Review by: Rachel Levin
by Sarah Klein

 6/01/01

Me, You, the Wide World:
Letters & Women's Activism in Nineteenth Century America

     Feminist scholars have spent the past two decades paying closer attention to the connection between gender and genre—as parallel spaces where identity and ideology are produced. We increasingly understand both gender and genre as socially constructed entities, performances if you will, that provoke particular expectations from audiences. A number of scholars doing feminist work have convincingly argued that a text's conventions, form, and style are associated with the power relationships explored in its content. This line of inquiry has been alive and well in rhetoric/composition circles, as well as in literary, film, and cultural studies. Feminist re-examinations of women in the rhetorical tradition have, for example, prompted an ongoing discussion about gender and genre. One of the most intriguing outgrowths of this critical recovery has been the conversation about the epistolary and women's histories.
     Despite the fact that their fields of inquiry and critical approaches are diverse, what each of these feminist scholars has come up against (in one way or another) is the mythology of the letter. The epistolary form has long been pigeonholed as "feminine" and "private," and rhetorical scholars have, in the past ten years, started to unpack this mythology in earnest. Building upon the work of Jean Elshtain and others, they have begun to recognize how constructed and problematic the dichotomy of political (public) vs. social (private) really is – particularly for those working on women's rhetoric. We now recognize that the feminization of letter writing took hold in France in the second half of the seventeenth century and that the epistolary became widely regarded as a genre well-suited to women's "untutored and spontaneous expressiveness," perhaps through the letter's historical association with conversation (Earle 6). By the eighteenth century, this feminization of the letter was a powerful stereotype (Earle 6). It then too, by association, became an "emblem of the private" even while it "retained its actual historical function as a form of public communication and exchange" (Steedman 116-17). As Carolyn Steedman notes, literary history seems to assume that the epistolary is "natural to women," but "these assertions are grounded in a social history of female subjection that has been revised in recent years" (121). The contemporary, revisionary scholarship in this field begins with feminist examinations of Cicero's epistolae form and classical models whereby written correspondence (or "sermo") became classified as everyday speech rather than as formal oratory (Carrington 215, Henderson). It revisits Ovid's "amorous" letters attributed to women (Cape) and examines medieval women's letters of commerce (Richardson). It recontextualizes letter writing under humanism from the fourteenth century forward (Carrington and others), and increasingly raises questions about American women's traditions.
     Lisa Gring-Pemble is one of the few scholars working on nineteenth century women's rhetoric to look closely at the letter as a primary rather than a peripheral text. Examining the early Oberlin College personal correspondence of Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Gring-Pemble suggests that for these women the "private" epistolary functioned as a pre-genesis space for consciousness-raising and the exploratory development of woman's rights arguments in a safe textual space. "Personal" letter exchanges, she notes, were used by Stone and Brown Blackwell to share, contest, and work through preliminary political arguments on woman's rights, as well as to reflect upon the daily realities of their lives as women – within a relatively protected, non-threatening medium of communication. She notes that many of the "personal" thoughts and arguments expressed by the two women in their youthful correspondence turn up again in more thorough, forceful, and mature forms in their public, activist rhetoric of later years.
     My study uses Gring-Pemble's work as a critical jumping-off point. I want to further investigate, using additional case studies, how letters have functioned in relation to nineteenth century American women's roles as activists. To what extent can we argue that the epistolary allows these women to manipulate or collapse the private/public dichotomy to strategic, political ends? Beyond the "pre-genesis" stage of consciousness-raising, does the epistle serve as a rhetorical space for activism? To what extent can we argue that these rhetors use the letter to do political work? Using the published letters of Sarah Grimke, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Frances Harper as my case studies, I argue that the epistolary is in fact a rhetorical outlet crucial to the activist work of these women. The letter allows them to negotiate the period's gendered "separation of spheres" and facilitates their political/rhetorical careers.

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