Domesticity with a Difference: The Nonfiction of Catharine Beecher, Sarah J. Hale, Fanny Fern, and Margaret Fuller

By Nicole Tonkovich | Go to book overview

Chapter Seven
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN AUTHORS AND SERVANTS

The nonfictional texts penned by Beecher, Hale, Fern, and Fuller constructed a composite portrait that claimed to describe "the" American woman.1 That representation, however, obscured differences of occupation, age, marital status, race, social class, and geographic location among its referents. The illusion of a singular version of American womanhood recedes under an interrogation of its place in a triad of reciprocal and hierarchical dependency among the professional woman writer, within whose prescriptive texts the domestic woman gained her political and social specificity, and the invisible servant woman, whose labor maintained them both.

As several studies have established, in the tidy, well-organized, and self-contained bourgeois household the invisible labor of servants maintained the domestic woman as a home-centered counterpart to her manager/businessman husband. However, the connection of the intertwined figures of mistress and maid to the writing woman who invented them remains unremarked. As their own contemporaries noted, the writing woman bore little similarity to the domestic woman she inscribed. Paradoxically, she had more in common with the servant woman she inscribes as peripheral to the ideal domestic configuration. Thus the domestic woman is the textual creation of the professional writer, a figure whose inscription at the center of domestic handbooks performs a crucial rhetorical function, a necessary middle term that separates servant from writer -- a distinction that is otherwise by no means self-evident.

Unlike unmarried women before them, Beecher, Hale, and Fern followed a comparatively new path. Rather than live with married relatives and trade her household labor for financial support, each invented a career

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