Ghostland’s Exploration of the Effects of Spiritualism on Women’s Rights & Female Stereotypes

Happy October!

As All Hallow’s Eve looms closer, the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead thins, until the one night of the year that spirits can step from their realm into ours—at least according to the Celtic traditions that evolved into modern day Halloween.

In celebration of all things creepy, crawly, and spooky, I’m reading Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey. In it, Dickey delves into the creaky floors, endless halls, and hidden staircases of America’s most famous haunted houses, hotels, churches, graveyards, cities, and public spaces.

A Brief Introduction to Ghostland

Even though Dickey explains in the “Author’s Note” that Ghostland is not about proving or disproving the existence of ghosts, he does, in a way, dispel their existence. That is, he offers historical explanations of the supposed ghosts’ former lives and the stories that people created about them. He clears up rumors, sets the stories straight. In a lot of cases, the lives of haunted houses’ former residents were exaggerated after suspicions of paranormal activity arose.

I should clarify that he doesn’t so much debunk the existence of ghosts as explore why we deem places as haunted, why we attribute their uncanny quality to ghosts, why we (or those who do) believe in ghosts at all.

While I normally wait until I’m done reading a book before reviewing it, this post isn’t a book review for Ghostland, and I won’t be going into much more detail about the book as a whole. I do highly recommend it to those interested in history, haunted places, and ghosts, whether you’re a believer, a naysayer, or simply curious.

What I DO want to talk about is a particular chapter of the book in which Dickey writes about Spiritualism and its relation to the women’s rights.

Spiritualism and Women’s Rights

In Chapter Four: The Rathole Revelation, Dickey explores Spiritualism, a religious movement birthed in the late 1800s via the Fox sisters, the first self-proclaimed mediums.

While Spiritualism centered around the belief that the living could communicate with the dead via mediums and seances, it also paved the way for the women’s rights movement. Dickey explains that mediums were often women and that Spiritualism was the first religion to acknowledge women’s equality by placing them in positions normally reserved for men.

“…since the spirit world was accessible to all, Spiritualists saw little need for the men who traditionally controlled organized religion,” Dickey writes in Chapter Four. “In short order Spiritualism became dominated by women: for one thing, they were generally acknowledged to be superior mediums, and many saw in Spiritualism an antidote to the patriarchal misogyny of traditional religion.”

Because of the empowerment it afforded women, Spiritualism heavily influenced the suffragettes, many of whom were also Spiritualists. Dickey writes:

“Spiritualism had given many of these women practice and confidence in speaking to groups with authority; by allowing others (the dead) to speak through them, American women began to speak for themselves in greater numbers.” (Ghostland, Ch. 4)

Thus, Spiritualism became a vital driver of women’s suffrage and the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

Of course, the more Spiritualism became associated with women’s rights and the rejection of patriarchal tradition, the more the religious movement was deemed a silly, ridiculous fad, despite its social and political impact:

…much of what we now accept as our canonical culture was influenced by Spiritualism—in ways we’d perhaps like to forget. Not only were some of America’s great literary masters (including Walt Whitman and Mark Twain) believers in ghosts, but inquiries into the afterlife drove the philosophy and teachings of William James, the founder of American psychology. But Spiritualism ultimately was not an institutional religion by and for ‘great men’ like Whitman and James; it was a messy, homespun set of beliefs that were embraced and spread mainly by women, and so American history has downplayed it as aberrant and foolish rather than accept its place in our national psyche. As a political and social movement, Spiritualism has become a ghost itself, a legacy of feminist liberation and belief without dogma that still haunts the land.

– Colin Dickey, Ghostland, Ch. Four

The Birth of Female Stereotypes in the Victorian Age

While the impact of Spiritualism on women’s suffrage is readily forgotten, the female stereotypes birthed during the same era live on.

This chapter of the book got me thinking a lot about stereotypes society places on women, such as the idea that women talk a lot, or babble—that is, talk constantly and nonsensically. I started thinking about this when Dickey briefly touched on the topic of “female illnesses” of the Victorian era:

Spiritualism tended to valorize traits that were elsewhere labeled as women’s psychiatric diseases, including convulsions, incoherent babbling, open displays of sexuality, and other violations of Victorian decorum. Behavior that would have then been diagnosed as nervous sensitivity and hysteria were exactly the kind of traits that made for good mediums. In an age when male-dominated religious and medical institutions were working overtime to contain, train, diagnose, and treat all women who didn’t fit an established mold, […] Spiritualism offered a radical inversion.

– Colin Dickey, Ghostland, Ch. Four

One particular “women’s psychiatric disease” he mentions caught my eye: “incessant babbling.” Society was still patriarchal at the time (and yes, one could argue that the patriarchy is ongoing even today, considering recent political events). It was not appropriate for a woman to speak to a certain extent or at all on certain topics that were deemed a concern for men only. So if a women DID speak her mind, it was labeled as unceasing, nonsensical, crazy, a sickness, “incessant babbling”—labels determined to shut women up.

While this stereotype seems to have died down, it’s still gotten heavy use in modern times, often exaggerated in various forms of entertainment. It’s one of those stereotypical relationship jokes, especially among married men: women talk too much.

We all know this isn’t the case. Women aren’t born with the trait of incessant babbling just like men aren’t born with the trait of suppressing tears and emotions. But that’s not even a strong comparison because women aren’t raised to babble incessantly in the way men are (decreasingly) raised to be tough.

The idea that women talk too much simply comes from an era in which men tried to protect the patriarchy by keeping women quiet, by labeling them as nonsensical or unstable if they talked outside of the scope men considered appropriate. It was a trait attributed to women by men not to poke fun but to maintain power and control. We’ve seen it throughout history. We see it today. Like, right now. As women began feeling more empowered to speak up, men labeled any female talk that threatened their power as “incessant babbling.” I mean, fuck, they invented a whole disease to contain women’s thoughts and opinions, not to mention their sexuality.

I’m sure this is stirring up as much rage about recent and current political events in you as it is in me. I’d love to address this and write more about how men are still trying to maintain control of women and keep them quiet. Unfortunately, I’m not as eloquent a communicator about this topic as others are. However, there are plenty of intelligent, well-spoken individuals across social media, in Congress, at universities, and in the news who have and are addressing this topic. I’m sure you’ve seen it and, for that reason alone, there is no need for me to talk about it. And even if there were, I wouldn’t. I wish I could speak on the topic with as much intellect and poise as others, but I currently lack the skill, and I think it’s too important of a topic to talk about in any other way.

Ghostland: An Exploration of America’s Dark and Hidden Histories

When I started reading Ghostland, I had no idea that I’d learn something new about women’s rights and female stereotypes. Who knew that Spiritualism bred feminists and suffragettes?!

I’m sure the connection between patriarchal power and the stereotype that women are incessant babblers isn’t new. And as I write this, I fear that my lack of knowledge about this up until now isn’t doing the current women’s rights movement any favors. But this connection is new to me, and based on where my super smart boyfriend (proving my lack of eloquence here) thought the stereotype came from—that school age girls are gossipy, which could be a whole other blog post on the fact that women are probably raised to be gossipy the way boys are raised to be tough because what the fuck else were women supposed to talk about when we have a history of men trying to keep their conversation topics limited—it might be a new connection for others.

I hope I didn’t lose you in that sentence. I hope I didn’t offend any men who read this. I hope it’s understood that I’m speaking more of men and the patriarchy historically and that when I say it still goes on today, I know that not all men are involved in that kind of behavior. I hope I gave you some cool tidbits to think about. And I really hope I didn’t scare you away from reading Ghostland by talking about the one chapter in the book that coincidentally talks about women’s rights. This isn’t a book about that. It’s legit a book about haunted places. But I do think it’s awesome that Dickey touched on it, and I thought there might be a lot of gals (and guys) out there who might like to find a little feminist treasure hidden in a book about ghosts and haunted places.

Dickey also makes some great connections between haunted places and our country’s history of slavery, particularly how the ghosts in Richmond, VA—the former heart of the slave trade industry where countless black men, women, and children suffered and died—are “overwhelmingly white.” Dickey writes:

“We typically think of ghost stories in terms of the remnants of a terrible tragedy, a past we cannot escape, or a justice unavenged. Why, then, in a place that should be so haunted by the legacy of such a terrible injustice, the scene of countless deaths, should there be nothing but white ghosts?” (Ghostland, Ch. 6)

I won’t go further into that topic, as I’m reaching a novel-length blog post here. But it was another topic I found interesting and worth mentioning, if only briefly.

Per usual, I’ve digressed far too much in this post, so without further ado, thanks for reading and check out Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey.

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