Kristin Kalsem, in Contempt: Nineteenth-Century Women, Law, and Literature

By Warren, Joyce W. | Wordsworth Circle, Autumn 2012 | Go to article overview

Kristin Kalsem, in Contempt: Nineteenth-Century Women, Law, and Literature


Warren, Joyce W., Wordsworth Circle


Kristin Kalsem, In Contempt: Nineteenth-Century Women, Law, and Literature

(Ohio State University Press, 2012) xiii + 238 $54.95

An unprecedented number of legal reforms in 19th century England improved women's lives, reforms in such crucial areas as child custody, divorce, married women's property rights, reproductive rights, domestic abuse, and lunacy laws. In her important book In Contempt: Nineteenth-Century Women, Law, and Literature, Kristin Kalsem focuses on the role of women writers in effecting these legal reforms, writers whose works she terms "outlaw" texts because they were outside the law. These works--essays, novels, autobiographies--were not official legal documents, yet they dealt with legal issues affecting women, and, Kalsem argues, were influential in changing the laws. The women who wrote them can be said to have been "in contempt," both in the courtroom sense of speaking out of turn and in the gendered sense of being held in contempt by the male-dominated legal system.

Kalsem's book is an interdisciplinary study, bridging the disciplines of literature, law, history, and feminism in ways that she hopes will be transformative (175). She does not simply look at laws, but at the participants (real and fictional) and their experiences. The moving force behind her argument derives from law and literature studies, which maintain that the outcome of legal cases is determined not so much by logical argument as by considerations of power. Consequently, as Richard Delgado observes in "Legal Storytelling," the dominant group in society creates its own story, and narratives help to give credence to people from "outgroups," people "whose voice and perspective" has been suppressed (Delgado 64). And as Paul Gewirtz notes in "Narrative and Rhetoric in Law," storytelling in law is important for "outsider groups, particularly racial and religious minorities and women" (Gewirtz 5). In Contempt presents the stories of women who bring their own experiences as women into their narratives, thus providing a perspective that was missing from the patriarchal legal system and performing what might be called "feminist jurisprudence."

Kalsem begins by looking at the legal status of women at the beginning of the century. As William Blackstone wrote in 1765 in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, "By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of her husband" (Blackstone 1:430). Blackstone's Commentaries explains British Common Law, which was also the basis for the American legal system. What it meant for women was that once a woman married, she gave up her rights as an individual and was "covered" by her husband. Under "coverture" a woman had no independent existence. She had no access to money of her own, no right to her children, and no legal rights (she could not sign contracts, make wills, serve on juries, sue or be sued).

In the first chapter, Kalsem discusses Mary Wollstonecraft's unfinished Gothic novel The Wrongs of Woman; or Maria (1797), which provides a powerful critique of women's legal oppression. The Gothic novel, asserts Kalsem, is a particularly effective way of portraying the "dissonant effects" that marriage laws had on women (21). Critics like D. A. Miller and Edward Said have maintained that the 19th century novel "policed" society and did not question but instead reified social institutions including the legal system (29). Kalsem, however, points out that whereas such an analysis might apply to canonical 19th century novels, it does not apply to "outlaw" texts, novels that explicitly or implicitly critique existing laws relating to women. Maria provides a dramatic indictment of coverture. The heroine is shown to be subject to a tyrannical husband whose actions are totally within the law: he spends all of her inherited money on drinking, gambling, and on other women; takes her child from her; and has her confined to a madhouse. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Kristin Kalsem, in Contempt: Nineteenth-Century Women, Law, and Literature
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.