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Romancing the Vote

Feminist Activism in American Fiction, 1870-1920

Leslie Petty

Publication Year: 2006

As the nineteenth century progressed into the twentieth, novels about politically active women became increasingly common. Until now, however, no one has studied this body of writing as a distinct tradition in American literature. In Romancing the Vote, Leslie Petty recovers this tradition and also examines how the fiction written about the women's rights and related movements contributed to the creation and continued vitality of those movements.

Petty examines the novels as paradigms of feminist activism and reform communities and elucidates how they, whether wittingly or not, model ways to create similar communities in the real world. She demonstrates how the narratives provide insight into the hopes and anxieties surrounding some of the most important political movements in American history and how they encapsulate the movements' paradoxical blend of progressive and conservative ideologies.

The major works discussed are Elizabeth Boynton Harbert's Out of Her Sphere (1871), Lillie Devereux Blake's Fettered for Life (1874), Henry James's The Bostonians (1886), Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's Iola Leroy (1892), Hamlin Garland's A Spoil of Office (1892), Marjorie Shuler's For Rent--One Pedestal (1917), Elizabeth Jordan's edited volume The Sturdy Oak (1917), and Oreola Williams Haskell's Banner Bearers: Tales of the Suffrage Campaigns (1920).

Although these works discredit many traditional notions about gender and inspire their readers to seek fairness and equality for many American women, they often simultaneously perpetuate discriminatory ideas about other marginalized groups. They not only privilege the experiences of white women but also rely on widespread anxieties about racial and ethnic minorities to demonstrate the need for gender reform. By focusing on such tensions between conventional and unconventional ideas about gender, race, and class, Petty shows how the fiction of this period helps to situate first-wave feminism within a larger historical and cultural context.

Published by: University of Georgia Press


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pp. vii-viii

I have worked on this book quite a while, and it would be impossible to acknowledge everyone who has helped me along the way. I would, however, like especially to thank a few people and institutions indispensable to its completion. I began Romancing the Vote as a graduate student in English at the University of Georgia, and while there, I was blessed with an exceptional group of ...

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pp. 1-15

In 1839, Sarah Josepha Hale published The Lecturess, a novel about a woman’s rights activist whose transgressive behavior—she gives public lectures on gender reform and even ventures to the South to speak about abolition—leads directly to the loss of her husband and child and, eventually, to her death.1 In this cautionary tale, Hale warns her readers about the dangers of women taking a ...

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CHAPTER ONE: “True Christian Philanthropy”; or, a Release from the “Prison-House” of Marriage: Fictional Representations of Feminist Activism in the 1870s

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pp. 17-63

The anonymous author of “Education of Girls” cites this passage because she sees it as “a hopeful sign that the attention of so many of the best men and women throughout the civilized world is turned to the subject of women’s education” (“Education of Girls”). Its inclusion in a leading woman’s rights journal suggests its pertinence to suffragists and other feminist activists trying to convince ...

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CHAPTER TWO: Expanding the Vision of Feminist Activism: Frances E.W. Harper’s Iola Leroy and Hamlin Garland’s A Spoil of Office

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pp. 64-102

... Cooper here highlights the broader implications of the woman’s rights movement, pointing out that it is a particular manifestation of a greater principle, that all human beings should have equal rights, protection, and opportunities within their society. And because women span every socio-economic and ethnic group, the cause of woman’s rights, she makes clear, is truly the “cause of ...

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CHAPTER THREE: Making It New: Middlebrow Literary Culture and Twentieth-Century Suffrage Fiction

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pp. 103-167

... Blatch proposed a number of ways the movement might escape from this rut. Perhaps her most notable suggestion, inspired by the more militant British suffragism in which she had been immersed for years, was that it should infuse itself with an element of spectacle. Noting the ineffectualness of traditional attempts to convert the public through education and “the same old arguments,” ...

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CHAPTER FOUR: The Political Is Personal: What Henry James’s The Bostonians Can Teach Feminist Activists

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pp. 168-188

Any study about American fiction devoted to feminist activism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries must necessarily consider Henry James’s 1886 novel, The Bostonians. It is, after all, the only canonical text from the nineteenth century whose central heroines are woman’s rights activists. For that reason, it has for years seemed anomalous not only in James’s oeuvre, but in ...

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pp. 189-197

In considering the role that fiction played in creating and sustaining the first wave of feminist activism in America, it seems appropriate to return to Oreola Williams Haskell’s short story, “Tenements and Teacups,” because in many ways, it encapsulates the optimism of feminist activist fiction written between the years 1870 and 1920. The members of the “Squad” exhibit an unequivocal ...


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pp. 199-210


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pp. 211-221


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pp. 223-231

E-ISBN-13: 9780820342894
E-ISBN-10: 0820342890
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820328584
Print-ISBN-10: 0820328588

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2006

OCLC Number: 759160202
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Romancing the Vote

Research Areas


Subject Headings

  • Suffrage in literature.
  • Women's rights in literature.
  • Women -- Suffrage -- United States -- History.
  • Politics and literature -- United States -- History.
  • Feminism and literature -- United States -- History.
  • Political fiction, American -- History and criticism.
  • Feminist fiction, American -- History and criticism.
  • American fiction -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • American fiction -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
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