Unruly Tongue: Identity and Voice in American Women's Writing, 1850-1930

Unruly Tongue: Identity and Voice in American Women's Writing, 1850-1930

Unruly Tongue: Identity and Voice in American Women's Writing, 1850-1930

Unruly Tongue: Identity and Voice in American Women's Writing, 1850-1930

Excerpt

In Mary Wilkins Freeman's short story "A Church Mouse" (1891), Hetty Fifield, a domestic servant, cannot find a job. Is she a bad worker, mean, unskilled, or unreliable? No. Rather, Hetty has a reputation for "sharp, sarcastic sayings" (416) that make people wince. She is also known for "always taking her own way, and never heeding the voice of authority" (416). Hetty has a mind of her own and a voice of her own. In fact, her unruly tongue becomes a symbol for an unruly identity that challenges not only her place within nineteenth-century stereo- types of femininity but the theoretical structure of patriarchal authority in the world she inhabits. No wonder, then, that, as Freeman comments wryly, "people did not want a tongue like that in their homes" (416).

In the early and middle nineteenth century, many American women writers were hesitant to sanction a "tongue like that" in the "house" of literature, or even in the heads of their female characters. Influenced by the cult of domesticity, they often endorsed heroines who were domestic, pious, pure, submissive, and -- as this work documents -- silent, or else confined within a historically limited conception of women's speech. But in the last two decades of this century, African American and Anglo American women authors begin to emphasize female characters who articulate a self-defined identity and voice. Most important, these late- nineteenth-century writers approach the problem of women's voice from both a historical and a theoretical standpoint. Although they are aware of specific practices of language that silence women (such as historical stereotypes of femininity), they are most concerned with the larger, transhistorical structures of iden-

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