Advancement In Women's Rights Through The Literature of Female Writers
Many historical revolutions and social changes have been brought forth or supported through the written word. Literature has been used as a vessel to spread new ideologies, voice unheard opinion, and reinforce the longing for change. Such is the case with the American women’s rights movement, which formulated in the form of written-word early in the countries existence. Three key women that were early American proponents for women’s rights, were Margaret Fuller, Abigail Adams, and Fanny Fern. Due to these women expressing their viewpoints through their assorted writings, breaking ground through their respected occupations, or spreading awareness of gender-injustices, these women were on the forefront of the women’s rights movement.
A specific voice, vocal or written, can cause certain standards that have been cemented as social-norms, to possibly become jostled in their foundations and be examined by many listeners for personal reevaluation. Usually, the voice that can stir the public opinion is one that has already gathered some form of respect, and the person can use their elevated position and status to their advantage when spreading ideologies. Margaret Fuller is one example of a respected woman who used her status as a means of spreading her specific beliefs. Fuller was notable in the literary realm, having published approximately three hundred reviews and essays, edited the Transcendentalist journal the Dial, and worked as one of the first female journalists to work overseas for a United States newspaper (New York Tribune) (Baym, 736). The list of different achievements that Fuller had accomplished in her short life (1810-1850) was extraordinary for anyone, but the fact that she was a woman spoke volumes in support of the possibilities of women accomplishment. The respect that Fuller carried, often being considered one of the best literary critics of her day (736), allowed for her to branch out and discuss matters that may have been overlooked by an average woman of the early 1800’s, an era when women were treated far from equally. This allowed her to openly discuss her views on women’s rights in several essays, as well as within her book Woman in the Nineteenth Century, which was solidified as a landmark piece of feminist literature (738).
In Fuller’s essay, “The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men. Woman versus Women,” she discusses marital conventions of the man and woman, and what defines a positive, healthy relationship. Most prominently, she details a specific unity that should exist in marriage, citing examples that are all “…instances of marriage as intellectual companionship. The parties meet mind to mind, and a mutual trust is excited which can buckler them against a million. They work together for a common purpose…” (Fuller, 742). This idealized version of marriage that Fuller holds is an example of her views on women’s rights. Instead of the standard male-dominating household, she explains the importance of companionship within a marriage (740), thus putting both male and female in the light of equal importance. This equality in the marriage does not specifically state that the man and wife have same role, but she strongly emphasizes how each member has their own specific duties, and they are connected in their separation “Male and female represent the two sides of the great radical dualism. But, in fact, they are perpetually passing into one another. Fluid hardens to a solid, solid rushes to fluid.” (744). This puts male and female on the same exact level, thus displaying Fuller’s early influence on women’s rights.
An article written by David M. Robinson lists several different examples of Fuller’s impact on the American women’s rights movement, first, that Woman in the Nineteenth Century is “one of the most important statements of feminist method and theory in history” (83). This critical attribution to the work of Fuller shows the grand effect of her literary work in the field of feminism. Robinson goes into detail on the source of Fuller’s feminist virtue, stating “The ultimate sources of Fuller’s feminist treatise are her many frustrating experiences with the restricted role of women in the nineteenth-century society.” (90). Fuller was not content with the way society acted in regards to women, so she set forth to make things better. This is what solidifies Fuller’s literary work as a part of the American voice. She vocalized her inner yearning for betterment in the young country, creating sparks that would eventually ignite into equality amongst the sexes. Fuller’s life was a testament to the abilities of women; an example of what women could achieve if they set forth to fight the standard social-norm.
Somewhat falling in line with Fuller’s example of a marriage consisting of mutual understanding and importance between both genders, to the degree of a romantic relationship embedded in friendship and codependence, was that of John and Abigail Adams. John Adams was the second president of The United States of America, so the relationship between him and the first lady, which consisted of equal importance, granted Abigail Adams the ability to express her views regarding feminism to the leader of America. The strength of the couple’s marriage is most notably displayed in a series of letters that they wrote to each other when John Adams left Massachusetts for Paris in 1774, and didn’t return to the states until 1783. During this time, the couple wrote over three hundred letters to each other, many consisting of political debate, showing that John Adams truly valued his wife’s opinion (Baym, 301). The fact that a discussion over serious political matters existed within the letters between John and Abigail Adams, proves that Abigail carried some sort of political pull, due to her husband’s devotion and understanding that her knowledge was worthwhile. Instead of seeing her as the caretaker of the house and casting her aside as nothing more than a supporter, John Adams valued the words and knowledge that Abigail held.
Abigail Adams understood problems in conventional gender rules, noting that “girls and boys in her youth were not treated equally and that “daughters” were “wholly neglected in point of Literature”” (Adams, 300). This understanding eventually led to her longing for women’s rights, urging her husband in a letter concerning the future Declaration of Independence, to “remember the ladies” when writing new laws, and “be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors.” (Adams, Letter, March 31, 1776). According to Lynn Withey in her book Dearest Friend: A Life of Abigail Adams, “Abigail wanted Congress, in adopting new laws for America, to revise or eliminate those English laws that gave men absolute power over their wives.” (81). This was a bold stance to take, but it was a pure, honest American voice from a woman of the era. These opinions were most likely formed due to a realization that not all marriages mirrored that of her and her husband’s. Though Abigail Adams was blessed with a harmonious marriage, she tried to persuade her husband to allow the new nations laws to grant women rights within their marriages, making sure that male dominance isn’t put into practice. This viewpoint depicts the fact that she longed for others to have the same type of relationship that she had, thus making her an early, important American figure in the fight for women’s rights. Along with her urging, she also makes somewhat of a threat from the standpoint of all women, stating “If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.” (Adams, Letter, March 31, 1776). This statement shows the sincerity that Abigail had towards her request, stating that women would not commit to the new country if they didn’t have a voice or representation.
Though John Adams valued his wife’s knowledge, he didn’t particularly share the same ideologies that she had all of the time, or simply was unable to carry out her wishes himself. First, the Declaration of Independence did not grant women a voice or representation, due to the fact that they weren’t initially allowed to vote. This fact contradicted Abigail Adams’ statement, though it would later come into partition, giving her voice that threatened a rebellion an almost prophetic tone, foreseeing the future American women’s rights movement that would eventually grant women the voice that Abigail Adams aimed for prior to the countries actual existence. John Adams was also timid in his support for the rights of women, notably when Abigail Adams made sure that their daughter learned Latin, and John Adams praised this, but warned her not to tell many people, because it wasn’t “reputable” for young girls to know Latin or Greek (Withey, 81). Though John Adams’ yearning for equality did not match his wife’s, the relationship still was an example of women’s rights, due to its existence, which was that of a household built in equality.
Fanny Fern was another American voice that spread the early idea of women’s rights through her literature. Instead of simply voicing these opinions through letters in the fashion of Abigail Adams, she mirrored Fuller in the sense that she actually published essays and novels, where she would use “a light touch to explore such difficult issues as gender inequalities in marriage, divorce law…[and] woman’s suffrage…” (Baym, 799-800). Due to the social view of women in the 1800’s, many critics held a preconceived notion to dismiss any works of literature crafted by a female. This was the belief of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who dismissed several “scribbling sisters”, but gave praise to Fanny Fern, who won him over with her novel Ruth Hall. Hawthorne stated “I have been reading Ruth Hall, and I must say I enjoyed it a good deal… The woman [Fanny Fern] writes as if the Devil was in her; and that is the only condition under which a woman ever writes anything worth reading.” (Wood, 3). Though Hawthorne dismissed most women writers, he favored the style of Fern. Hawthorne’s praise did not transcend to all critics though, “…their reaction was hardly, like his, one of praise.” (3). Yet because of positive reviews from several critics, and a popular appeal to the public, (all due to her literary ability) Fanny Fern eventually became “among the nation’s best-paid and most famous authors.” (Baym, 799). This fame allowed her to reach a wide audience through her literature, and she was able to discuss her viewpoints regarding women’s rights to the masses.
In one specific essay, “Male Criticism on Ladies’ Books”, Fern criticizes the male critics response to most literature created by women. She states that male critics do not typically understand the works of women, and that many of them jump into reading women’s literature with an extremely unfair bias (Fern, 801-02). This statement which rebukes the credibility of several men, and puts women on a higher platform than men, was a very bold argument to publish. It depicts her firm stance in the merit of women as literary figures, as she challenges the other gender with attacks due to their rejection. Her voice resounded to promote the capabilities that women possessed, thus making her voice truly American.
What Fuller, Adams, and Fern all possessed within their lifetimes, was a yearning to strengthen the condition that women were in. They understood that women were viewed at a lower level in society, and fought to benefit their condition, often using the respect that they achieved in order to show awareness to the issues. Their voices will live on as examples of American literature, because their contributions towards women’s rights helped pave the way for full equality.
Adams, Abigail. Letter to John Adams. 31 March. 1776. Print
Baym, Nina. The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Beginning to 1865. Shorter 9th Ed. Vol.1. New York. Norton. 2008. Print
Fern, Fanny. “Male Criticism on Ladies’ Books.” 1857. The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Beginning to 1865 Ed. Nina Baym. Shorter 9th Ed. Vol. 1 New York. Norton, 2008. Print.
Fuller, Margaret. The Great Lawsuit: “Man versus Men. Women versus Women.” 1843. The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Beginning to 1865 Ed. Nina Baym. Shorter 9th Ed. Vol. 1. New York. Norton. 2008. Print.
Robinson, David M. “Margaret Fuller and the Transcendental Ethos.” PMLA, Vol. 97.1, Jan. 1982. New York. PMLA Press. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/462242>
Withey, Lynne. “Dearest Friend: A Life of Abigail Adams.” The William & Mary Quarterly. Vol. 39.4. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002. Web <http://www.jstor.org/pss/1919021>
Wood, Ann D. “The Scribbling Women and Fanny Fern: Why Women Wrote” American Quarterly. Vol. 23.1. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/pss/2711584>