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What can a love triangle from 200 years ago reveal about the
quelling of women’s ambition? Quite a bit, according to religious historian Christine Leigh Heyrman, the Grimble Professor of American History at UD. 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
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
Published in the UD Magazine, September 2021
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