Feminism 19th and Early 20th Century America Term Paper

  • Length: 8 pages
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  • Subject: Literature
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Feminism 19th and Early 20th Century America

Writing and woman suffrage were inextricably intertwined in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Suffrage gave them a voice, and they used that voice to challenge the early American patriarchal status quo. By examining those works, new light can be brought to bear on suffrage activists, who at the time were thought to be an unimportant fringe group. Through a study of their work, we can learn more about their day-to-day lives.

According to Sandra Harding in McClish and Bacon (p. 28), one's own knowledge depends on one's position in society. When one is a subordinate in the social hierarchy, one understands life differently than someone at the top of the social hierarchy. However, as the most powerful write history, it tends to be rather one-sided. Since that is the case, Harding argues that these different viewpoints are equally valid. By looking at what is often termed social history, one can find information about more than just dates of wars and conquests. Other information is helpful in understanding our current social makeup. In addition, because traditionally oppressed people write some literature, it can be even more revealing than the history written by the top of the social hierarchy. Minority literature includes the viewpoints of not only those at the top of the social hierarchy, but also those who survived underneath. Because their very survival depended on understanding the overarching society, the disenfranchised are keen observers (McClish and Bacon, 28).

This can be revealing in many ways. Readers who acknowledge the values of these different points-of-view can better understand texts. Rather than simply taking the patriarchal point-of-view for granted, questioning the normative interpretation can lead to new knowledge. How does one do that? Harding suggests that readers should ask questions based on their own experiences, (McClish and Bacon, 28) assuming of course that one is not a member of the privileged class.

In the 1800s in the United States, the privileged class was primarily white men of Anglo-Saxon, Protestant descent. White women could not vote, or even own the clothes on their backs. Black men were not considered people until after the Civil War, and black women were burdened with the prejudice directed at both blacks and women. They were of the lowest possible class, being subservient to white men, white women, and black men, in that order.

Since white men had all the power, they tended to have the most disposable income, and thus were the primary sources of funding for writers who made a living from their writing. Even for writers who didn't depend on their writing for income, the white male was still an influential reader. One would have had to make one's writing palatable, or at least non-offensive, in order not to be banned, quashed, or even prosecuted. One of the oldest types of writing is the story, and one can couch much in fictional tale that one could not express in a strident pamphlet, though suffragists used those too. After all, it is merely a hypothetical situation. As a result, marginalized individuals often chose a narrative because of the subtlety involved (McClish and Bacon, 34). Another advantage of posing one's challenge to society in fiction is the ability it gives the writer to demonstrate something from someone else's point-of-view. Minority authors can show their mainstream readers new horizons.

One of the earliest narratives to point out a problem with women's position in society was Charlotte Temple by Susanna Rowson. This novel depicts the fate of a young, presumably well-to-do white girl. Though first published in England in 1791, it was published in the United States in 1794, to immediate popularity. This novel has had over 200 editions published in the United States, in continuous print since it was published. Unlike modern romance novels with their happily ever after template, Charlotte Temple was a young girl who was seduced by a soldier, taken to the United States, impregnated, and then abandoned to her eventual destitution and death. While modern readers may find this story to be repugnant, the "seduction novel" was a popular genre for decades (Rust).

Superficially, this novel has nothing to alarm the patriarchy. While at the same time warning girls not to stray from socially mandated standards of acceptable behavior, it also legitimizes the licentious behavior of the upper class white male -- after all, he suffers no ill effects from his behavior. Women who succumbed to seduction were so ostracized that family friends would shun them, banishing them from society to starve on the street, as happened to Charlotte. However, men who did the seduction were not excluded, and indeed, they could go on to marry any other young girl as the main male character did in Charlotte Temple. This book made the bitter choice slightly more palatable: girls could choose virginity, a husband, and subjugation; or choose sex, homelessness, and martyrdom for the sake of an infan (Rust).

One could even say that Charlotte Temple was the 19th century version of the long-running Seventeen magazine "It Happened to Me" column. Depending on your inclination, these are thinly fictionalized or allegedly true tales of horrifying or humiliating incidents in the life of a teenager. The very deliciousness of it is based in schadenfreude, or a sort of vicarious delight in the misfortunes of others. It was widely known at the time that Charlotte Temple was a roman a clef about the author's first cousin, who was the male character in the story, making the similarity more pointed. Rowson reinforced this belief by using the phrase "a tale of truth" in the subtitle, preface, and novel itself. Young girls learned lessons about society's expectations from the book, without sermons or their own painful mortification.

For decades, young girls put flowers at the grave of Charlotte Stanley at Trinity Churchyard in New York City, knowing that they could have been Charlotte but for a slight twist of fate. In fact, the author specifically implores her readers to feel that way when she tells them to "feel the woes of Charlotte" (109) and to "reflect how many errors we are ourselves subject to, how many secret faults lie hid in the recesses of our hearts, which we should blush to have brought into open day" (80). Many 19th century girls probably read Charlotte Temple, thoroughly enjoyed their relative good fortune -- and learned of the grim choices inherent in their social status.

Other interpretations exist. As Marion Rust points out in 'What's Wrong with "Charlotte Temple?'," Rowson's story may have been so popular because it depicted a young woman's struggle to maintain the standards of behavior expected of an upper-class white woman (104). Readers could empathize with Charlotte's initial situation, and fantasize about not adhering to society's dictums. In that sense, it was escapist fantasy, with the emphasis on escape. While 19th century U.S. men were to choose "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," women's roles became increasingly constrained (Rust). Young Charlotte escaped the stifling finishing school with a dashing lover, something her readers could not do. Like Caesar's wife, women of the powerful men in the new republic had to be above reproach. While single colonial women (and abandoned married women) could and did own their own businesses, enter into contracts, and bring lawsuits, ironically this era faded in the new republic (Salmon). 19th century upper class women were expected to remain within the sphere of the home and hearth, not go dashing across oceans (Rust). To lower-class readers (though surely there were fewer of them), the details involved in Charlotte's life would have been escapist fantasy too. Just as modern day romance novels always involve a wealthy suitor or timely inheritance, a dashing, wealthy suitor would have tempted women in Charlotte's time, when they could no longer own property or their own businesses. They too could easily end up pregnant and destitute, on the streets.

Furthermore, while abortifacients were readily available to colonial women, abortions and abortifacients were criminalized in the increasingly repressive new republic (Bullough). In 1803 Britain Lord Ellenborough's Act imposed formal punishment for both pre and post quickening abortion (Keown, 2002). In 1829 New York performing an abortion was made illegal (Bullough, 2001). In 1873 the federal Comstock laws were passed to criminalize the information about how to have an abortion under the guise of public indecency (Bullough, 2001). So, as abortions and abortifacients became increasingly difficult to obtain, pregnancy became increasingly dire for single young women. Pregnancy became a literally fatal mistake in Charlotte Temple (Rust).

One of the rare 19th-century women who made a living from her writing was Sara Payson Willis. She was known for social satire, right down to her pen name. "Fanny Fern" mocked the trend to assign floral names to popular female writers (Ross). Her first book was called "Fern Leaves," again a play on words and the floral trend. Ross argues that by using the negative in such a different way, she is investing…

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