Self-fashioning (Im)Possibilities: A Literary Tapestry of Women at Work in Nineteenth-Century America
Dorsey, Carol G
Smith, Martha Nell
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This dissertation investigates representations of women's work and the construction of identity in texts written by women between 1840 and 1877. I focus on the literary construction of workingwomen's struggle to find their place in a culture that valorizes women who selflessly devote themselves to family and community. These authors show that while work empowers women who are privileged by race and class, work oppresses women who are defined by the material conditions of their lives. Focusing on working women whose life chances are circumscribed by class and gender in Ruth Hall by Fanny Fern and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's novel The Story of Avis, the first chapter illuminates the stasis inherent in the lives housekeepers, cooks, laundresses, and babysitters, women whose labor supports the middle-class. In Chapter Two, the complex web that intersection of race, class, and gender create informs my analysis of the fictional autobiographies Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs and Our Nig by Harriet Wilson. The legally sanctioned theft of humanity from the protagonists in these texts necessitates that work be redefined as the process of constituting personhood through the intellectual work of outwitting the enslaver. Chapter Three analyzes the public persona nineteenth-century female factory workers construct for themselves through fictional letters, stories, and essays published in The Lowell Offering, a newspaper edited by blue-collar workingwomen, and in the extended poem, An Idyl of Work, a retrospective account of factory experience written by former operative Lucy Larcom. Mired in the ideologies of class and gender, these writers attempt to bridge the social and economic chasm that separates workingwomen from ladies of leisure by offering altruistic protagonists who work to support others instead of themselves. The fourth chapter investigates the representation of dehumanization and impossibility in the lives of female textile laborers in Rebecca Harding Davis's novella, Life in the Iron Mills and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's novel, The Silent Partner. Davis's workingwoman, Deb Wolfe, and Phelps's female factory worker, Sip Garth, are products of their labors and lack the potential to change their lives because they have no perception that they can escape the meanness of their existence.