- Traveling Economies: American Women's Travel Writing
Traveling Economies by Jennifer Bernhardt Steadman proves that scholarly interest in women's mobility and that mobility's social, political, and embodied contexts has continued to flourish and the subjects have become more diverse. Steadman's project is to examine institutional structures that were "designed to keep women in their place, while simultaneously dismantling those hierarchies" (p. 4). She focuses ambitiously on six "ragged edge travelers" (p. 5), women who supported themselves and served various communities from the margins through work, uplift, and cultural critique, entering the public sphere in doing so. Some of her subjects include Amy Morris Bradley, a white New Englander who traveled to Costa Rica to work as a governess; Nancy Prince and Mary Ann Shad Cary, free African Americans who left the U.S. to seek alternative homes for former slaves and practice forms of benevolent labor; and Frances Wright, a Scottish free-love advocate and utopianist explorer who wrote about America's potential for enacting social change.
In examining the risks and rewards of travel by women in the nineteenth century, Steadman essentially goes over many others' original, archival scholarship to put together a comparative analysis. For instance, she cites Sandra Gunning and Carla Peterson's research on Nancy Prince, Mary Seacole, and Mary Ann Shadd Cary, as well as my own research on Prince and my coedited book with Farah Griffin on African American [End Page 380] travelers. Just as Steadman seems to catch fire with her analysis on one or two travelers in a chapter, she interrupts her narrative with additional comparisons; her chapter on Bradley and Prince suffers when she brings in a third traveling woman, Lilian Leland, as an "illustrative tourist counterpart" (p. 26) to the ragged-edged ones, but I found it mainly distracting. I was fascinated by Bradley's situation and hoped that the emphasis on "economies" of travel would be fulfilled, for that is truly an area in the theory and scholarship on travel literature that begs for research and contextualization. In my own research on Prince, I found that she had to rely on a variety of networks that fell outside of traditional "splits" in the abolitionist and women's rights communities in order to survive financially, physically, and psychically. Thus, placing these women's writings under the "traveling economies" label raises questions for me such as, when Amy Morris Bradley leaves her position in Costa Rica, and Nancy Prince deserts the established Christian missionaries who had sponsored her in Jamaica, how do they manage financially and materially? How were colonialism and slavery factors in the way these women developed their subjectivity and what economic factors came to bear on their analyses of cultures in which they lived and traveled? Steadman shifts from the topic of economy to the danger of bodily risk—important, but nevertheless, what were the economic realities they faced as women on their own and what alliances did they form? How were bodily risk and economic struggle intertwined?
Contextual historical research could better flesh out the lives these fascinating women led, such as the one Steadman maps regarding the tradition that Ann Royall tapped—to travel and to sell subscriptions to the books she would write about her travels. Steadman writes that the "emerging literary market for women's travel writing and contemporary reviews outlining readers' expectations of the domestic focus of women's travelogues offers crucial context for evaluating how Royall negotiated these markets . . . by couching her scolding and her transgressive travels in feminine sentimental language" (p. 64). At that point, examples of this scolding and transgressive sentimentality would have been effective, but quotes from the women are not always integrated into the narrative. Furthermore, the statistics she cites on the travel-writing boom come from Mary Suzanne Schriber's 1997 book Writing Home: American Women Abroad, 1830-1920. I would have liked more current research on who were the readers for the various forms of travel writing that this book addresses and...