- Voices of the Nation: Women and Public Speech in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture
In Voices of the Nation, Caroline Field Levander argues that during the nineteenth century representations of women’s voices helped to establish a public sphere in which male speech prevailed and, in turn, provided a way for women writers to respond to this exclusion. While she surveys a wide range of writers (Henry James, Maria Monk, Caroline Lee Hentz, Harriet Jacobs, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, among others), her focus is on female-authored narratives that attempted to shape public debate on a range of issues. Early on Levander makes it clear that she is not interested in “the few women who actually spoke in public” but in “the vital role that discussions about the voices of American women played in negotiating social change” (4). This is not a study of political speech, but of written representations of the female voice. In a series of extraordinary close readings Levander analyzes the figure of the female voice in order to illuminate the political intentions of these narratives. At times, however, Levander loses sight of the bounds of her project and asserts that the female voice exerted a “profound influence” on women writers who were able to “appropriate” its political power (4–5). As the only voices in this book are those constructed by authors arguing for or against the public potential of female speech, the female voice cannot be granted such autonomy or influence: these voices have only the power their authors attribute to them. Levander concludes by suggesting that while we tend to regard public speech as the province of men, we can now “suddenly see how women, throughout the preceding century, effectively represented and advocated for a wide array of ethnic, economic, racial, and gender constituencies” (146). Yet scholars have long recognized a huge body of nineteenth-century reformist literature authored by middle-class women. For me the significance of this book lies not in its revelation of women’s participation in the public sphere but in its ability to anatomize representations of the female voice. Levander’s first chapter surveys theorists of language from Noah Webster to Otto Jesperson who describe the female voice as melodious, pleasing, and content free. Women who take up this figure to authorize their own public speech often portray the female voice as stifled and inarticulate; thus, the narratives Levander analyzes are populated by women whose voices are suppressed or barely audible. While male authors take the inarticulate female voice as [End Page 590] the basis for their essentialism, women writers take the silence of nuns, or workers, or slaves as the occasion for their highly articulate advocacy. It is striking how often these texts, despite their diverse objectives, portray female speech as sound without meaning—indistinct and unrealized. While Levander familiarizes us with texts that mount powerful arguments for the public speech of women, her book also suggests the complicity of the written word in sustaining the idea that the female voice requires translation.