Sister Mary Frances Clare is a very prolific writer, and at the rate she goes on, will, in a few years, furnish us quite a library. She possesses considerable intellectual powers, which must have been carefully cultivated ; she writes with vivacity and vigor, with earnestness and power; but in those of her writings which we have read, we miss that meek and subdued spirit, that sweetness and unction, that we naturally expect in a daughter of St. Clare. We miss in them the spiritual refinement and ascetic culture we look for in a religious, and their general tone strikes us as somewhat harsh and bitter, sarcastic and exaggerated.

~ Orestes Brownson in “Religious Novels, and Woman versus Man,” BQR, January 1873

I’m working on an article this summer that requires me to read a lot of Orestes Brownson. I have said before that I think he’d be a really insufferable friend, but I also think he’s about the most useful writer to read for understanding the 19th century. That being said, reading his thoughts on class, race, gender, and intellectual ability, I’m amazed at how contemporary the themes are.

The way he talks about the waning of masculine intellectual and political habits, the danger this lack of manly vigor poses not only to the nation but to civilization itself, the way he condemns women’s writing because of its emasculating sentimentality while also condemning women like Sister Mary Frances Clare for being too aggressive and harsh in their writing…all of it is very resonant with the contemporary social and political climate in 2016.

In particular, I want to highlight the way that women simply cannot win with Brownson, and he doesn’t care, because that’s the way it’s supposed to be. They are simultaneously too this and too that. Historical empathy and detachment be damned, sometimes I really want to reach back into the past and give him a good shake. But that’s because it’s an easier thing to do – have an imaginary shouting match with a dead guy – than to go out into the world, every day, and live this stuff and teach this stuff and beat my head against the wall. Even if I could yell at him, though, it wouldn’t do much good, so I’ll have to keep living and teaching and writing.

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