Learning Team A:
William (Clint) Perkins, Layla Nelson, Becci Hogan, Jose Sepulveda, Dale Blake 491/American literature to 1860
August 1, 2010
University of Phoenix
American Themes- Women’s Rights
The history of the rights of women and their roles in society allow Americans to understand the impact they had on the development of America. From the very earliest colonial days when a woman’s rights were basically unheard of— to the Civil War when women became involved in the abolitionist movement, women’s lives and roles changed. With the expansion of their roles in society, came more literary references to women. Either as authors themselves, such as Margaret Fuller, or women who became famous for their political struggles for women’s rights, including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, their courageous battles have been recorded. Just as women’s rights have evolved through the history of America, they also have developed as a theme in literature.
Importance of “Women’s Rights” Theme in American Literature Addressing women’s rights in American literature is an important theme. Since the beginnings of literary discourse, women issues and their rights have been absent in literary works. As such, women’s voices have been silent because literary criticism because it has been dominated predominantly by males. Even though women have challenged male dominance and control in the literary world, they faced enormous criticism, disapproval and even exile, as was the case with Anne Hutchison. She was exile from her community during the Colonial Period because she openly expressed her belief that God could reveal himself to individuals without the assistance of the clergy (Rothbard, 1975). In fact, Hutchinson was warned by male theologians that women would suffer from damage to their brains if they engaged in deep theological thought. During the Revolutionary War, Abigail Adams wrote and spoke passionately about the desire for men correct the inequalities between women. Adams insisted that wives ought to be freed from the absolute legal authority husbands held over their lives: “if particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined foment a rebellion, and will not ourselves bound by any laws in which we have not voice for representation” (McQuade, 1991, p. 283) . It was later during the 19th century as women began to demand more changes that their messages for equal rights became more evident in American literature. Margaret Fuller, a pioneer of nineteenth century feminism, was one of the first women to gain national recognition through her scholarly literary efforts to promote equality between men and women. She started “Conversations,” which was a series of lectures and discussions for adult women on topics such as poetry, ethics, and Greek mythology. Fuller believed that women historically had been educated solely for the purpose of display and not to think (Lauter, 2005). In response, Fuller saw herself as the catalyst to change this prevailing ideology and used her “Conversations” as the vehicle to encourage women to discuss how to fully realize their potential. One of the most poignant pieces of literature written by Fuller was “The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men, Woman versus Women.” Years later, she revised and expanded this essay into her best known literary work titled “Woman in the Nineteenth Century,” in which she strongly demanded equality between males and females and compared the struggle for women’s rights to that of the abolitionist movement (Bomarito, 2006). Fuller further insisted that all women should be allowed to enter any profession and therefore should not be excluded because of her gender. Perhaps the most controversial, yet liberating of Fuller’s literary remarks was that women should not be forced to submit to the men in their lives, including husbands, fathers, and even brothers. Change of “Women’s Rights” Issues over Time
The discourse of American literature continues to be male dominated. As a consequence, the literary heritage of women is still lacking today. Over time, the theme of women’s rights in American literature slowly has gained literary attention. According to Fetterley (1978) the literary community should not abandon male literature in favor of everything feminine; instead she suggests that women writers should approach literary works with tools to name the reality they reflect so that literary criticism changes from a closed conversation to an active dialogue. When the discussion of women’s rights has been addressed in American literature, it has been generally depicted in negative ways that suggest that women have limited influence, power, and control compared to that of men. One of the challenges that women writers face as they continue to address women’s rights in American literature is that they have to find a delicate balance between promoting full equality for women without appearing to be “threatening” to men. Even though women made minor advances in the literary world by writing novels, their work continued to be criticized for contributing to sexual promiscuity and unnatural fantasies of the mind. Early Settlers Response to “Women’s Rights”
The discussion of “women’s rights” would probably appear to be an alien subject matter to the early settlers. Although early literature writing focused on discovery, quest for independence, freedom and democracy, very little discussion was given to women’s rights. The early setters most likely had no frame of reference with which to identify “women’s rights” because they carried out their specific gender roles and duties as defined by the religion of the Puritans. Beginning of Women’s Rights
Susan B. Anthony was born in 1820 and lived in Adams, Massachusetts. At the early age of three, she learned to read. She continued to be a bright student and entered the Deborah Moulson’s Female Seminary. She is removed from the seminary by her father who continued her education at home. Eventually, Susan became a schoolteacher. Susan quit teaching and moved back to home in Rochester, New York. Susan started her role in activism with fighting for freedom of slaves. Susan rejected marriage and domesticating, believing it is not for her and did not want stereotype of married life. Susan first fight for Women’s rights was dress reform, temperance, and economic emancipation. During 1851 and 1852, Susan, Stanton, and Bloomer wanted to change female dress, which called for ending of corsets, crinoline skirts, and wearing of “bloomers” (2001, p. 1) Susan helped to find the first Women’s State Temperance Society. Primarily because he was denied entrance into the male temperance society. Susan believes that women had the right to divorce drunk and violent men. In 1853, Susan was denied again from entering the male temperance therefore, she found the Whole World’s Temperance Convention. Susan did not work alone; Elizabeth Stanton was by her side fighting for Women’s rights. The fight did not stop because in 1854 Susan fought and took 6000 signatures to New York for women’s rights. The law would allow women who marry to retain money from a job and if a woman obtains a divorce, to be able to keep land, possessions, and children. This law was passed in 1860. Susan did public speaking on women issues. This is just part of one of her speech’s; “Universal manhood suffrage, by establishing an aristocracy of sex, imposes upon the women of this nation a more absolute and cruel despotism than monarchy; in that woman finds a political her father, husband, brother, son. Exalting brute force above moral power, vice above virtue, ignorance above education, and the son above the mother who bore him” (2010, p. 3). Susan continued to fight for women’s rights and the right to vote. Elizabeth Cady Stanton is born in Johnstown, New York. Elizabeth’s education was quite different from Susan. Elizabeth completed her education at 16. However, Elizabeth could not continue education for a woman’s life consisted of marriage, children, and taking care of the household. Elizabeth’s greatest accomplishments, was the Declaration of Sentiments on July 19th, 1848. Elizabeth’s temperance was fighting for equality of women and men. Elizabeth took parts from the Declaration of Independence and applied it to women to have the same rights. “That woman is man’s equal, was intended to be so by Creator, and the highest good of the race demands that she should be recognized as such” (Pearson education. 2007, p. 3). Elizabeth joined forces with Susan to crusade for the right to vote. Each believed that woman has a brain, capable of intelligence, and able to decide who to vote for. Fighting for Slavery over Women’s Rights
During the time women are starting to fight for rights, came the rights to free slaves. American history was being made with fighting for the end of slavery; women’s rights took the back seat. It is women and abolitionists who believe if they united that each cause would be victory. Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Stanton, and Susan Anthony fought to end slavery. Many others join the movement to free slaves from slavery. Civil War began with fighting between the North and South over slavery. The war drew lines between families, friends, and neighbors. The country was consumed with riots, and killing of Black slaves. American Writer fighting for Women’s Rights
Thomas Wentworth Higginson believed that women deserve to have the same rights as men. Higginson in later years worked as an editor of woman’s journal. He fought for women’s rights and helped with Worcester Woman’s rights convention in 1850. He wrote “Ought Women to Learn the Alphabet?” the book was about equal rights for women. Other American writers at the time were concerned with slavery, and freedom of slavery. Harriet Beecher Stowe writing “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and Frederick Douglas’s writing about being a slave, slavery, and freedom. Theoretical and Conceptual Concerns
With the struggle of any group the Women’s Rights movement had those who firmly believed in theory that women because of their feminine nature could not in good sense want the rights of that given to men as it would go against all that a women was believed to be about. Sensible, feminine, gentile and most of all obedient to her role in the structure of society as set forth by the men of charge within that society. The thought of a woman possessing the same rights as a man threatened in the eyes of men the very concept of what a woman was meant to be and her role in society, this threatened the way of life as men had made it known. As it was ratified in the 14th Amendment in 1868 at the end of the Civil War all citizens were to be under the protection of the Constitution but defined citizens as “male.” Furthermore in 1870 the ratification of the 15th Amendment gave the black men voting rights. “During this time it was more important to put the rights of one group ahead of the rights of another instead of giving the same rights to all men and women of the country“ (History.com, 2010) Concern of One Group or Another
During the period of the beginning of the Women’s Rights Movement there were more groups looking for these same rights under the laws and guidelines of the country. It had been so that the white men made the definitions of who was to be considered rightful citizens and considered covered under the rights given by them. Basic citizen rights were a concern of more than one group for many years even after some of those groups were deemed protected under the 14th and 15th Amendments as to having those rights. The fight continues to this day on some levels and will remain a fight as long as there is a group being denied the same rights under the laws and constitution of the U.S. Different Genres
The different genres in early 19th century literature in regarding women’s rights was usually romanticism, transcendentalism, plus writings regarding freedom. Romanticism (2010), according to Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary “a literary, artistic, and philosophical movement originating in the 18th century, characterized, chiefly by a reaction against neoclassicism and an emphasis on the imagination and emotions, and marked especially in English literature by sensibility and the use of autobiographical material, an exaltation of the primitive and the common man, an appreciation of external nature, an interest in the remote, a predilection for melancholy, and the use in poetry of older verse form” Transcendentalism (2010), according to Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, “a philosophy that emphasizes the a priori conditions of knowledge and experience or the unknowable character of ultimate reality or that emphasizes the transcendent as the fundamental reality.” “Freedom has a broad range of application from total absence of restraint to merely a sense of not being unduly hampered or frustrated” (freedom, 2010 para. 1) Some women writers of the 19th century were romantic writers. A few of the famous authors are Charlotte Bronte, 1816-1855, Emily Bronte, 1818-1848, and Anne Bronte, 1820-1849. These three sisters wrote many poems and stories that shocked their generation. Stories such as Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1846), Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (1847), the Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte (1848) all spoke of love, passion, betrayal, and womens independence.
The most famous transcendentalist writer of the 19th century was Emily Dickinson the poet (1830-1886). “She appears to search for the universal truths and investigate the circumstances of the human condition: sense of life, immortality, God, faith, place of man in the universe. Emily Dickinson questions absolutes and her argumentation is multisided” (American Transcendentalism Web, 2010 p. 1). Her work was also essential to women’s rights because of her beliefs. The freedom writers such as Sojourner Truth were essential to the women’s rights and African American rights movement. “Sojourner Truth (ca. 1797-1883) was a black American freedom fighter and orator. She believed herself chosen by God to preach His word and to help with the abolitionist effort to free her people.” (Gale Group, Inc, 2001 p. 1). She first became interested in the movement after hearing Fredrick Douglas speak in New York in which she asked her first true question “Is God gone?” (1852). From that point forward she devoted her life to helping free slaves. In the same year Sojourner gave a speech of her own entitled “Ain’t I a woman?” This speech was addressed to the Women’s rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. Not only was she speaking for women’s rights but also African American rights. All these genres have some elements of women seeking to gain some control, freedom, and power through their words. The stories, poems, and speeches were meant to empower women to take up the struggle for the rights that the men took for granted. Rights such as the right to read, write, and become equal to the men in everyway. For the white women reading and writing were always their right. However, for African American slaves reading and writing were forbidden because the slave holders were afraid the slaves would become too independent and rise up against the slave masters. Different backgrounds
Many writers with different backgrounds viewed women’s rights differently in the 19th century. Women that came from educated backgrounds such as the Bronte sisters, and Emily Dickinson fought for the right to be equal with the men. The women wanted to be free to discuss politics, manage businesses, read and write anything they chose to write about without fear of censorship.
Native American and African American women fought for the right just to be recognized as a person. Along with the right to read, write, and walk the streets without fear of persecution. They also fought for the right to dress as any other woman of their time. Instead of having to dress in rags or clothes that had been tossed out by the educated women of the 19th century.
Over the years the situation remains the same to some degree. The well educated women have more rights than other women. The educated women can own and operate businesses, run for political office, etc. Many women who have not had the advantage of a good education are left to menial jobs. Many of these women are women of different races African American, Mexican American, Asian American, who have all migrated to America in search of freedom over the centuries. Conclusion
As we have seen, America, as a nation, made great growth from the early colonial days of
the 1600s to the time of the Civil War. As the country expanded, so did the lives of its
inhabitants. Women saw their needs change from the day that they had set foot on American
soil. The greatest change came in women’s roles in society that led them to fight for more and
more rights—education, marital obligations, feminism, and politics. As has been discussed,
many social, political, and spiritual issues inspired the literary works of America’s history. One
such issue that writers were compelled to address was women’s rights. Women had kept diaries
and journals but really had not voiced their desires and needs up until now. Many female
authors took this theme quite personally as they had experienced harsh upbringings or miserable
marriages. Other great female authors who chose not to be the stereotypical women of the time
period, were courageous enough to challenge society’s view of women and their roles. Their
literary works were motivated by their need to prove that they were intellectual, could be self-
supporting without a husband, could make personal decisions and could hold leadership roles.
Women have had to continue to fight for rights throughout our history.
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