Nothing Ladylike About It: The Theatrical Career of Anna Elizabeth Dickinson

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In 1864, at the height of the Civil War, twenty-one year old Anna Elizabeth Dickinson (1842-1932) stood in the House of Representatives, before Congress, the Cabinet, and the Supreme Court, and lambasted President Lincoln for his compassion toward the South. She was the first woman ever to speak before Congress. Her performance earned her the title "America's Joan of Arc," and she went on to become one of the nation's most famous, most popular, and most highly-paid orators. Abolitionists, suffragists, and powerful political parties sought to make her the spokesperson for their causes. When the lecture circuit dried up in the wake of the war, Dickinsonflying in the face of her Philadelphia Quaker upbringingrealized a lifelong ambition to go on the stage. Lacking both theatrical training and experience, Dickinson nevertheless wrote a play, Anne Boleyn, or, A Crown of Thorns, and attempted its title role. Although many newspapers were generous, the powerful New York critics were merciless in their condemnation of both play and player. But Dickinson continued to pursue a career in the theatre, writing a half-dozen plays and acting in severalmost notably, a controversial performance as Hamlet in 1882.

Having risen to fame as a public speaker while protected by her Quaker heritage and her youth, Dickinson became a troubling figure once she appeared on a theatrical stage. I argue that Dickinson's attempt to establish herself in the theatrical world can be seen as a manifestation of a larger quest for citizenshipfor full participation in American culture and society. Through her playwriting, Dickinson both consciously re-visioned patriarchal history and challenged conventional notions of appropriate feminine behavior. As an actress, she sought to communicate original ideas about character through carefully considered interpretations. As a woman working in the theatre, she demanded satisfactory compensation and working conditions without regard to the norms of the professionnorms that did not accommodate a woman with her goals and expectations (however unrealistic). In a period when "True Women" were expected to be passive and private, Dickinson was aggressive and obstinately public. And there was nothing ladylike about it.