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  • "Universal Human Rights":The New Rhetoric of the Woman's Rights Movement Conceptualized Within the Una (1853-1855)
  • Terri A. Amlong (bio)

[S]he, who edits a journal, has her daily, weekly or monthly audience, and her mark is unmistakably made whether she ever speaks of "woman's rights," or otherwise.1

—Paulina W. Davis

Women periodical editors occupied a unique position within nineteenth-century American society. As women, they held limited power in the public sphere; however, as periodical editors, they wielded a tremendous amount of power within the literary marketplace. Through their roles as periodical editors, these women determined what was printed and read by the public. In fact, one could argue that these editors shaped American culture with the daily choices they made about what should be printed. As the above quotation from Paulina Wright Davis indicates, women editors often believed that they did not need to defend woman's rights because their daily presence within the literary marketplace provided the prima facie evidence of their "right" to speak in public. When Davis established the first major woman's rights paper,2 the Una: A Paper Devoted to the Elevation of Woman, she listed herself as "editor and proprietor" on the front page of each issue. This title automatically conferred upon Davis a position within the literary marketplace. From this position, Davis utilized her background in various reform causes to advance woman's rights by developing a distinctive rhetoric based upon the current reform rhetoric and its evolution into political discourse.

In this article, I argue that Davis, and later Caroline Healey Dall, emphasized education as the key to woman's rights and created one of the earliest examples of the rhetoric of the woman's rights movement. As eventual coeditors of the Una, Davis and Dall attempted to synthesize the rhetoric of the woman's rights movement by appealing both to women and to men in order to work toward the common goal of "universal human rights." However, Davis and Dall disagreed on the method of education needed to reach their audience. As a second generation Transcendentalist, Dall believed that the key to women's education was through literary history and culture while Davis relied [End Page 22] more upon current discussions of reform rhetoric and political discourse as the key to women's education. Beginning with the third volume of the paper, Dall insisted that literary pieces would be most useful in sustaining the paper and its original purpose of educating women readers while Davis insisted that publishing the woman's rights convention news and political discourse would maintain the education of women readers. This disagreement between Davis and Dall became a key component in the eventual demise of the Una, but the format of the periodical was only one issue in the troubled life of the first woman's rights paper.

The Una's troubles began when the woman's rights "convention women" refused to support the fledgling periodical as their official paper. As a result, Davis launched the paper with her own funds and edited and published it on her own until health issues began to interfere with her work. She then turned to her unofficial co-editor, Caroline Dall, and asked her to take over as editor of the paper until she could regain her health. Unfortunately, the paper was also in financial trouble because the Una never developed a substantial paying list of subscribers, so Davis "sold" the paper to Boston publisher S. C. Hewitt, who then secured Dall's participation as editor for the last ten issues of the Una. In a letter to Dall dated June 21, 1855, Davis explained to Dall how she "gave" the paper to Hewitt: "I then told Mr. Hewitt if he would take the paper, pledging himself to continue it in the tone which it had maintained I would give it to him. He accepted, pledging himself that it should retain its liberal spirit. . . . I pledged myself to edit it one year."3 At this point, the history of the Una becomes a tale of misunderstanding between Hewitt the publisher, Dall the editor, and Davis the "unofficial" editor, as to who actually maintained control...


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