Feminism (American History Through Literature)
Although the term "feminism" was not invented until the 1880s, reform movements aiming to improve women's lives emerged early in the nation's history. At the end of the Revolutionary War, women lived under far more constraints than men. In slavery, to be sure, neither men nor women had rights. But in the free white population, women, governed by the doctrine of covertureaws defining the status of women during marriageere transferred from paternal guardianship to their husbands' rule when they married, with no legal access to property, education, children, occupations. Female education was rudimentary at best. Still, marriage was women's most reasonable choice because (except for widows) if unmarried, women had to live in their parents' homes, work as servants in other people's homes, or go into the sex trade.
In a subsistence farming economy, women's subordination was less visible and more bearable than it would become in the emergent middle-class and urbanizing culture of the post-Revolutionary years. By the 1790s, white women from the middle and upper classes had begun publishing (an activity itself testifying to changes in women's lives) on behalf of such initiatives as female education, access to respectable and decently paying work, the right to keep money and property, liberalized divorce laws, esteem for unmarried women, and participation in public life. These women hoped their work would argue effectively for female mental equality while demonstrating female abilities. Because conventional beliefs that women were weak in mental and moral as well as bodily strength seemed to justify treating them like children, the first feminist literary work aimed to demolish these beliefs. Granting that women could never equal men in physical strength, the early writers decoupled physical from mental strength, accepting the mind-body split established by the seventeenth-century French philosopher René Descartes and dissociating themselves from their own physicality. They drew inspiration from such European feminists as Mary Wollestonecraft, as well as from Enlightenment ideas about human rationality that had been important to American Revolutionary thought.
By 1848, when the first women's rights convention took place at Seneca Falls, New York, the idea of "women's rights" had become familiar across the culture. Among early initiatives, the drive for female education was especially successful, with women's schools springing up across the nation, especially in the northeast. Although not at the same level as good men's schoolsven the best were more like high schools than collegeshey turned teaching into a women's profession while producing an ever-larger number of graduates who could read and write well beyond the minimal level. These graduates in turn constituted a market for printed literary goods that women themselves supplied.
The emergence of women writers, the expansion of female education, the development of teaching as a female profession, and the growth of a women's literary market are thus all interconnected expressions of cultural feminism in a capitalizing economy. Women writers became part of the literary landscape, but always as representatives of their gender rather than as individuals. Publishing was a balancing act for each of them, and the suffrage issue became a test case. In 1818, when the great educator Emma Hart Willard (1787870) petitioned the New York State legislature for funding to open a girls' school in Troy, New York, she celebrated education's capacity to control women's boisterous, unruly energies. She used herself as an example of how educated women would petition but never seek to vote or hold public office. A quarter century later, however, Margaret Fuller (1810850) in "The Great Lawsuit: Man vs. Men and Woman vs. Women" (1843, expanded in 1845 into Woman in the Nineteenth Century) said women's needs could never be fairly represented in public policy unless women represented themselves. The Declaration of Sentiments issued by the Seneca Falls Convention openly called for women's suffrage.
But the franchise was not to come about for another seventy years, and some of its opponents were women like Willard and her educator sister, Almira Hart Phelps. Some women firmly believed that women's role in the home was incompatible with any kind of public life; others feared that anti-suffrage sentiment would delay all feminist reform. Thus, many anti-suffrage womenike Willard and Phelpsorked energetically for other women's issues. The anti-suffragist Catharine Esther Beecher (1800878), for example, published widely on female education and improving women's lives in the home. Her 1841 Treatise on
Whether Beecher's Treatise looks feminist to later eyes, it helped further technological education for women and led directly to the founding of the profession of home economics at the end of the nineteenth century, under which aegis women were able to go to college and even become professors. Another powerful anti-suffrage voice was that of Sarah J. Hale (1788879), editor in chief of the monthly Godey's Lady's Book from 1837 to 1877. Under cover of the women's magazine format, Hale agitated tirelessly for a huge array of goals that would now be recognized as feminist even while she adamantly opposed the vote, sexual freedom for women (for men too), dress reform, and anything else that in her view allowed women to behave or look too much like men. Through her editorials and editorial policies, she nurtured women authors, supported women editors, encouraged female business entrepreneurs, strove to open new professions to women, and espoused modern technologies like the sewing and washing machines to make women's traditional work less laborious. She wrote many different kinds of books, but always with an emphasis on improving women's lot: cookbooks with information about chemistry and nutrition, floras mixing sentimental verses with botanical information. She wanted women to learn astronomy, botany, chemistry, geology, anatomy, and physiology, and she spearheaded a successful campaign in the 1840s for schools that would train women doctors. She feminized this major breakthrough by claiming it was obscene for women to be examined intimately by men. In 1850 she published what she considered her crowning achievement thousand-page biographical encyclopedia of famous women throughout history. Woman's Record; or, Sketches of All Distinguished Women, from "The Beginning" till A.D. aimed to show how, despite all obstacles, women had managed to leave their mark on history and also how the impact of women in history was increasing and improving as the world became more enlightened and more Christian. "Christian" to Hale meant qualities of compassion and altruism, which she linked to women, whose physical weakness relative to men had always, she claimed, made them more sympathetic to Christian goals.
On account of the many southern subscribers to the Lady's Book she opposed abolition, going so far as publicly to criticize abolitionist women for disturbing the peace. In 1853, responding specifically to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly (1852), she published Liberia; or, Mr. Peyton's Experiments, a novel endorsing Liberian colonization for free African Americans. The novel has a striking portrayal of a strong African American heroine, Keziah, who, however, can come into her own only in a country of her ownhich, Hale insisted, could never be the United States, where racism was simply too entrenched. Whatever one thinks of the politics of this novel, the fact that it was published at all (like Lydia Maria Child's abolitionist Appeal on Behalf of That Class of Americans Called Africans  and Stowe's antislavery Uncle Tom's Cabin) shows clearly that women expected to publish freely on all sides of even the most explosive political topic.
Even if they had not actually been teachers themselves, women who published for other women often wrote like teachers. Simultaneously, they turned to that favorite women's genre, the novel, to reach the largest possible audience, presenting stories in which young women learned how to overcome obstacles, stand on their own two feet, and be respected and admired by all. Far from resenting the commandeering of fictional entertainment for didactic purposes, women apparently loved such books. The first example of this new kind of woman's fiction, Catharine Maria Sedgwick's (1789867) A New-England Tale, appeared in 1822. Until then, the typical woman's story had been a tear-jerking seduction tale in which a naive young girl is taken advantage of by a rogue who woos her, gets her pregnant, and abandons her to shame and early death. The narrative, ostensibly counseling women not to listen to men's flattery, indicated that women were so weak-willed and weak-minded that to listen to flattery was to believe it. In A New-England Tale, however, Sedgwick introduced an all-American girl with mental strength, a powerful sense of justice, a capacity for resistance, andey to her survival in a capitalist culture desire to be useful. The orphaned Jane Elton is adopted by an unfeeling aunt who exploits her as an unpaid servant. In time she moves out, takes a teaching job, and gets engaged to an attractive young lawyer who turns out to be a scoundrel. She breaks her engagement without regret when she discovers his true character and prepares for life without marriage. But she marries a young widower with a daughter, a man who respects and admires her, offering her romance, security, and above all friendship.
The formula in these stories of trials and triumphhe woman's noveleaturing energetic and competent protagonists who contributed to the ongoing national (or at least northern) project of modernization propelled hundreds of novels to best-seller status, establishing a standard for sales that almost no novels by men attained. Two examples of the typeusan Warner's The Wide, Wide World (1850) and Maria Susanna Cummins's The Lamplighter (1854)ot only sold hundreds of thousands of copies but remained in print until the twentieth century. Diversified by settings and obstacles, and enlivened by a friendly narrative voice, the novels often situated the heroine between two other feminine types, a meek and helpless victim and a selfish, greedy, fashion-crazy "belle." The differences between these characters and the protagonist made an obvious statement about female self-reliance, as well as a statement about female citizenship in the United States. The belle's acquisitive egotism undermines community and squanders resources. The helpless woman, although appealing in her way, counters the so-called cult of true womanhood idealizing purity, piety, passivity, and submissiveness. In this formula fiction, such women are burdens to others and useless to themselvesot true women at all. The heroines, although true women to the core, and certainly pure and pious, are neither passive nor submissive. No fragile, fainting stereotype here: these novels tell women to value inner character, get the best education possible, learn a useful trade, respect women who work for a living, esteem unmarried women, marry men who can be companions, and help other women by setting an example.
The genre attracted a wide range of women authors. E. D. E. N. Southworth's (1819899) The Hidden Hand; or, Capitola the Madcap, serialized in 1859860 and then published as a book in 1888, had an extraordinary success. The heroine, Capitola Black, enters the action as a street urchin in New York City, dressed in boys' clothes. "Because I was a girl," she explains, "there seemed to be nothing but starvation or beggary before me;" then, "all of a sudden, a bright thought struck me; and I made up my mind to be a boy!" (p. 40). Discovered accidentally by an uncle from the South, who takes her back to his plantation, she embarks on a career of principled resistance to Southern mores, venturing out to punish oppressors and free victims and, implicitly, impose Yankee values on the backward South. By the end of this joyous, romping, cheerfully subversive story, all wrongs have been righted, and Capitola has married her faithful childhood friend.
Almost a decade later Louisa May Alcott (1832888) published Little Women (1868), the most loved girls' book in the United States for more than a century. The characters derived from Alcott's own family and starred Jo March (modeled on Alcott herself) as the heroine who wanted to be a boy. Jo has many setbacks as she learns how to be a woman without sacrificing the essential core of her independent, powerful personality. Eventually, she succeeds as a writer and goes on to marry a kindly professor and run a boys' school. Alcott's point, ultimately, is that the best women are those with the most gumption and internal resistance to the status quo. But there is a kind of sadness in this novel; the different careers available to the two genders show how far women are from occupational equality.
If feminism is about independence and resistance to unjust authority, all these novels are feminist. If feminism is about group consciousness, asserting female solidarity in the face of male tyranny, then the novels' advocacy of mutual respect and esteem among women makes them feminist even though they do not describe formal associations of women agitating for women's rights. Nor do they depict women who want to reform the nation's politics or economyhey want to belong. If persuading women to choose husbands who see them as equals is feminist, these are feminist novels. If living without men is a feminist goal, they are not; at least until toward the end of the Civil War, marriage for the protagonist is the inevitable ending. During the 1860s a few novelists, recognizing that the huge number of men killed made marriage impossible for many women, tried to work out alternatives. Among these, Augusta Jane Evans's Macaria; or, Altars of Sacrifice (1864), Harriet Prescott Spofford's Azarian: An Episode (1864), and Alcott's Work: A Story of Experience (1872) depict female companionship among women who will not marry. Azarian comes the closest to what today's literary culture might think of as a lesbian novel.
Possibly, most women's novels eschewed radical feminist plots because their readers were young, white, and middle class. Women who could not or did not read, or who read at basic levelsorking-class women, immigrant women, women in slaveryere not likely to absorb these lengthy and self-consciously literary texts that, along with lessons in character formation, aimed to increase reading skills and instill a love for good books. The novels' belles tended to be wealthy, spoiled, and contemptuous of the bookish protagonist, implying that upper-class women were not a target audience either. The novels are full of loyal and interesting servantsn this era all middle-class and even genteelly poor households had servantsut always as secondary characters. The story did not resonate with African American women; the two important published narratives by African American women recovered to datei>Our Nig (1859) by Harriet Wilson and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) by Harriet Jacobsse the formula to show its irrelevance for women of color.
ABOLITION AND TEMPERANCE
Formal women's rights activism in the United States grew directly out of abolitionism. Both Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815902) and Lucretia Mott (1793880), Quaker organizers of the Seneca Falls Convention, turned to women's rights when they were denied seating at an antislavery convention in London because they were women. If abolitionism provided an official venue for feminists to argue their case for women's suffrage, the two reform movements would soon develop a complicated relationship during the periods preceding and following the Civil War. Although Frederick Douglass attended the first meeting of woman suffragists at Seneca Falls, many preivil War abolitionists themselves argued that feminist concerns should be subordinated to the more pressing needs of slavery reform, which temporarily sidelined feminists' attempts to gain women's suffrage. Race also split suffrage issues between white and black women and black men and women. The black activist and writer Frances Watkins Harper (1825911), who entitled her late trials and triumph novel Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted (1892) after the pen name of activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, felt frustrated as early as the American Equal Rights Association Convention of 1869 that black women were especially sidelined from gaining the vote. She fictionalizes this voice in her periodical novel Minnie's Sacrifice (1869) when her heroine asks, "'But, Louis, is it not the negro woman's hour also? Has she not as many rights and claims as the negro man?'" (Harper, p. 78; O'Brien, pp. 1, 11).
Along with abolitionism, the temperance movement interacted significantly with women's rights. Until recently alcoholism was thought of as weakness of will, not disease; many believed that large numbers of heavy drinkers threatened the nation's moral fiber. As well as moralizing, male reformers decried the toll of heavy drinking on economic productivity while women noted the abuse of wives and children by drunkards. Given the laws of coverture, a married woman could not escape from a drunkard husband nor protect her children, whereas such a husband could abandon his family at will, returning occasionally to confiscate whatever meager wages his wife might have earned. A highly sensationalist literature of inebriation pervaded the working-class press, mostly written by men, appearing in cheap pamphlets and weekly story papers rather than between the covers of a book or in the glossy magazines.
Thus, in the literary world temperance seems more a class than a gender issue; in middle-class woman's fiction, the men's great weakness is financial irresponsibility demonstrated in bad business investments that impoverish their families. The first of many recessions to hit the U.S. economy occurred as a direct result of stock speculation in 1837; with women lacking all legal control over family resources, the melodramatic plot device of a comfortably well-off family suddenly pauperized turns out to be quite realistic.
That men wrote temperance stories and women, although highly active in the movement, seldom did, raises the reverse question: whether men's writing across the board registers feminist awareness. Certainly, Timothy Shay Arthur's Ten Nights in a Bar-Room and What I Saw There (1854) features women as victims of the drunkard's failings, but its solution is prohibition not women's rights. In James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking novels, womenhether powerful or weakre obstacles to men. Herman Melville's fiction has almost no women characters. Walt Whitman's poems celebrate women as mothers of men. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's women are good wives or long-suffering ciphers, and Edgar Allan Poe's are victims of violently paranoid fantasies. Margaret Fuller tried to rescue transcendentalism from the exclusively male perspectives of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, insisting that women too had divine souls.
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804864) is the exception. Earlier stories, including "Young Goodman Brown" (1835), "Egotism; or, the Bosom Serpent" (1843), and "The Birth-mark" (1843) often centered on icy male characters whose egotism destroyed the women who loved them; but beginning with The Scarlet Letter (1850) he featured the women themselves. The problem as presented in The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables (1851), The Blithedale Romance (1852), and The Marble Faun (1860) was that both male egotism and female compassion were inherent and gender-specific. How then could women ever attain true social equality without changing their inner being? If they changed their essential nature, would they still be women? It was Hawthorne's literary habit to raise but not answer questions. His novels proposed small improvements that might make women's lives more bearable, but except for The Scarlet Letter, they show women defeated by the struggle to remain loving and yet assert themselves as individuals. His one avowed feministenobia, in The Blithedale Romanceills herself. This outcome is hardly what women activists hoped for then or look for now, and yet its very bleakness recognizes women's dilemma in a way that no other male writer approached.
See also Abolitionist Writing; Declaration of Sentiments; Domestic Fiction; The Hidden Hand; Letters on the Equality of the Sexes; Little Women; The Scarlet Letter; Seneca Falls Convention; Suffrage; Temperance; Woman in the Nineteenth Century
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