Gestefeld, Ursula N(ewell)

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GESTEFELD, Ursula N(ewell)

Born 22 April 1845, Augusta, Maine; died 22 October, Kenosha, Wisconsin

Married Theodore Gestefeld; children: four

Little biographical information about Ursula Newell Gestefeld's early life is available. By the 1880s, Gestefeld, her husband, and four children were living in Chicago. During these years, Gestefeld, a survivor of many childhood illnesses and several difficult pregnancies, became intrigued by the principles of Christian Science elaborated by Mary Baker Eddy in Science and Health. Gestefeld's involvement with Christian Science is the most significant factor in any evaluation of her career. Not only did she find her own health markedly improved by the application of this philosophy, but her writings all advocated ideas that developed as a consequence of her initial support of Eddy's religion.

In 1884, Gestefeld studied personally with Eddy, who considered Gestefeld one of her most able students and active supporters. In 1888, under her own authority, Gestefeld published Ursula N. Gestefeld's Statement of Christian Science, a book which she considered a logical explanation and continuation of Eddy's thought, omitting Eddy's rhetorical embellishment. Eddy saw the book as a direct attack on her absolute and inviolable authority, and she had Gestefeld dismissed from the church. Gestefeld responded with a clever pamphlet, Jesuitism and Christian Science (1888), which attacked Eddy's claim to unquestioned spiritual and scriptural authority. Gestefeld's emphasis on the right and duty of individual questioning and searching became central to all of her later works.

Gestefeld gradually codified her separation from Christian Science and eventually elaborated her own system of philosophy, which she named the "Science of Being." In addition to founding the Gestefeld Publishing Company in Pelham, New York, and publishing a monthly magazine, Exodus (1896-1904), she founded the Church of New Thought, the College of the Science of Being, and her own religious, social, and educational organization, the Exodus. The Builder and the Plan (1901) is the most significant and fully developed of Gestefeld's philosophical writings. It contains a point-by-point comparison of the key tenets of Christian Science and the Science of Being, in which Gestefeld demonstrates the superiority of her own system as founded upon reason and logic, independent from the absolute authority of any individual or church.

An introduction to Gestefeld's thought is most readily accessible in her novel, The Woman Who Dares (1892), an explicitly feminist work. Gestefeld's heroine, Murva Kroom, moves from dependence upon her tyrannical father to a similar, if less painful, dependence upon her husband, a man who wants a wife to be no more than an echo of his own ideas and needs. Her manifesto-like declaration that her identity as a woman must be given precedence over her identity as a wife is the catalyst for most of the action in the novel.

Eventually Murva sees woman's sexual subservience as the most crippling aspect of her identity. She demands the right to abstain from sexual intercourse, believing the excessive emphasis on physical intimacy impedes true union between men and women. She links this demand to a critique of established religions and of the economic inequality of women, and she makes sweeping demands for women's rights. Certain that one day her husband will accept and benefit from her vision, Murva leaves his house and establishes a refuge for abused women. In this asylum, she teaches other women the principles of freedom and self-respect she has learned, and sees in this work the beginning of a widespread program for social reform.

This novel, more than any other text in Gestefeld's generally forgotten oeuvre, deserves renewed attention. It is among the most vigorously argued and perceptive of the 19th-century novels devoted to the popularization of issues important to the women's rights movement, and it is especially significant for its frank discussion of sexuality, prostitution, and marriage.

Other Works:

Which Shall It Be? Mind or Medicine? A Plea for the Former (1886). What Is Mental Medicine (1887). The Science of Christ (1889). A Chicago Bible Class (1891). A Modern Catechism (1892). The Leprosy of Miriam (1894). And God Said (1895). The Breath of Life (1897). How We Master Our Fate (1897). The Metaphysics of Balzac (1898). Reincarnation or Immortality (1899). How to Control Circumstances (1901). The Science of the Larger Life (1905). The Master and the Man (1907).


Bates, E., and J. Dittemore, Mary Baker Eddy (1932). Braden, C., Spirits in Rebellion: The Rise and Development of New Thought (1963). Dakin, E., Mrs. Eddy (1929). Hill, V. L., "Strategy and Breadth: The Socialist-Feminist in American Fiction" (dissertation, 1979).

Reference works:

American Blue-Book of Biography (1915). NAW (1971).

Other references:

Arena (Dec. 1892). Catholic World (Jan. 1893). Literary World (11 Feb. 1893, 23 Feb. 1895). Mind (Jan. 1902). Picayune (9 Oct. 1892).