Representing the Working Class in Early U.S. Feminist Media: The Case of Hester Vaughn

Article excerpt

In 1868 U.S. woman's rights activists championed the cause of a working woman convicted of infanticide. Representations of Hester Vaughn in feminist media texts illustrate the activists' ideological binds. The figure of Vaughn appeared both as a poor immigrant girl who inspired philanthropy and also as a Symbolic Woman, whose life story became a middle-class narrative. Although the early feminists' advocacy led to Vaughn's release, they fell short of incorporating class difference in their rhetoric.

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On a cold Friday morning in Philadelphia in February 1868, as the well-to-do of the city looked forward to hearing the visiting novelist Charles Dickens give a public reading the following weekend, an immigrant Englishwoman gave birth, alone, in an unheated garret on Girard Avenue. When Hester Vaughn was found a few days later, the baby was dead. Vaughn was taken to prison and, five months later, convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to hang. A native of Gloucestershire, Vaughn had come to the United States in 1866 with a Welshman named John Harris, whom she believed to be her husband. When he abandoned her, apparently because he already had a wife, she sought employment as a domestic. She worked as a maid for families in Pottsville and Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, and then took a job as a dairy maid. Here her employer raped her, and when her pregnancy became apparent, he put her out. She went to Philadelphia, and within a few months she was in the Moyamensing Prison under sentence of death ("Serious Charge," 1868; "Coroner's," 1868; "Legal Intelligence," 1868a,b,c; "State Capital," 1868; Stanton, 1868a; "Case," 1868; Kirk, 1869; "Hester Vaughan," 1868a,b). (1)

Vaughn's story captured the attention of prominent woman's rights activists, who marshaled the resources of the 19th-century media to champion her cause. For a year, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony kept Vaughn's name before the public in the pages of their New York journal, the Revolution. Anna Dickinson, a celebrated popular lecturer and herself a Philadelphia native, told Vaughn's story in "A Struggle for Life" during the 1868-1869 lecture season. In December 1868 a large public meeting in support of Vaughn convened in New York's Cooper Institute. Following direct appeals to the governor of Pennsylvania, Vaughn was pardoned in May 1869, with the proviso that she at once set sail for England. (2)

In this essay I examine the representations of Hester Vaughn in the Revolution, a short-lived but significant journal of the radical wing of the woman's rights movement in the tumultuous post-Civil War United States. The Revolution, a weekly dedicated to the revolutionary potential of woman suffrage, directly confronted controversial issues rarely addressed in other publications, such as the legal rights of married women, divorce, prostitution, abortion, and prison reform. Further, the Revolution regularly reported on Susan B. Anthony's 1868 alliance with working women in New York, and the journal explicitly promoted the involvement of women wage-earners in the suffrage movement. Thus, as Bonnie Dow observes, the journal "greatly expanded the field of arguments relevant to suffrage" (1991, p. 75; see also DuBois, 1978, chap. 5). Sweeping social and political change was the radicals' goal; the ballot for women, so the Revolution claimed, would be the means of effecting that change. The case of Hester Vaughn permitted a crystallization of these arguments. In their published support of Vaughn, who was characterized in the Philadelphia Inquirer as a "false woman" who had committed an unspeakably "foul deed" ("Legal Intelligence," 1868b), the Revolution's writers first sought to establish positive representations of the accused woman, and then to generalize from Vaughn's case to the situation of all disenfranchised women (on "positive representations," see Hall, 1997b; 1997a, pp. 269-270). The Revolution drew virulent criticism for its position (see Pillsbury, 1868). …