic and the Sublime.” ATQ: 19th Century American Literature and Culture, vol. 22, no. 2, 2008, pp. 403.