American women, especially white women, were bestselling novelists throughout the second half of the 19th century. Perhaps in part because of its popularity, their work was sometimes derided as sentimental, melodramatic or domestic. But women's fiction was not escapist entertainment. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Helen Hunt Jackson used fiction to increase public awareness of social injustice and elicit sympathy for the oppressed: enslaved Africans, impoverished Native Americans, the poor, and women, who - whatever their skin color - had few rights. Kate Chopin courted controversy by addressing race, class, and sexuality, all sensitive topics for the 19th century reader, and invited career-ending scandal with the adulterous protagonist of "The Awakening."
Women wrote courageous nonfiction as well. Ida Tarbell, whose pioneering work helped take down the monopoly held by Standard Oil, was an original "muckracker," a founder of investigative journalism. Jackson wrote passionately on Native issues, although almost no one read her work until she clothed her ideas in fiction. Louisa May Alcott, best known for the "Little Women" series, detailed her work as a Civil War nurse in letters home, eventually published as "Hospital Sketches." And Harriet Jacobs' "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" (addressed further in ENG 253) is a powerful memoir.
Click here: Introduction to Women's Voices: A mini-"quiz" designed to show students how few female authors have been studied in this course so far (hint: not many)
Click here: Gilman, "The Yellow Wallpaper"
Click here: Link to 2012 Article from The Guardian: "The Femininization of Madness"
Click here: Chopin, "Story of an Hour" and "Desiree's Baby" texts
Click here: Tarbell, "History of Standard Oil" text
Click here: Link to website on 19th c American women writers
Click here: Link to Alcott's Hospital Sketches
Click here: 60-second recap of "The Awakening"