Romancing the Vote: Feminist Activism in American Fiction, 1870-1920

Romancing the Vote: Feminist Activism in American Fiction, 1870-1920

Romancing the Vote: Feminist Activism in American Fiction, 1870-1920

Romancing the Vote: Feminist Activism in American Fiction, 1870-1920


As the nineteenth century progressed into the twentieth, novels about politically active women became increasingly common. Until now, however, no one has studied this body of writing as a distinct tradition in American literature. In Romancing the Vote, Leslie Petty recovers this tradition and also examines how the fiction written about the women's rights and related movements contributed to the creation and continued vitality of those movements.

Petty examines the novels as paradigms of feminist activism and reform communities and elucidates how they, whether wittingly or not, model ways to create similar communities in the real world. She demonstrates how the narratives provide insight into the hopes and anxieties surrounding some of the most important political movements in American history and how they encapsulate the movements' paradoxical blend of progressive and conservative ideologies.

The major works discussed are Elizabeth Boynton Harbert's Out of Her Sphere (1871), Lillie Devereux Blake's Fettered for Life (1874), Henry James's The Bostonians (1886), Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's Iola Leroy (1892), Hamlin Garland's A Spoil of Office (1892), Marjorie Shuler's For Rent--One Pedestal (1917), Elizabeth Jordan's edited volume The Sturdy Oak (1917), and Oreola Williams Haskell's Banner Bearers: Tales of the Suffrage Campaigns (1920).

Although these works discredit many traditional notions about gender and inspire their readers to seek fairness and equality for many American women, they often simultaneously perpetuate discriminatory ideas about other marginalized groups. They not only privilege the experiences of white women but also rely on widespread anxieties about racial and ethnic minorities to demonstrate the need for gender reform. By focusing on such tensions between conventional and unconventional ideas about gender, race, and class, Petty shows how the fiction of this period helps to situate first-wave feminism within a larger historical and cultural context.


In 1839, Sarah Josepha Hale published The Lecturess, a novel about a woman’s rights activist whose transgressive behavior—she gives public lectures on gender reform and even ventures to the South to speak about abolition—leads directly to the loss of her husband and child and, eventually, to her death. In this cautionary tale, Hale warns her readers about the dangers of women taking a public role in politics; at the time this was a national phenomenon that had attracted a great deal of attention because of women like Maria W. Miller Stewart and the Grimké sisters and it was a phenomenon that many believed would lead directly to the dissolution of American society. Hale was also, however, originating a character—the feminist activist heroine—that became increasingly common on the national literary scene as the nineteenth century progressed toward the twentieth. Novels about politically active females, written by men and women both for and against feminist reform, were published in almost every decade of the nineteenth century and in the early years of the twentieth. Most of these works have received little critical consideration individually, and they have never been studied properly as a distinct tradition in American literature. This book attempts to recover this tradition and to analyze its literary and cultural influence, especially on the people involved in the movements depicted.

That this tradition has remained submerged is perhaps surprising, given the increased scholarly attention that has been paid over the past decade to the ways in which women’s unprecedented political participation in nineteenthand early twentieth-century America is manifested in the nation’s literature. However, this interest has not often been extended to fictional representations. This study fills in some of the gaps left by literary historians and critics who have explored the issues of women’s political power in American literature. One of the most obvious of these gaps is the failure to explore the myriad of texts that explicitly depict feminist activism; critics often do not treat seriously fiction that was written to promote reform. Because of these omissions, Henry James’s The Bostonians (1886) is often read as a unique text about feminist reform activity in the United States instead of as part of a larger tradition of such fiction. Furthermore, while many literary scholars are interested in how women’s political activities affected the nation’s culture at large, few have considered literature’s . . .

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