"The Great Wrong": "Jennie June's" Stance on Women's Rights

Article excerpt

Throughout her career, Jane Cunningham Croly (1829-1901), better known as "Jennie June," wrote extensively about women's rights in mainstream newspapers and magazines. This article revalues her work, considering the complexity of her journalistic stances on women's rights. Avoiding modern value statements that place cultural texts in hierarchal binaries of "liberal" or "conservative," it considers the motivation behind Croly's deployment of essentialist sex/gender logics. This study involved the historical analysis of more than sixty articles written by Croly about women's rights from 1855 until 1898, as well as additional primary sources that provided insight into her personal and professional lives.

A newspaper colleague once commented to Jane Cunningham Croly: "You go on so naturally and make so little fuss about your work that I sometimes forget that you are a woman."1 To which, she replied, "There's no sex in labor."2 Throughout her career, Croly (1829-1901), better known by her alliterative nom de plume "Jennie June,"3 wrote extensively about women's rights in mainstream newspapers and magazines. In addition to promoting notions of gender equity, she demanded "equal pay" in the workplace.4 Yet, at the height of her career, she stopped short of endorsing the most "radical" of women's rights - women's suffrage. To modern eyes, she remains an enigma. How could a career woman in the predominantly male field of journalism promote women's advancement in the workplace but not in the political arena?

As a result of her stance on suffrage, Croly was criticized by the era's women's rights leaders, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and relegated to the footnotes of early women's histories.5 There she remained for more than half a century. Since historians resurrected her from the footnotes in the 1960s, she has been described in contradictory terms as a "determined feminist" and an "ambivalent advocate of women."6

At the crux of Croly's views about women's rights was a strident adherence to the Victorian ideology of separate spheres. Some recent feminist scholars have found her discursive use of the essentialist logic of separate spheres untenable.7 As historian Patricia Okker contended, this type of presentist bias renders ideas of die past as "conventional," "conservative," or "radical" based predominantly on whether historical subjects conform to modern notions about feminism.8

Avoiding modern value statements, this study provides a new understanding of the role that Croly played in the nineteenthcentury women's rights movement by placing her work at mainstream newspapers and magazines in dialogue with the words of prominent women's rights advocates of the era.9 In doing so, the study reconsiders Croly's writings about separate spheres, united womanhood, women's rights, and women's suffrage. Taking a cue from feminist theorist Diana Fuss, this article considers the motivation behind Croly's deployment of essentialist gender logics.10

This study involved the historical analysis of sixty-six articles written by Croly about women's rights throughout her journalistic career from 1855 until her retirement in 1898, as well as additional primary sources that provided insight into her personal and professional lives." This study concentrated on Croly's published stance on women's rights issues. To glean a representative sample from throughout her career at numerous newspapers and magazines, the researcher mined two full-text searchable, online databases. More than 1 58 articles written by Jane Cunningham Croly were identified through the American Periodical Series Online, which contains full-text articles from more than 1,100 U.S. magazines and journals published between 1740 and 1900, and ProQuest Historical Newspapers Online, which contains full-text articles from many American periodicals including the New York Times and the Washington Post. After an initial reading of the entire collection, Croly's fashion columns, which dealt only indirectly with her thoughts about women's rights, were eliminated. …