The Problem of Voice in American culture, 1850-1930
A s argued in the introduction, the transition from the "True Woman" to the "New Woman" created profound changes in women's identity and voice. Literature both reflects and shapes this transition, but the focus of this chapter will be how this shift was manifested in cultural and historical texts. Advice manuals and other cultural materials illustrate that the cult of domesticity interconnected women's identity and a subservient language, encouraging women to be silent in the face of male authority. Yet, as my discussion of speeches at the 1893 World's Congress of Representative Women demonstrates, by the late nineteenth century both African American and Anglo American women were contesting these ideas and embracing a more radical concept of women's voice. As the New Woman's unruly tongue became a force of social instability, newspapers, cartoons, poems, and drawings were marshaled both to endorse and to critique this image. Such cultural materials demonstrate that the New Woman's voice was feared not only because it reflected a different use of language but also because it reflected a more theoretical approach to women's social and linguistic empowerment. In the early twentieth century, woman's "unruly member," her unruly tongue, was set loose, and American culture would never again be the same.
Although a number of critics have recently discussed the cult of domesticity, few consider this subject in terms of women's conception of voice. Rather, they examine whether this set of ideas was a rhetoric rather than a reality, arguing that most women exercised power both in the realm of the home and in the public sphere. Nina Baym, for example, believes that women who wrote history from