- Laura Curtis Bullard and Women’s Rights Literature
Laura Curtis Bullard’s 1856 novel Christine: or Woman’s Trials and Triumphs is both a work of fiction and a metanarrative about the cultural work of women’s writing in the women’s rights movement. Like Curtis Bullard herself, the novel’s protagonist, Christine, first uses fiction and later employs the essay as vehicles to advocate for women’s sexual, legal, marital, and political self-determination. Christine proposes the novel as “a form that will bring my words to all”; “I will write! I can write—I am sure of it—words that will reach the hearts of men, and find an echo there!” (139, 138). When she later becomes a famous women’s rights speaker, Christine uses the essay form to achieve similar ends, just as Curtis Bullard would do after succeeding Elizabeth Cady Stanton as editor of The Revolution in 1870. In entering her story to assert the power of her own writing and the cultural influence of fiction, Curtis Bullard offers a reminder to suffrage scholars: in this centennial year, as we assess the history of woman suffrage, we need to include its literary history. Fiction, essays, poetry, and other writing by women have always been as central to the movement as petitions and parades.
Curtis Bullard is one of the many writers and editors in the suffrage movement who deserve further study. Her literary and other advocacy work, which spans the antebellum and postbellum periods, illustrates the matrix of causes that suffrage engaged, including marriage and divorce reforms. Christine, for example, foregrounds the franchise with its heroine, a public speaker (drawn sympathetically in opposition to typical representations by the popular press) who uses her platform to argue for “universal suffrage” (280). This term denoted voting rights for women and men regardless of race, ethnicity, or class; like so many other white women writers, however, Curtis Bullard focuses on the stories of white northern women, failing to address the lives of African Americans and ignoring the racial politics of suffrage and equality in antebellum America. The novel’s subplots gesture outward from its suffrage argument, dramatizing the four types of marriage identified by Margaret Fuller as prevailing in the nineteenth century, along with women’s need for legal rights relating to custody, property, and divorce. As editor of The Revolution, Curtis Bullard continued this broad approach to women’s rights; believing suffrage was not [End Page 307] imminent, she emphasized marriage reform along with the ballot. She contextualized this effort broadly when she changed the paper’s motto to “What therefore God hath joined together let not man put asunder,” arguing that God created men and women as equals, but women have been denied equal opportunities for education and careers (“The Motto” 168). She later asserted that women wanted the freedom to divorce as much as the freedom to vote (“A Change” 300), an argument that was blamed for the failure of an attempt to reunite the National and American Woman Suffrage Associations (Higginson). Her editorials likely made her more vulnerable to false accusations in the New York press that she had eloped to Europe with Theodore Tilton, even though her letters show she was in love with the suffrage leader Anna Dickinson. Debates over women’s suffrage were inextricably tied to fears of female agency and desire. Attending to the work of Curtis Bullard and others who advocated for suffrage in print—that is, considering the literary history of women’s suffrage—illuminates these dimensions of suffrage history and clarifies how such issues still shape our political discourse today.