Women's Rhetorical Agency in the American West: The New Penelope

By Kelly, Casey Ryan | Women's Studies in Communication, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Women's Rhetorical Agency in the American West: The New Penelope


Kelly, Casey Ryan, Women's Studies in Communication


This essay theorizes women's rhetorical agency in the nineteenth-century American West. Contrast between fluid gender norms in frontier life and the Cult of True Womanhood highlights how agency is confined by materiality. Agency is the capacity to recognize and act in moments when material structures are vulnerable to resignification. I offer an analysis of Frances Fuller Victor's novella The New Penelope to demonstrate how pioneer women writers reinvented womanhood in light of socioeconomic changes. Keywords: Rhetorical Agency, Habitus, Frances Fuller Victor, Cult of True Womanhood, American West

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In Homer's epic poem The Odyssey, Penelope, the wife of the main character, Odysseus, king of Ithaca, awaiting her husband's return from Trojan War, refuses and evades repeated marriage proposals. All the while staying faithful to Odysseus, Penelope cleverly deceives, tricks, and delays her suitors, by pretending to weave a funeral pall for her father-in-law Laertes, upon which completion she promises to choose a suitor. Further, upon his return after some ten years, Odysseus disguises himself as a beggar and takes up Penelope's seemingly impossible challenge to string his own bow and shoot an arrow through the holes of twelve axes. Although it is not clear from the text, given her acumen, it may be that Penelope understood that only her Odysseus could complete this task and, thus, was aware that the real Odysseus had returned. As a literary figure, she is typically seen as a symbol of fidelity and chastity. As Margaret Atwood (2005) suggests, Penelope is rarely valued for her cunning ability to outsmart her male suitors. As a feminist figure, however, Penelope refused the forced choice of remarriage, used her chastity as power against her male suitors, and elected to remain in control of her household until she finally reunited with her true husband. The absence of Odysseus offered Penelope power, prerogative, and ability to exercise agency.

In the nineteenth century American West, some pioneer women found that they shared a great deal in common with Penelope. Particularly during the settlement of California and the Pacific Northwest, women who lost their husbands to the hardships of the overland journey, the seductions of gold mining, or who migrated west on their own to seek a richer life were able to choose independence by refusing to relinquish control over their household affairs to a new husband. Brigitte Georgi-Findlay (1996) explains that the history of these pioneering women is, unfortunately, sublimated to the national myth that westward expansion was "a male activity" (p. ix). A closer examination of the evidence demonstrates that some women played a vital role in the settlement of the American West and were able to exercise power in the absence of the Victorian social structures that kept women confined to the domestic sphere (Rosenberg, 1973). The popular reading of the pioneer woman is much like that of Penelope: she is seen as supportive, submissive, and chaste in the absence of male authority (Rosowski, 1989).

Pioneer writer and historian Frances Fuller Victor (1826-1902) gave voice to this New Penelope of the American West. (1) As one of San Francisco's leading writers, historians, and suffragists, Victor inhabited many of the social roles that were typically reserved for men, including becoming the first female editor of the widely circulated newspaper the New Era. Victor wrote prolifically to raise awareness among women that they had a place in the settlement of the West and they were not there to simply support their male counterparts. Rather, Victor's writings exhibit that for women migrating west, the unconventional was acceptable. In particular, in her popular book The New Penelope (1877), Victor developed a rhetorical figure of womanhood adapted to her new socioeconomic circumstances; this woman exercised a greater degree of autonomy, independence, and agency. …

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