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 genreas 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
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