The Forgotten Sister: The Life of Isabella Beecher Hooker

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Isabella Beecher Hooker

A look into the life of the youngest member of the Beecher family, Isabella Beecher Hooker.

The History of Isabella Beecher Hooker

On February 22, 1822 Isabella Homes Beecher was born to the Reverend Lyman Beecher and Harriet Porter Beecher, his second wife, in Litchfield, Connecticut. She was the youngest daughter in the Beecher household and the only daughter to Harriet Porter Beecher. At the age of four her family moved to Boston where she stayed until she was eleven. They then moved to Cincinnati, Ohio when Lyman Beecher became president of Lane Theological Seminary. Isabella continued her formal education while living in Cincinnati at a school founded by her half-sister Catherine, who was twenty-two years older than she. At the age of sixteen Isabella was sent back to New England, due to the death of her mother in 1835. She never lived with her father again, but only corresponded with him. Isabella lived with her half-sister Mary Beecher Perkins and Mary’s husband in Hartford. It was here that Isabella attended the esteemed Hartford Female Seminary, another school for women founded by her half sister Catherine. It was during these years that Isabella indicates a heightened interest in the public and political affairs surrounding her family. Particularly she was aggravated with her father’s refusal to educate his daughters past the age of sixteen, an opportunity she hungered for greatly. She states:

At sixteen & a half, just when my brothers began their mental education, mine was finished- except life’s discipline was added with years & that we shared equally. Till twenty three, their father, poor minister as he was could send them to College & Seminary all six- cost what it might, but never a daughter cost him a hundred dollars a year, after she was sixteen.

A year later she came in contact with John Hooker, a young law student who was working with her sister’s husband, who was a prominent lawyer himself in Hartford. Only being seventeen years old at the beginning of their two year engagement she illustrated her strong convictions for female individuality and an untraditional viewpoint on the marital prototypes set forth by society. They exchanged letters and in these correspondences she expresses her stress and fear surrounding the prospect of marriage, specifically surrounding the duty of submission of a wife to her husband, and even questioned if she should ever be married. Isabella did not hide her personal beliefs that any woman willing to abide by these laws of submission was definitively lacking sensibility and felt that starting her marriage on a solid and honest foundation would keep her from having the same complications she saw in her brothers and sisters marriages. John proved to be persistent and in reassuring her that they would begin their relationship as equals and nothing less they became married on August 5, 1841. It was early in their marriage when they would read aloud to one another that Isabella recalled John reading from his law books a passage:

… and with great enthusiasm we read chapter after chapter till we came to that on the Domestic Relations and the reciprocal duties of husband and wife. I shall never forget my consternation when we came to this passage: ‘By marriage the husband and wife are one person in law, that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband under whose wing, protection and cover, she performs everything….The husband also by the old law might give his wife moderate correction. For as he is to answer for her misbehavior, the law thought it reasonable to entrust him with this power of restraining her by domestic chastisement, in the same moderation that a man is allowed to correct his apprentices or children….The civil law gave the husband the same or a larger authority over his wife: allowing him for some misdemeanors, flagellis et fustibus acriter verberare uxorem (By whips and cudgels vigorously to punish a wife); for others, only modicam castigationem adhibere (to use moderate whipping).

A Suffragette is Born

This moment was marked by Isabella as a definitive one that ignited a fire within her to follow the cause of woman’s rights. However, only after the outbreak of the Civil War did Isabella embark upon making any intellectual and social movements for the woman’s cause. During the twenty years she spent as a devoted mother and wife, she maintained a fulfilled and eventful life. She gave birth to three healthy children over a period of thirteen years, of whom the first passed away in infancy. Mary Beecher Hooker was the eldest, followed by Alice Beecher Hooker and the youngest and final child of Isabella and John Hooker, Edward Beecher Hooker. Isabella managed to keep sets of journals recording her everyday struggles throughout her domestic life where she illustrated the level of devotion she gave toward raising her children, undoubtedly fueled by the loss of her own mother at such a young age. It was during this period in her life that she felt an intellectual detachment from her husband which she had never felt before. She felt she had abandoned a crucial part of her being in order to facilitate that domestic duty, motherhood. This internal struggle stirred within Isabella who became even further agitated in 1852 with the release of her half sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s, book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It is accurate to say that she felt disappointed by the brilliance and success that surrounded her, but not out of jealousy, but rather out of desperation to utilize her intellect as her sisters were able to. Years later in her memoirs she describes seeing the success of her sister’s book with the abolition movement as an incentive to do the best she could to emancipate women.Isabella had succumbed to the societal principal of the nineteenth-century ideal of the cult of domesticity, an ideology propagated by her sister Catherine.

The Ideology of Domesticity

A comprehensive ideology of domesticity signified this period and legitimized responsibility for social order in the hands of women. The role assigned to women during the early 1800s is vital to understanding what was happening socially and culturally and the shifts that began to take place in society. Women had begun taking on greater importance in the field of education and began replacing men in the teaching profession, as her sister had, as well as becoming prominent figures in the patronage of the churches. The ideology of domesticity placed the responsibility of stability, morality and harmony of American society in female hands and forced women to make a compromise between the benefit of the American society and their moral duties or their desire for equality. It is clear that Isabella began to view her predicament within this wider societal context and was able to overcome her own predisposed notions as growing controversy over woman’s proper sphere came to the forefront.