- Lessons from the Superwoman: Miriam Michelson’s Literary Activism
In 1912, Miriam Michelson’s novella The Superwoman appeared in The Smart Set. Published one year after Michelson’s home state of California became the sixth in the union to grant women the vote, The Superwoman is set on an Amazonian island ruled by women. The novella—which predated, and strongly influenced, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist classic Herland (1915)—reads in part as a celebration of women’s newly acquired power. Michelson herself contributed to the success of the California suffrage campaign, using her celebrity as a pioneering journalist and best-selling novelist to draw audiences to speeches. Yet, as a piece of speculative fiction imagining a matriarchal utopia, The Superwoman served to remind readers that the battle for women’s rights was far from over.
As I demonstrate in The Superwoman and Other Writings by Miriam Michelson, Michelson’s work is an important addition to feminist literary history. Michelson mobilized multiple forms of print culture—daily newspapers, mass-circulation magazines, and novels—to advocate gender equality and to disrupt patriarchal norms. At the same time, her career exposes the limitations of suffrage activism, white feminism, and literary recovery.
Michelson’s multimodal output provides a model for contemporary activism because she viewed feminism within a larger constellation of progressive issues. For instance, her first front-page newspaper article, “Strangling Hands upon a Nation’s Throat” (1897), issued a plea against the annexation of Hawai‘i. Covering an anti-annexation protest organized by the Women’s Hawaiian Patriotic League, Michelson incorporated not only Native perspectives but specifically those of Hawaiian women. She laid bare the relationship between American expansionism and racial imperialism while demonstrating how women’s issues fit within the broader rubric of human rights.
Born to Jewish immigrants, Michelson was raised in Virginia City, Nevada, and her ethno-religious difference informed her perspective. Still, it is imperative that we qualify her work as a white feminist intervention. Although she was shaped by her era’s progressive ideologies, Michelson’s language exposes her positionality as a middle-class white woman; her privilege both enabled and [End Page 305] circumscribed her activism and her encounters with people of color. Her work, I argue, should not be read and studied in spite of its limitations but because of them. Michelson’s blind spots have much to tell us about white women’s mediating roles in print culture, underscoring the “urgency of intersectionality” and the necessity of recovering American women’s writing in cross-racial contexts (Crenshaw). Her journalism and fiction about sex trafficking in Chinatown, for instance, can be read productively alongside work by Sui Sin Far, while Zitkála-Šá’s autobiographical writings fill gaps in Michelson’s representations of indigeneity.
Even as we celebrate the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment, the battles for gender equality and voting rights continue. Looking back at American women writers’ contributions to the suffrage movement is not simply a matter of honoring feminist foremothers. The process of recovering nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century literary activists also allows us to learn from the past, to find models for current coalitions in their successes while taking heed from their limitations and omissions.