Romancing the vote : feminist activism in American fiction, 1870-1920
Petty, Leslie Ellen
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While women’s cultural and political roles in nineteenth and early twentiethcentury America have long been interesting to scholars, this interest has not often included attention to literary representations of women’s public political participation. Accordingly, the central concern of my dissertation is how American fiction written about the woman suffrage and other related movements contributed to the creation and continued viability of these movements. Specifically, I am interested in the ways these novels can be viewed as models of feminist activism and of reform communities and how they, wittingly or not, emulate for readers ways to create similar communities in the real world. The primary texts I discuss 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 E. W. Harper’s Iola Leroy (1892), Hamlin Garland’s A Spoil of Office (1892), Marjorie Shuler’s One Pedestal – for Rent (1917), The Sturdy Oak (1917), a composite novel edited by Elizabeth Jordan, and Oreola Williams Haskell’s Banner Bearers (1920). I begin with an analysis of two novels written by suffragists in the 1870’s that explore the movement’s key issues and rhetoric in an effort to convince their audiences to support woman’s rights. I then turn to two texts from the 1890’s, Iola Leroy and A Spoil of Office, which expand the literary vision of feminist activism by demonstrating the fluidity among and shared concerns of diverse reform organizations, including the Black Uplift and Populist movements. In the third chapter, I argue that activist authors use formal innovations to account for the complexity of the large, thriving suffrage movement in the 1910’s. In the final chapter, I read The Bostonians as part of a larger body of feminist activist fiction and speculate about the lessons it can teach its reform-minded readership. Throughout, I interweave the three threads of discourse that drive the project: the ways authors appropriate narrative conventions to fictionalize feminist activist heroines, the relationship between this fictional depiction and actual reform activity, and the tradition of feminist activist fiction in American literature of which these individual texts are representative.