restricted access Personal Property: Wives, White Slaves, and the Market in Women (review)
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Reviewed by
Margit Stange. Personal Property: Wives, White Slaves, and the Market in Women. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998. 171 pp.

Margit Stange usefully gathers several turn-of-the-last-century writers who are rarely discussed together: novelists Edith Wharton and Kate Chopin and social thinkers Jane Addams and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In placing them side by side, Stange puzzles over the public/private divide so often used to characterize the generation of women born during the Civil War and educated, as the first generation of American university women, in the 1880s. Many of these educated, upper-middle-class women avoided marriage, child rearing, and the usual gender roles of the nineteenth century, supposedly moving from the private sphere of domesticity to the public sphere of professional activity. What she detects is a seeming paradox that women who entered the public sphere of literary and intellectual reputation and authority all too often (at least for the comfort of late-twentieth-century feminists) resisted a female move away from traditional private life. Why, Stange asks, does Edna Pontellier drown herself as she awakens to a fuller selfhood? What accounts for the malleability of Lily Bart’s character as she resists being merely a moment’s ornament? Why did so many women, whom Gilman sought to free from sexual parasitism, reject birth control devices? And why does Jane Addams present so much of her social theory in the figure of the white slave?

Stange suggests that such seeming contradictions may be tied to the white slave narrative, perhaps the most popular genre in American in the years just prior to World War I. The narrative features a young, naive female, either from Europe or from the American countryside, [End Page 1038] who arrives in a city and is accosted by a male pander who tricks her by promising help or feigning affection or drugging her; most stories feature her incarceration in a brothel where she is dressed in flimsy finery and forced into prostitution, a profession that makes her movement back into decent society difficult if not impossible. The white slave provides current scholars and theorists a provocative cultural sign to be read, interpreted, and analyzed. Oddly, however, Stange avoids much discussion of the narrative itself, preferring to examine closely only one fairly atypical example, “Brother Cutting Up His Own Sister,” about a medical student who discovers to his horror that the cadaver he is experimenting on is, in truth, a sister he had lost to the streets. The study instead concentrates on more familiar and, one should note, higher-toned works of literature. These include The Awakening (not a white slave narrative but rather a novel that focuses on the market value of women), The House of Mirth (a somewhat forced example in that Stange uses Lily’s whiteness, especially regarding her costumes, to argue that the novel “shades into the white slave narrative”), The Touchstone (again, not a slave narrative, but an example of Wharton’s discomfort with the “debasement” a writer might face in a consumer economy), Women and Economics (Gilman’s formulation of marriage as a type of slavery), and A New Conscience and An Ancient Evil (an example that does employ several versions of the white slave narrative). Most troubling to Stange is the unavoidable conclusion that Progressive thinkers seem finally to revalidate the traditional manners and morals they seem initially to call into question. “Addams’ model of the reformed family actually revives the very ideology she sets out to revise,” Stange observes.

Personal Property, like Lora Romero’s Home Fronts (1997), seeks to expand ways of considering domesticity by discussing novels in the context of social history and cultural discourse. Much work has yet to be done on the white slave narrative itself. Stange’s study is earnest and the prose often turgid; the writing is more relaxed in the sections where she discusses the fiction, and one wishes she would have spent more time on other white slave texts. She seems to want to tie issues together too neatly. For example, Addams, she concludes, promoted the public sphere as the proper business of female domesticity in her plan for social housekeeping. What she...