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  • Private Women/Public ActsPetticoat Government and the Performance of Resistance
  • Elizabeth Reitz Mullenix (bio)

In the 1852 volume of The Ladies Wreath—a popular women's magazine dedicated to literature, poetry, fashion, and domestic manners—Professor William Nevin, a classics scholar, tells of tutoring two female students, Mary and Blanche, in Latin and Greek. The young women interrogate the professor on the subject of fashion and on the proper style of dress for young American ladies. Nevin, who hesitates to engage with the girls in this conversation for fear that such discussion could lead to "wildness and seduction," ultimately gleans his inquisitors' subtext: the girls seek his approval for wearing the new "Turkish costume" or Bloomer outfit, a garment introduced in 1849 by Amelia Bloomer, intended to redress the ill effects of tight lacing, the whalebone corset, and heavy petticoats. The Professor admits a distaste for the bloomers, condemning their "too lavish display of ankles," which "like other valuable jewels [...] are more highly esteemed from their being seen only by glimpses" (1852:252). Blanche proceeds to charge the professor with "prejudice and barbarism"; she argues that his exclusive interest in long dresses betrays his anxiety about the "Turkish trowsers"; according to the professor, the new fashion signifies usurpation by women who "overstep their prescribed limits" and trespass upon "lordly domains" (252). Nevin explains:

To confess the truth, I have some apprehensions of this sort. To petticoat government, in a limited way, I never had any objections, but I must say that I feel seriously alarmed at this untoward display of the trowsers. [...T]hey strike me as being only one of the many manifestations of that wild spirit of socialism or agrarian radicalism which is at present so rife in our land. [...T]hese levellers may succeed in destroying the natural distinctions of character and sex between us, in the same proportion also undoubtedly will they succeed in destroying all moral and government civilization. (Nevin 1852:252-53)

Mary, of course, immediately agrees with the Professor while Blanche is ultimately persuaded by his insidious eulogy on female influence, a popular doctrine [End Page 104] during the antebellum period that promised specious agency to women by casting them as the moral guardians of both the private and the public sphere. In short, Blanche meets with critical disapproval as she contemplates amending her gender performance; to wear a new "costume" suggests playing a new—markedly unsanctioned—role.

This anecdote, complete with its theme of subversion and containment, continued to haunt me as I concluded the research for my feminist history about female transvestism and representations of gender in antebellum culture. In an effort to provide a context for my discussion of breeches performance (a popular 19th-century theatrical convention in which women played male roles in male dress), materialist identity construction, and theatrical manifestations of gender ideology (both legitimate and nonlegitimate), I investigated the history of early feminism in America and was repeatedly struck by the theatricality of the women's movement. Activists and social reformers like Bloomer did not simply foreground the radical nature of their various civic and legal demands by putting on a "costume," as Blanche hoped to do, but performed their politics by storming taverns and smashing bottles, horsewhipping offending grogshop proprietors, holding mock elections at polling sites, and lecturing at concert halls and national conventions. Indeed women like Lucretia Mott, Francis Gage, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mary McLintock, Antoinette Brown, Susan B. Anthony (and the list goes on and on) engaged in a cultural performance or social drama in which they enacted their resistance and performed "Woman" in a new way. This essay (a sort of extended footnote to my recent book Wearing the Breeches: Gender on the Antebellum Stage [2000]) is an attempt to unlock the meaning behind such exhibitions, to understand the role performance played in the women's movement, and to theorize about the ramifications of such "play" both with regards to the history of American women and to 19th-century theatre, gender, and performance studies.

At mid-century, America was poised between two defining eras, one Romantic and one Modern, one shaped in part by absolutes and tradition and the other by questions...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1531-4715
Print ISSN
1054-2043
Pages
pp. 104-117
Launched on MUSE
2002-03-01
Open Access
No
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