Nineteenth-Century Women's Autobiography Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Nineteenth-Century Women's Autobiography

The autobiography genre has received serious scholarly attention only in the last fifty years and much of this work has focused on the writings of men rather than women. Early scholars focused almost exclusively on the lifestyle and the perceived moral state of the author and not on the form and style of the genre itself. As Estelle C. Jelinek writes, "Even when women's autobiographies are given some scant attention in studies, social bias against the condition or the delineation of their lives seems to predominate over critical objectivity." However, recent scholarship suggests that women possessed a unique mode of self-representation and set of justifications for their self-histories and that these perceptions have evolved from the eighteenth century to the twentieth century. Other scholars have focused on what nineteenth century women's autobiographies reveal about how women perceived themselves, their selfdefined gender ideology, the issues of particular concern in their lives, and factual information about their accomplishments and lifestyles. Few women published autobiographies until the end of the nineteenth century; among the most famous are Margaret Oliphant, Harriet Martineau, Annie Besant, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Recent scholarship has focused on the style and structure of autobiographies written by women, the way in which the writers order and relate the events of their lives, the way the women interpret the events, and the tone of their narration. Sidonie Smith discusses the way in which nineteenth century women created a "self within their writings and the way in which Victorian ideology limited women's conceptualization of themselves. Jelinek describes how Stanton's determination to convert readers to the suffrage cause led her to emphasize only the positive aspects of her life, even when this created a simplified and even paradoxical narrative. Ruth A. Symes disagrees with earlier critics who see Catharine Cappe's Memoir (1822) as an aberration from the typical flowery prose of the period. Symes argues that Cappe writes in educational voice because her middle class Unitarian background led her to believe that her most important duty was to teach children and instruct parents. Elizabeth Winston states that nineteenth-century women's autobiographies were conciliatory, and the authors' "need to assure readers of their womanliness results in apologies, disclaimers, and words of self-depreciation." Genaro Padilla gives rise to another question of form, that is, whether autobiographical accounts that were collected by a scholar rather than recorded solely by the source are valid. Padilla refers to the more than forty autobiographical recollections of Hispanic women living in California recorded by Hubert Bancroft in the 1870s. Padilla argues that even though these women did not initiate the autobiographical process nor control it, they still articulated their identities and experiences. In addition, he argues that a sense of representing their culture or experiences as a group was as important to these Hispanic autobiographers as relating their individual experiences.

Critics agree that women's autobiographical writing differed from men's in several regards. First, women authors felt that they had to defend their decision to write about themselves. Particularly in the early nineteenth century, society believed that women should not call attention to themselves, in their lives or deeds. Women autobiographers often attempted to assure readers of their ordinary lives, filled with domestic duties and service to their families. The authors justified their writing as a moral obligation, either to educate others or to entertain other women. Women autobiographers differed from men in their focus, often de-emphasizing the role of men in their lives and writing mostly about themselves and other women. Stanton barely mentions her husband, and the diaries of women pioneers focus on their own experiences and hardships, and on those of other women. As Padilla explains, the Hispanic women involved in the Bancroft history project often sought opportunities to discuss their experiences and their struggles for autonomy in a patriarchal society where women seldom enjoyed a public voice. Anna Julia Cooper in A Voice from the South (1892), states that only African-American women can speak for themselves and that it is futile for men to attempt to speak of women's experiences. In addition, women writers reflect the cultural ideologies and assumptions of their period. Often, they emphasize the aspects of life that were considered in the women's sphere in the nineteenth century: childcare, housekeeping, nursing, marriage and family. Critics note that these women's autobiographies provide information about the private family sphere which is often unavailable in other official sources.