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The Only Efficient Instrument: American Women Writers and the Periodical, 1837-1916

The Only Efficient Instrument: American Women Writers and the Periodical, 1837-1916

by Aleta Feinsod Cane (Editor)

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Many farsighted women writers in nineteenth-century America made thoughtful and sustained use of newspapers and magazines to effect social and political change. “The Only Efficient Instrument”: American Women Writers and the Periodical, 1837-1916 examines these pioneering efforts and demonstrates that American women had a vital presence in


Many farsighted women writers in nineteenth-century America made thoughtful and sustained use of newspapers and magazines to effect social and political change. “The Only Efficient Instrument”: American Women Writers and the Periodical, 1837-1916 examines these pioneering efforts and demonstrates that American women had a vital presence in the political and intellectual communities of their day.

Women writers and editors of diverse social backgrounds and ethnicities realized very early that the periodical was a powerful tool for education and social reform—it was the only efficient instrument to make themselves and their ideas better known. This collection of critical essays explores American women's engagement with the periodical press and shows their threefold use of the periodical: for social and political advocacy; for the critique of gender roles and social expectations; and for refashioning the periodical as a more inclusive genre that both articulated and obscured such distinctions as class, race, and gender.

Including essays on familiar figures such as Margaret Fuller, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Kate Chopin, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Only Efficient Instrument” also focuses on writings from lesser-known authors, including Native American Zitkala-Sä, Mexican American María Cristina Mena, African American Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and the Lowell factory workers. Covering nearly eighty years of publishing history, from the press censure of the outspoken Angelina Grimké in 1837 to the last issue of Gilman's Forerunner in 1916, this fascinating collection breaks new ground in the study of the women's rights movement in America.

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University of Iowa Press
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

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"The Only Efficient Instrument" AMERICAN WOMEN WRITERS & THE PERIODICAL, 1837-1916
University of Iowa Press Copyright © 2001 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87745-780-0

Chapter One AMERICAN WOMEN WRITERS AND THE PERIODICAL: CREATING A CONSTITUENCY, OPENING A DIALOGUE Margaret Fuller apprehended that the periodical press accommodated the vibrant philosophies and politics of this nation in its first century. As an author, journalist, and editor, she realized that women, among others, could make their voices most clearly heard in the dominant culture not just from the lecture podium but from the pages of newspapers and magazines as well. During her career, Fuller expanded her authorial aims from those of developing friendly intellectual conversation with like minds in the Dial to advocacy journalism in her columns on the Risorgimento (a revolutionary movement to establish a popular government in Italy) in Horace Greeley's New York Tribune. The literary work and professional life of Fuller, especially her journalism, offer a keen example of women's contributions to the social, political, and literary discourses of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America.

Like Fuller, other American women writers and editors from a variety of social backgrounds and ethnicities understood that the periodical was "the only efficient instrument" to make themselves and their ideas known. Their engagement with the periodical press, which the articles in this collection examine, demonstrates American women's vital participation in the intellectual life and political discussions of their times. These writing women employ the periodical, both as newspaper and as magazine, concurrently in three ways: for social and political advocacy, for the critique of gender roles and social expectations, and for refashioning the periodical as a more inclusive genre that both articulates and obscures such distinctions as class, race, and gender. Each of the essays in "The Only Efficient Instrument": American Women Writers and the Periodical, 1837-1916 represents current research on ideological and methodological strategies exercised by American women writers and editors. Both this introduction and the collection as a whole are organized by these three approaches to periodical writing.

In recent years, scholarly activity has begun to focus on the periodical. While some have taken up the magazine as instrument of social construction, others have focused on the periodical as a genre. Still others have focused on women's and men's reading habits or on women's magazines in particular. 1 Extremely important to the study of the periodical production of specific well-known and little-known authors are Periodical Literature in Nineteenth-Century America, edited by Kenneth M. Price and Susan Belasco Smith (1995), and Outsiders in Nineteenth-Century Press History: Multicultural Perspectives, edited by Frankie Hutton and Barbara Straus Reed (1995). Price, Smith, and their contributors examine the historical context, the effect of the publishing mode, and other matters as these relate to the writing of such writers as Herman Melville, Charles Chesnutt, and Emily Dickinson. By contrast, the Hutton and Reed collection sheds light on the use of the periodical by writers from diverse ethnic and racial groups in nineteenth-century America, some writing and editing newspapers in their native language and others contributing to mainstream periodicals. The essays in Hutton and Reed raise the significant issue of the periodical as a means to develop and sustain a constituency within the dominant culture. Periodical Literature in Nineteenth-Century America and Outsiders in Nineteenth-Century Press History, together, make way for "The Only Efficient Instrument" because they model a critical study of writers' works within the historical context of the periodical and because they - to different degrees - query the issue of the social and political agenda of not only the writing in the periodical but of the periodical as a genre. Still, neither collection focuses solely on women writers and readers, nor do these fine collections take up the gendered, and politically motivated, constituency-building work of women writers and editors of the American periodical.

"The Only Efficient Instrument" extends and further focuses the critical work of Price and Smith and of Hutton and Reed, demonstrating American women's animated presence in the political and intellectual communities of their day via the periodical press. This introduction locates the work of contributors to "The Only Efficient Instrument" within the context of the three ideological and methodological strategies for periodical writing employed by American women writers, thus situating the essays within the function of the genre and considering the contribution of this new critical work to current scholarship. By focusing on women's periodical ventures, the contributors to this critical collection offer new insights into the range of work by American women writers and editors, some well known and others less known in the traditional canon of American literature.

Social and Political Advocacy The year 1837 was significant in American publishing history for several reasons. It was a year in which Angelina Grimké was censured in the press because she dared to speak, in public, on issues of women's rights. That year saw a great economic panic that closed the doors of several large publishing houses and created a crisis in the industry. The depression in the book industry that followed the panic was caused, in part, by the lack of copyright laws, which allowed the pirating of materials from England so cheaply that American authors could not compete. Many American writers turned to the periodical press, which paid them from four to twelve dollars a page for their work. Louis Godey's Lady's Book kept more than one author financially afloat during the late 1830s and into the 1840s, notably Harriet Beecher Stowe, Eliza Leslie, and Catharine Sedgwick. The other significant event of 1837 was the merger of the Ladies' Magazine and Godey's Lady's Book. When Sarah Josepha Hale became editor of the new Godey's, she articulated a wish to encourage American authors, especially women, and to use the journal to speak to issues concerning women.

Although Godey's and Hale's expressed desire was never to mention politics in the pages of their journal, the magazine was instrumental in instructing women in the Victorian politics of gender and in inscribing separate spheres of influence for men and women. Nina Baym asserts that Hale's editorials represent a highly political stance because through them she sought to keep women out of the polls. Hale was a prime proselytizer of the belief that women were more spiritual, more moral, and more religious than men and that, therefore, they should not be sullied by engagement in the male sphere of public life or politics. Rather, Hale argued that women should maintain a separate sphere of domestic tranquillity in which they could soothe their husbands, who had to participate in the brutal world of commerce and moneymaking. It was also in this atmosphere that they were to bring up moral, Christian children, who would then have the proper foundation to withstand the outside world when they had to enter it.

The inscribing of separate spheres for men and women had its parallel in the relationship between Godey and Hale. Godey handled the financial matters of the magazine, and Hale was responsible for the artistic content. She even went so far as to differentiate herself from other male periodical editors by insisting that she was a "Lady Editor" and, furthermore, that when she reviewed books, which she did in every issue, she was merely writing notes or columns but was not critiquing these works. Critics, she felt, were always trying to demonstrate their own cleverness or intellectual superiority, whereas she believed her function as a female reviewer was to point out a work's moral value. While men might "cut up books with the keen dissecting knife of ridicule, or triumph in the superior wit or argument," such behavior did not "accord with the province of woman." Hale's editorials and the nature of the fiction and poetry that she both wrote and accepted for the Godey's all inscribe gender-specific social roles. Even though she would advocate for many causes in her long career as editor, women's suffrage was never a goal for Hale. She maintained that men and women were essentially different in psychological and moral makeup and that the two spheres should not overlap. Hale's adherence to True Womanhood, or the Cult of Domesticity, is an important and an extreme example of the role that a woman's magazine played in gender politics. It is, of course, ironic that a successful, visible, self-supporting woman editor should encourage other women not to participate in the public sphere, but Hale adamantly segregated the sexes in her own writings and never wavered from her position.

Other women, such as Fuller, used the antebellum periodical for political purposes beyond issues of gender. Although some scholars have dismissed Fuller's writing for the Tribune as apprenticeship work, others argue that her columns represent her desire to "elaborate a radical theory of reading for the culture, one meant to develop a form of political agency that would include a more diverse group of people than those who traditionally hold power." In "Margaret Fuller's Tribune Dispatches and the Nineteenth-Century Body Politic," contributor Annamarie Formichella Elsden notes that Fuller, through the lens of revolutionary ferment in Italy, tried to reflect America to itself. Fuller insisted that the American revolutionary soul could be reawakened and that, in its awakening, the nation's soul would realize the efficacy of equal opportunity for women.

The periodical production of Harriet Beecher Stowe provides another example of an antebellum woman writer employing the periodical for political purposes. In response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Stowe, an editor of Hearth and Home from 1868-75, contributed enormously to the abolitionist argument through the serialized publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851-52) in Gamaliel Bailey's periodical, the National Era. Stowe wrote in the sentimental fashion of the times. Stowe's work had an enormous effect on the nation precisely because she employed these sentimental conventions, which made the horrors of slavery readily understood and sympathetic to its audience.

Although Stowe's political focus was primarily one of abolitionism, a cause that seemed to obliterate lines of gender, as a woman editor, Stowe was highly concerned with the issue of gender. With the well-known self-confidence of her Beecher ancestors and siblings, Stowe envisioned herself as a member of the cultural elite and a writer in the high-culture circle: a writer for the magazines that saw themselves as arbiters of the emerging American aesthetic. Such magazines as Harper's and the Atlantic projected this hegemonic message that culture was a male domain. Contributor Sarah Robbins asserts in "Gendering Gilded Age Periodical Professionalism: Reading Harriet Beecher Stowe's Home and Hearth Prescriptions for Women's Writing," that Stowe (who published not only in the popular journals but in the more esteemed periodicals of the era as well) wrote many column articles that at first seem to set out a way to help other women become magazine contributors but that concluded in attempting to discourage that very production. Thus she set herself apart from the other women who wished to contribute to the periodical press.

Beginning with the essay "Can I Write?" (9 January 1869) and concluding with "How May I Know That I Can Make a Writer?" Stowe demonstrates the inherent gendering of authorship in antebellum America. By focusing her audience of would-be writers' attention on "writing what you know best," Stowe kept women firmly within the home sphere. As a magazine writer and as a collaborator with her sister Catharine Beecher on the housekeeping manual American Woman's Home (1869), Stowe wrote extensively on domestic subjects, but as an editor she saw herself as part of the male-dominated high-culture circle and gendered her readers, and those would-be writers, as female. In Stowe's scheme, literary excellence was for the high-culture journals, such as Harper's, Scribner's and the Atlantic, which were written and edited by men. Stowe, however, did publish and encourage other female writers, such as former Lowell mill girl Lucy Larcom. Stowe also wrote two columns supporting better education for women. She considered the issue of women's suffrage but never fully supported it through her published offerings. A woman who articulated advanced political ideals, Stowe held conservatively to the traditional view of separate spheres for American men and women of her century.

At mid-nineteenth century, many other women writers followed conservative gender constructions in the characters and in the moral tone of their periodical fiction. In addition, Alice Cary, Rose Terry Cooke, and Sarah Orne Jewett attempted to give the American reader a sense of a particular region. Their early regionalism had a didactic grounding, claiming the rural life as more ennobling and wholesome than that of the city. According to "Parental Guidance: Disciplinary Intimacy and the Rise of Women's Regionalism" by Janet Gebhart Auten, these and other authors sought to "persuade readers to submit to the simple lessons found there." Auten contends that women authors' need for the submission of their readers to the didacticism inherent in their works is part of a social continuum. That is, the authors themselves submitted to the demands of their "gentleman publishers" who took on a patriarchal role with their authors. This close personal relationship of author and publisher was encouraged and nurtured by the publishers. "They advocated author-publisher relations that were long term, like marriages, close friendships, or intimate professional associations. Thus they viewed loyalty and trust as central to the author-publisher alliance." And as Auten observes, the publishers required that their women authors observe the culturally dominant proprieties in their relationship with themselves and in their writings. In order to submit their writing for publication, these writers acquiesced to the wishes of their publishers. Critics such as Susan Coultrap-McQuin (1990) have argued that the authors and their publishers adhered to True Womanhood as a reflection of what was happening in America as well as a didactic indicator of what should be happening.

Adherence by both writers and readers to a conservative gender politic ensured that the Cult of Domesticity would have a fairly strong hold upon the women who wrote and read antebellum American periodicals. In "Kate Chopin and the Periodical: Revisiting the Re-Vision," Bonnie James Shaker proposes that even in later years Kate Chopin was far more conservative than she has been portrayed heretofore by literary scholars and that she adhered to careful didactic patterns in the articles she wrote for the Youth's Companion, Harper's Young People, and Wide Awake. Although Chopin's children's stories do not deal with the erotic subject matter of her adult fiction, Shaker claims that these children's stories are "indistinguishable from her other work in their tone, style, reading level, dialectic diversity, and artistic sophistication." Many of the stories originally published in these youth magazines appear in anthologies of Chopin's work with no editorial notation identifying the original audience for these works. In particular, Chopin enjoyed writing for the Youth's Companion, not only for its relatively high payments of contributors but because the magazine was one of the best-circulated journals in America. It was read by entire families and not just by the children. The fact that her stories could be published in venues for young readers importantly indicates Chopin's surprisingly tacit submission to the socially conservative publishers' sense of taste and propriety and suggests that, at the time, Chopin may have had few publishing alternatives.

Gender Roles, Social Expectations, and the Woman Writer Male publishers and, for the most part, male and female periodical editors were a conservative lot. The male editors of high-culture magazines at the turn of the century were so distressed by rapid social change that they became positively reactionary. However, throughout the period under consideration in The Only Efficient Instrument, many women magazine editors held considerably more liberal attitudes than their predominantly female audience.


Excerpted from "The Only Efficient Instrument" Copyright © 2001 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Aleta Cane teaches at Northeastern University in Boston and is currently a nonresident fellow at Harvard's W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African American Research.
Susan Alves is curriculum coordinator for the English Department at Rockport (Mass.) High School and a senior lecturer for the Adult and Continuing Education Department at Northeastern University.

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