The Genius of Democracy: Fictions of Gender and Citizenship in the United States, 1860-1945

The Genius of Democracy: Fictions of Gender and Citizenship in the United States, 1860-1945

The Genius of Democracy: Fictions of Gender and Citizenship in the United States, 1860-1945

The Genius of Democracy: Fictions of Gender and Citizenship in the United States, 1860-1945

Synopsis

In the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century United States, ideas of genius did more than define artistic and intellectual originality. They also provided a means for conceptualizing women's participation in a democracy that marginalized them. Widely distributed across print media but reaching their fullest development in literary fiction, tropes of female genius figured types of subjectivity and forms of collective experience that were capable of overcoming the existing constraints on political life. The connections between genius, gender, and citizenship were important not only to contests over such practical goals as women's suffrage but also to those over national membership, cultural identity, and means of political transformation more generally.

In The Genius of Democracy Victoria Olwell uncovers the political uses of genius, challenging our dominant narratives of gendered citizenship. She shows how American fiction catalyzed political models of female genius, especially in the work of Louisa May Alcott, Henry James, Mary Hunter Austin, Jessie Fauset, and Gertrude Stein. From an American Romanticism that saw genius as the ability to mediate individual desire and collective purpose to later scientific paradigms that understood it as a pathological individual deviation that nevertheless produced cultural progress, ideas of genius provided a rich language for contests over women's citizenship. Feminist narratives of female genius projected desires for a modern public life open to new participants and new kinds of collaboration, even as philosophical and scientific ideas of intelligence and creativity could often disclose troubling and more regressive dimensions. Elucidating how ideas of genius facilitated debates about political agency, gendered identity, the nature of consciousness, intellectual property, race, and national culture, Olwell reveals oppositional ways of imagining women's citizenship, ways that were critical of the conceptual limits of American democracy as usual.

Excerpt

In an 1855 speech, the labor and women’s rights advocate Frances Gage argued in support of married women’s control over their own earnings, hoping to nullify married men’s legal ownership of their wives’ wages. At her rhetorical zenith she proclaimed, “Let us own ourselves, our earnings, our genius.” Within the familiar idiom of liberal democracy, Gage’s exhortation is exactly two-thirds intelligible. Gage’s first two demands, that women own themselves and their wages, clearly spring from the Lockean framework of possessive individualism, under which freedom is grounded, in Locke’s words, on the premise that “every man has a property in his own person” and that the “labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his.” By invoking possessive individualism, Gage shows here that she understands married women’s ownership of their wages to have larger implications than merely giving women control over the money they earn, although she respects that goal. She also is asserting that owning wages will bring women closer to the condition of full democratic citizenship as it was understood within the main tradition of liberal political philosophy and had been recently expanded to include men of small property and male laborers. She asks that married women—and here she means specifically free workingclass women, since enslaved women had neither legal self-ownership nor wages and upper-class white women’s wealth generally derived from property rather than work—be assimilated to the same form of citizenship that free working men enjoyed.

But she also breaks this frame. She adds to her philosophically familiar call for women workers to own themselves and their wages another demand, that they own their “genius.” What could she mean by this? Gage creates a syntactical equivalence, but “genius” differs from her other terms in striking ways. a married woman’s ownership of her earnings could be accomplished . . .

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