"The World, Our Home": The Rhetorical Vision of Women's Clubs in American Literature, 1870-1920

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Hobbs, Amy Laurel
Smith, Martha Nell
Led by journalist J. C. Croly, writer Julia Ward Howe, and settlement house leader Jane Addams, the General Federation of Women's Clubs (GFWC) encouraged housewives to lobby for local reform, and, ultimately, national suffrage, under the banner of municipal housekeeping. The rhetoric of this all-female organization is an important, yet overlooked, context to what literary critic Elizabeth Ammons has identified as the renaissance of American women's literature that occurred during the Progressive Era. Ammons names seventeen women, writing between 1870 and 1930, whose work now stands at the heart of the canon of American literature, including Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Kate Chopin, Sarah Orne Jewett, Willa Cather, and Mary Austin. These five women had an intimate acquaintance with women's clubs. Placing their writing in the context of club rhetoric demonstrates how women used a particular set of tropes and themes to probe a central political debate of the Progressive Era: the "Woman Question." The women's club movement developed a stirring, feminine rhetoric to justify women's place in public life. Women writers used club discourse as raw material for fashioning their own theories about gender. For the past twenty years, historians and scholars in women's studies, such as Karen Blair, Anne Firor Scott, and Deborah Gray White, have emphasized the political importance of the women's club movement. Within the field of rhetoric, Anne Ruggles Gere's Intimate Practices (1997) thoroughly investigates how the club movement engaged national issues. However, to date, few literary scholars have examined the influence of Anglo-American club rhetoric on women's literature. Recognizing the political work of the GFWC allows us to read past unfavorable stereotypes about clubs, which formed in the twentieth century. Clubwomen were these writers' closest friends, their largest audience, and their companions in the struggle for equality. Fully understanding the importance of the women's club movement in American civic life exposes the tension women writers faced when they picked up the pen. Should they embrace the high-flying rhetoric of this popular movement, criticize it, or ignore it? How should they account for these real-life examples of feminized political work within their own ideas concerning gender?