Making Girls into Women: American Women's Writing and the Rise of Lesbian Identity

Making Girls into Women: American Women's Writing and the Rise of Lesbian Identity

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822384571
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 12/27/2002
Series: Series Q
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Kathryn R. Kent is Assistant Professor of English at Williams College.

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Making girls into women

American women's writing and the rise of lesbian identity
By Kathryn R. Kent

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3016-4

Chapter One


In this regard of self-dependence, and a greater simplicity and fullness of being, we must hail as a preliminary the increase of the class contemptuously designated as old maids.-Margaret Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century

It is one of the peculiarities of American womanhood that the body of a coquette often encloses the soul of a prude and the angular form of a spinster is possessed by a nature of the tropics.- Gertrude Stein, Q.E.D.

The "problem" of making girls into women preoccupies much of antebellum sentimental fiction. Richard Brodhead's readings of girls' character (re)formation in Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World (1850) and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851), establishes the conventions of what he terms the "maternal-tutelary mode": the move away from a model of subject formation based in physical punishment and toward one based in the internalization of disciplinary power, centrally metaphorized in American texts as a "mother's love." As discussed in my introduction, in The Wide, Wide World Alice replaces Mrs. Montgomery as Ellen's substitute "mother" (and "sister"), but this occurs only after AuntFortune, Ellen's spinster relative, has failed at instilling in her the ideals of self-regulation essential to an internalization of disciplinary power. Similarly, in Uncle Tom's Cabin, Aunt Ophelia, another spinster, is unable to reform the orphaned slave Topsy, and it is only Little Eva's loving example that inspires Topsy to "be good." As Brodhead observes, in both cases spinster characters function in the narratives as key contrasts or foils against which to measure the successes of the other mother substitutes: they represent an earlier form of regulatory power, that of brute force, and thus are unable to "love" their charges into obedience and transformation.

Stowe repeats this narrative trope almost exactly in Oldtown Folks (1869). Miss Asphyxia, the first single woman to take in the orphan Tina, uses corporal punishment to try to regulate Tina's behavior. Such actions recall an earlier disciplinary regime-what Stowe refers to as "the literal use of the rod" (115)-and are explicitly linked to the evils of slavery. When Tina's brother, Harry, hears of her mistreatment and recalls his own abuse at the hands of Miss Asphxyia's brother, "the blood flushed into the boy's face, and he breathed short. Something stirred within him, such as makes slavery bitter" (99). For both children, this disciplinary regime fails completely. In particular, it inspires in Tina only hatred and the desire to rebel, implying that such physical exercises of brute disciplinary power do indeed inspire uprisings, not docility:

A child's hatred and a child's revenge have an intensity of bitterness entirely unalloyed by moral considerations; and when a child is without an object of affection, and feels itself unloved, its whole vigor of being goes into the channels of hate.... In fact, the child considered herself and Miss Asphyxia as in a state of warfare which suspends all moral rules. (113)

Such examples confirm the connection Brodhead traces between the failure to inspire obedience through corporal punishment in the military and in education (prior to becoming self-employed, Miss Asphyxia was a schoolteacher) and the failure of the terrorizing discipline that characterizes slavery. Alternatively, although she does not wholly succeed as maternal pedagogue, Miss Mehitable, the spinster who subsequently becomes Tina's guardian, manages to soften Tina's anger through her loving example. In some ways, then, she stands in for what Brodhead argues is the substitution of "disciplinary intimacy" for physical force.

This genealogy of subject formation underlies Oldtown Folks; however, it cannot fully account for the intertwining of cultural anxieties regarding gender, sexuality, race, and their relationship to female subjectivity-those struggles over the "vigor [of a child's] being" and the "object of [her] affection"-that I argue constitute the central focus of the first third of the novel. Stowe does contrast one form of childrearing against another in ways that follow dominant domestic tropes, but she adds a crucial difference: instead of replacing the inept spinster with a woman who is designed to epitomize an idealized version of white femininity (so pure and good that in fact only death can preserve it), in Oldtown Folks one spinster's failure at mothering becomes another spinster's success (albeit limited). Neither women can ever fully succeed, in part because their efforts are measured against the standard of (hetero)maternal normalcy and normalization epitomized in the character of Grandmother Badger. Yet the novel does not pit a secure vision of heteromaternality against a (queer) sterility in a way that simply anticipates or replicates the hetero/homo binary. Instead, in its efforts to taxonomize spinsterhood, Oldtown Folks explores the limits of the transferability of maternal agency and power (what historians have come to refer to as the "professionalization of motherhood") from the biological family to other domestic and increasingly extradomestic spheres. In so doing, the novel simultaneously establishes such limits, illustrating why one single woman fails at the labor of love while another, at least temporarily, succeeds.

The economic and racial specificities of a postbellum context connect these successes and failures to larger social transformations unique to the post-Civil War United States. Specifically, Oldtown Folks engages three key historical shifts: the end of slavery and the era of Reconstruction; the massive increase in single white women who would never marry in part owing to a lack of available men; and the coming of widespread industrialization, which brought with it an intensification of the ideological pressures to keep the home separate from the "heartless world" of capitalist endeavor. Each of these shifts contributes to a figuring of the spinster, but the figure is more than an example of a gender failure or freakishness, as signaled by the spinster's failure to mother; or as Brodhead would have it, a simple, prebourgeois contrast to the triumph of the maternal pedagogical (and by extension the middle class). Indeed, the white spinster, enmeshed in the overlapping discourses of race, gender, sexuality, and labor, also comes to embody an emergent, queer, protoidentity.

In confining my discussion to white spinsters, I do not mean to imply that spinsters of color did not exist in the postbellum era. But under slavery, the married/nonmarried distinction was denied to most slaves, while in the postbellum period a woman's single status or refusal or avoidance of marriage carried very different connotations for white and African American women. As Hortense Spillers has noted, marriage itself took on racially specific political implications, as it was one of the only possible ways that African American men and women could enter into the public sphere, thereby asserting their rights as citizens. Although white, middle-class women were increasingly "escaping" or being forced to exist outside of marriage and in the process finding ways to enter the public sphere, one could argue that for African American women the opposite was true: through marriage (and through a black man) African American women might attain some semblance of entitlement, including the right to exist within the "private," but their status as members of an oppressed minority also meant that marriage was always already a public, civic duty, a way to sustain the race.

For example, in a novel such as Frances E. W. Harper's Iola Leroy (1892), Leroy's conflict centers around how best to organize her sexuality and her labor for the good of the race, and marriage signifies less a route to personal fulfillment, and more an aid to this larger political goal. This may be one reason why early African American women novelists such as Mrs. A. E. Johnson make many of their single women characters widows rather than spinsters. By already having been married, such women are made respectable and are shown to be claiming their right to enjoy the legal privileges of matrimony. Regardless of Johnson's motives, however, African American women in general, not just single women, were viewed by the dominant culture as sexually suspect and unnaturally reproductive; thus the specific connotations that I argue were being attached to white spinsters were also being attached to all black women.

Although the spinster might be viewed as a racially specific identity, Stowe's text allies her with other minority subjects. In Oldtown Folks, just as the spinster's "unnatural" relation to femininity is signaled by her simultaneous proximity to and distance from "natural," essentialized maternality, her queerness is signified or made visible in the text through the discursive links the narrative establishes between various forms of production and reproduction considered excessive or wasteful, forms of production and reproduction that are also connected to race and ethnicity. Oldtown Folks reveals the degree to which both the subjectivity of the white spinster and that of the racial and ethnic minorities briefly represented within the text are constituted through what Lauren Berlant has termed the processes of "stereotypic embodiment," the ways in which the individual bodies and lives of subjects are condensed and distorted to fit the meanings dictated, in this case, by the postbellum public sphere.

Although it may seem misleading when discussing sentimental fiction to describe particular characters as stereotypes (which implies that others are not) when one might argue that sentimental fiction seeks to make all forms of subjectivity into legible, easily demarcated and easily replicable forms of personhood ("the mother," "the daughter"), within this characterological universe there is still what Berlant calls a "social hierarchy." In discussing the workings of stereotype in contemporary U.S. culture, Berlant distinguishes between those subjects who are allowed the "privilege of individuality" with the illusion that their subjectivities are both unique and universal, and those whose particular lived experiences are simplified and distorted into the narrow limits of "the queer" or "the person of color." By contrast, in sentimental novels such as Stowe's, and in nineteenth-century U.S. culture as a whole, I would argue, such a privilege of individuality is denied for all women. Still, female identity itself exists in a hierarchy, with white, heteromaternal, "natural" femininity at the top.

In his discussion of the workings of colonial discourse, Homi Bhabha argues that the discursive effects of the stereotype are structured as ambivalence. Against an analysis that would simply identify stereotypes as "positive" or "negative," or would decide a priori their cultural power or inefficacy, he calls for "an understanding of the processes of signification made possible (and plausible) through stereotypical discourse." As I will outline in this chapter, the representations of spinsters in Oldtown Folks reveal the novel's unquestioned replication of dominant nineteenth-century stereotypes of spinsterhood, as well as the old maids' own "masochistic identification" with them. Yet, at the same time, because the stereotype always represents a process of signification, it also suggests ways to articulate a queer female protoidentity, one that within Oldtown Folks can only be a deviant form of femininity. In arguing that the figure of the spinster has a history, my aim here is to provide a starting point for interventions into this stereotype, the reverse discourse of spinsterhood that I will argue modernist queer female writers effect in the early twentieth century.

The figure of the old maid or spinster recurs throughout nineteenthcentury white women's writing, from Catharine Maria Sedgwick's character Lucy Ray in "Old Maids" (1834) to the unattached, unnamed narrator of Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896). Because bourgeois white womanhood was increasingly defined in the nineteenth century by its relation to mothering and the private domestic leisure and labor of love, the cultural work of such women is often represented as, at best, a ridiculous, excessive copy of such endeavors, or a cheapened, commodified version of it (something spinsters do for money, as opposed to love and selfless dedication). Even more often, a spinster's labor and subjectivity go unrecognized as cultural work altogether both by critics and by the texts.

Some feminist critics have turned this liability into an asset, seeing the spinster as either a nineteenth-century harbinger of the liberal feminist ideal of the "autonomous woman" or the radical feminist ideal of the woman who exists outside patriarchy. It is tempting to read the spinster as a self-exile from bourgeois reproductive heterosexuality, but this implies that there is an outside both to the norms of (hetero)sexuality and to the economy, a utopian space not familiar to most single white women in the United States in the mid- to late nineteenth century. White women without the physical and economic protection of a husband were often doomed to abject poverty or to the tyrannies and whims of their brothers or fathers; women who did not participate in the "natural" feminine functions of wife and mother were socially ostracized and culturally ridiculed. And, after the Civil War, in part because of the war's huge death toll and in part because of western expansion, there were many more women than men in the eastern United States. As Alice Kessler-Harris notes, "The New York Times estimated in 1869 that about a quarter of a million young women in the eastern seaboard states could never look forward to any matrimonial alliance, because they outnumbered men by that much." This trend would continue throughout the rest of the nineteenth century; government statistics from the 1880s estimated that one-third of the female population over twenty-one would never marry.

Yet simply to equate spinsterhood with a deficit of eligible men does not do justice to the complexities of the position. Due partly to the changing needs of industrial capitalism, in the latter half of the nineteenth century bourgeois white women were allowed (and actively agitated for) education and access to jobs in postbellum public spaces. Schooling and the possibility of a career made it increasingly imaginable for these women to be economically independent of either marriage or the support of their families. By the late 1800s, single, middle-class, white women were often portrayed as dangerous and mannish, overinvolved in the public sphere and underinvolved in traditionally feminine pursuits. But, as I will argue, even in 1869 single white women were already embodying cultural fears, not only about historical shifts both in what counted as women's work and in what constituted "proper" femininity, but also about "proper" female (hetero)sexuality.


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Table of Contents



1. "Single White Female”: The Sexual Politics of Spinsterhood in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Oldtown Folks

2. "Trying All Kinds”: Louisa May Alcott’s Pedagogic Erotics

3. "Scouting for Girls”: Reading and Recruitment in the Early Twentieth Century

4. "Excreate a No Sense”: The Erotic Currency of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons

5. The M Multiplying: Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and the Pleasures of Influence, Part I

6. Influence and Invitation: Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and the Pleasures of Influence, Part II





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