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Our Sisters' Keepers

Nineteenth-Century Benevolence Literature by American Women

Edited by Jill Bergman and Debra Bernardi, with contributions from Sarah E. Chin

Publication Year: 2005

American culture has long had a conflicted relationship with assistance to the poor. Cotton Mather and John Winthrop were staunch proponents of Christian charity as fundamental to colonial American society, while transcendentalists harbored deep skepticism towards benevolence in favor of Emersonian self-reliance and Thoreau’s insistence on an ascetic life. Women in the 19th century, as these essays show, approached issues of benevolence far differently than their male counterparts, consistently promoting assistance to the impoverished, in both their acts and their writings. 

These essays address a wide range of subjects: images of the sentimental seamstress figure in women’s fiction; Rebecca Harding Davis’s rewriting of the “industrial” novel; Sarah Orne Jewett’s place in the transcendental tradition of skepticism toward charity, and her subversion of it; the genre of the poorhouse narrative; and the philanthropic work and writings of Hull House founder Jane Addams. 

As the editors of Our Sisters’ Keepers argue, the vulnerable and marginal positions occupied by many women in the 19th century fostered an empathetic sensitivity in them to the plight of the poor, and their ability to act and write in advocacy of the impoverished offered a form of empowerment not otherwise available to them. The result was the reformulation of the concept of the American individual.
Contributors include: Jill Bergman, Debra Bernardi, Sarah E. Chinn, Monika Elbert, Lori Merish, Terry D. Novak, James Salazar, Mary Templin, Karen Tracey, Whitney A. Womack

Published by: The University of Alabama Press


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pp. ix-x

While this book deals with connections between nineteenth-century women, the idea of this project derived from a connection established between two twenty-first-century women. Finding ourselves in Montana after completing our respective Midwest graduate school experiences, we stumbled upon each other by accident...

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Introduction: Benevolence Literature by American Women

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pp. 1-19

This collection of essays examines the ways American women thought and wrote about their role in poverty relief throughout the nineteenth century. Bringing together essays on topics that range from the seamstress figure of the 1830s to the immigrants involved with Jane Addams’s Hull-House, this volume explores women...

Part I: The Genre of Benevolence

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1. Stories of the Poorhouse

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pp. 23-48

Nineteenth-century poorhouses sheltered and confined people who could not support themselves and had nowhere else to live: orphaned infants, abandoned children, deserted wives, alcoholics, persons disabled by disease or accident, destitute widows, the mentally incompetent, the mentally ill, and the elderly in

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2. Representing the “Deserving Poor”: The “Sentimental Seamstress” and the Feminization of Poverty in Antebellum America

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pp. 49-79

In Fanny Fern’s Ruth Hall, the eponymous heroine, an impoverished widow, is cast off by her male relatives after her husband’s death and must work as a seamstress to support her two young children and herself. In a scene midway through the novel, Ruth gazes out the window of her boardinghouse at a “large brick tenement” across...

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3. “Dedicated to Works of Beneficence”: Charity as Model for a Domesticated Economy in Antebellum Women’s Panic Fiction

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pp. 80-104

When the wildly speculative economy of the mid-1830s collapsed in panic in the spring of 1837, causing widespread bankruptcy, loss of property, and unemployment, a number of American women writers responded with novels and stories about the effects of financial failure on the home. Fiction by authors such as...

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4. Reforming Women’s Reform Literature: Rebecca Harding Davis’s Rewriting of the Industrial Novel

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pp. 105-131

Rebecca Harding Davis was never fully satisfied with her first novel Margret Howth: A Story of To-Day (1862), a view shared by many contemporary readers and literary critics.¹ When Davis first submitted the manuscript—then titled The Deaf and the Dumb—to the Atlantic Monthly in May 1861, editor James T. Fields rejected...

Part II: Negotiating the Female American Self through Benevolence

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5. “The Right to Be Let Alone”: Mary Wilkins Freeman and the Right to a “Private Share”

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pp. 135-156

“Nobody knew how frugal Betsey Dole’s suppers and breakfasts were. . . . She scarcely ate more than her canary bird. . . . Her income was almost infinitesimal” (191). This description of the main character in Mary Wilkins Freeman’s story “A Poetess” (1891) is only one of many in Freeman’s work that highlight her interest in the poor...

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6. Women’s Charity vs. Scientific Philanthropy in Sarah Orne Jewett

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pp. 157-189

In many of Sarah Orne Jewett’s stories, women express their interconnectedness through gift-giving, and the gift becomes a symbol that looms large in the pastoral settings of Jewett’s landscapes. One should not consider the exchange of gifts a simple and inane nostalgic activity, but rather a gesture that reflects a type of moral...

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7. “Oh the Poor Women!”: Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s Motherly Benevolence

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pp. 190-212

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844–1911), the prolific and popular nineteenth-century writer, was deeply interested in benevolence, and many of her novels deal with it. One of her earliest stories, “The Tenth of January” published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1868, described the 1860 collapse of the Pemberton mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts, an...

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8. Frances Harper’s Poverty Relief Mission in the African American Community

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pp. 213-226

Throughout most of her works, especially her novel Iola Leroy, Frances E. W. Harper consistently toils to address her concerns over the uplifting of her race. There is no doubt that at the center of this uplifting is the end of poverty and oppression of all kinds. Harper knows that a poor person is a depressed person, one incapable of reaching...

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9. “To Reveal the Humble Immigrant Parents to Their Own Children”: Immigrant Women, Their American Daughters, and the Hull-House Labor Museum

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pp. 227-248

In 1899, Hilda Satt, the daughter of Jewish immigrants to Chicago, visited Hull-House for the first time. Her father had recently died, and although her mother “faced life with the heroism of the true American pioneer” (Polacheck 44), she was barely scraping by. Hilda hoped that Hull-House, with its low cost cafeteria, activities for...

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10. Character’s Conduct: The Democratic Habits of Jane Addams’s “Charitable Effort”

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pp. 249-281

In 1928, the organizers of the Chicago Association for Child Study and Parent Education, one of many emerging organizations dedicated to the new science of pedagogy and child rearing, decided to address their annual conference to one of the most important social reform projects in the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century United...

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 283-288


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pp. 289-290


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pp. 291-299

E-ISBN-13: 9780817381660
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817351939

Publication Year: 2005

OCLC Number: 424522015
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Our Sisters' Keepers

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Subject Headings

  • Charity in literature.
  • Poverty in literature.
  • Poor in literature.
  • Benevolence in literature.
  • Literature and society -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Women and literature -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • American literature -- Women authors -- History and criticism.
  • American literature -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
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