American Culture

For Women’s History Month – books by American women that changed the world

The Yellow Wallpaper is especially important to me because I struggled greatly with depression and mental illness during four years of physical confinement within a very patriarchal marriage. Read it in full here. Also, Jane Addams is especially a hero of mine. She had so many pots boiling at once – I don’t know how she did it. I hope you will follow the link below and read more about her.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly, is an anti-slavery novel by American author Harriet Beecher Stowe. Published in 1852, the novel “helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War“, according to Will Kaufman.

Stowe, a Connecticut-born teacher at the Hartford Female Seminary and an active abolitionist, featured the character of Uncle Tom, a long-suffering black slave around whom the stories of other characters revolve. The sentimental novel depicts the reality of slavery while also asserting that Christian love can overcome something as destructive as enslavement of fellow human beings.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 19th century and the second best-selling book of that century, following the Bible. It is credited with helping fuel the abolitionist cause in the 1850s. In the first year after it was published, 300,000 copies of the book were sold in the United States; one million copies in Great Britain. In 1855, three years after it was published, it was called “the most popular novel of our day.” The impact attributed to the book is great, reinforced by a story that when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe at the start of the Civil War, Lincoln declared, “So this is the little lady who started this great war.” The quote is apocryphal; it did not appear in print until 1896, and it has been argued that “The long-term durability of Lincoln’s greeting as an anecdote in literary studies and Stowe scholarship can perhaps be explained in part by the desire among many contemporary intellectuals … to affirm the role of literature as an agent of social change.”

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Silent Spring is an environmental science book written by Rachel Carson and published by Houghton Mifflin on September 27, 1962. The book documented the detrimental effects on the environment—particularly on birds—of the indiscriminate use of pesticides. Carson accused the chemical industry of spreading disinformation and public officials of accepting industry claims unquestioningly.

In the late 1950s, Carson turned her attention to conservation, especially environmental problems that she believed were caused by synthetic pesticides. The result was Silent Spring (1962), which brought environmental concerns to the American public. Silent Spring was met with fierce opposition by chemical companies, but it spurred a reversal in national pesticide policy, led to a nationwide ban on DDT for agricultural uses, and inspired an environmental movement that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The Femininine Mystique by Betty Friedan

The Feminine Mystique is widely regarded as one of the most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century, and is widely credited with sparking the beginning of second-wave feminism in the United States. Futurist Alvin Toffler declared that it “pulled the trigger on history.” Friedan received hundreds of letters from unhappy housewives after its publication, and she herself went on to help found, and become the first president of[the National Organization for Women, an influential feminist organization.

By the year 2000, The Feminine Mystique had sold more than 3 million copies and had been translated into many foreign languages.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Yellow Wallpaper” is a 6,000-word short story by the American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, first published in January 1892 in The New England Magazine. It is regarded as an important early work of American feminist literature, illustrating attitudes in the 19th century toward women’s physical and mental health.

Presented in the first person, the story is a collection of journal entries written by a woman (Jane) whose physician husband (John) has confined her to the upstairs bedroom of a house he has rented for the summer. She is forbidden from working and has to hide her journal from him, so she can recuperate from what he calls a “temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency,” a diagnosis common to women in that period. The windows of the room are barred, and there is a gate across the top of the stairs, allowing her husband to control her access to the rest of the house.

The story depicts the effect of confinement on the narrator’s mental health and her descent into psychosis. With nothing to stimulate her, she becomes obsessed by the pattern and color of the wallpaper. “It is the strangest yellow, that wall-paper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw – not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things. But there is something else about that paper – the smell! … The only thing I can think of that it is like is the color of the paper! A yellow smell.”

In the end, she imagines there are women creeping around behind the patterns of the wallpaper and comes to believe she is one of them. She locks herself in the room, now the only place she feels safe, refusing to leave when the summer rental is up. “For outside you have to creep on the ground, and everything is green instead of yellow. But here I can creep smoothly on the floor, and my shoulder just fits in that long smooch around the wall, so I cannot lose my way….

Martha J. Cutter in her article “The Writer as Doctor: New Models of Medical Discourses in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Later Fiction” discusses how in many of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s works she addresses this “struggle in which a male-dominated medical establishment attempts to silence women” (Cutter 1). Gilman’s works challenge the social construction of women in patriarchal medical discourse by displaying women as “silent, powerless, and passive” who refuse treatment. At the time in which her works take place, between 1840 and 1890, women were exceedingly defined as lesser than—sickly and weak. In this time period it was thought that “hysteria” (a disease stereotypically more common in women) was a result of too much education. It was understood that women who spent time in college or studying were over-stimulating their brains and consequently leading themselves into states of hysteria. In fact, many of the diseases recognized in women were seen as the result of a lack of self-control or self-rule. Different physicians argued that a physician must “assume a tone of authority” and that the idea of a “cured” woman is one who is “subdued, docile, silent, and above all subject to the will and voice of the physician” (Cutter 3). A hysterical woman is one who craves power and in order for her to be treated for her hysteria, she must submit to her physician whose role is to undermine her desires. Often women were prescribed bed rest as a form of treatment, which was meant to “tame” them and basically keep them imprisoned. Treatments such as this were a way of ridding women of rebelliousness and forcing them to conform to social roles. In her works Gilman highlights that the harm caused by these types of treatments for woman i.e. “the rest cure” has to do with the way in which her voice is silenced. Paula Treichler explains “In this story diagnosis ‘is powerful and public…It is a male voice that…imposes controls on the female narrator and dictates how she is to perceive and talk about the world.’ Diagnosis covertly functions to empower the male physician’s voice and disempower the female patient’s”. The narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is not allowed to participate in her own treatment or diagnosis and is completely forced to succumb to everything in which her doctor and in this particular story, her husband, says. The male voice is the one in which forces controls on the female and decides how she is allowed to perceive and speak about the world around her.”

Twenty Years at Hull-House by Jane Addams

The Hull House was a center for research, empirical analysis, study, and debate, as well as a pragmatic center for living in and establishing good relations with the neighborhood. Residents of Hull-house conducted investigations on housing, midwifery, fatigue, tuberculosis, typhoid, garbage collection, cocaine, and truancy. Its facilities included a night school for adults, clubs for older children, a public kitchen, an art gallery, a gym, a girls’ club, a bathhouse, a book bindery, a music school, a drama group and a theater, apartments, a library, meeting rooms for discussion, clubs, an employment bureau, and a lunchroom. Her adult night school was a forerunner of the continuing education classes offered by many universities today. In addition to making available social services and cultural events for the largely immigrant population of the neighborhood, Hull House afforded an opportunity for young social workers to acquire training. Eventually, Hull House became a 13-building settlement complex, which included a playground and a summer camp (known as Bowen Country Club).

One aspect of the Hull house that was very important to Jane Addams was the Art Program. The art program at Hull house allowed Addams to challenge the system of industrialized education, which “fitted” the individual to a specific job or position. She wanted the house to provide a space, time and tools to encourage people to think independently. She saw art as the key to unlocking the diversity of the city through collective interaction, mutual self-discovery, recreation and the imagination. Art was integral to her vision of community, disrupting fixed ideas and stimulating the diversity and interaction on which a healthy society depends, based on a continual rewriting of cultural identities through variation and interculturalism….

Addams and her colleagues originally intended Hull House as a transmission device to bring the values of the college-educated high culture to the masses, including the Efficiency Movement. However, over time, the focus changed from bringing art and culture to the neighborhood (as evidenced in the construction of the Butler Building) to responding to the needs of the community by providing childcare, educational opportunities, and large meeting spaces. Hull-House became more than a proving ground for the new generation of college-educated, professional women: it also became part of the community in which it was founded, and its development reveals a shared history.

Addams called on women—especially middle class women with leisure and energy, as well as rich philanthropists—to exercise their civic duty to become involved in municipal affairs as a matter of “civic housekeeping.” Addams thereby enlarged the concept of civic duty as part of republicanism to include roles for women beyond republican motherhood (which involved child rearing). Women’s lives revolved around “responsibility, care, and obligation,” and this area represented the source of women’s power. This notion provided the foundation for the municipal or civil housekeeping role that Addams defined, and gave added weight to the women’s suffrage movement that Addams supported. Addams argued that women, as opposed to men, were trained in the delicate matters of human welfare and needed to build upon their traditional roles of housekeeping to be civic housekeepers. Enlarged housekeeping duties involved reform efforts regarding poisonous sewage, impure milk (which often carried tuberculosis), smoke-laden air, and unsafe factory conditions. Addams led the “garbage wars”; in 1894 she became the first woman appointed as sanitary inspector of Chicago’s 19th Ward. With the help of the Hull-House Women’s Club, within a year over 1000 health department violations were reported to city counsel and garbage collection reduced death and disease.

Addams had long discussions with philosopher John Dewey in which they redefined democracy in terms of pragmatism and civic activism, with an emphasis more on duty and less on rights. The two leading perspectives that distinguished Addams and her coalition from the modernizers more concerned with efficiency were the need to extend to social and economic life the democratic structures and practices that had been limited to the political sphere, as in Addams’ programmatic support of trade unions; and second, their call for a new social ethic to supplant the individualist outlook as being no longer adequate in modern society.

Addams’ construction of womanhood involved daughterhood, sexuality, wifehood, and motherhood. In both of her autobiographical volumes, Twenty Years at Hull-House (1910) and The Second Twenty Years at Hull-House (1930), Addams’s gender constructions parallel the Progressive-Era ideology she championed. In A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil (1912) she dissected the social pathology of sex slavery, prostitution and other sexual behaviors among working class women in American industrial centers during 1890-1910. Addams’s autobiographical persona manifests her ideology and supports her popularized public activist persona as the “Mother of Social Work,” in the sense that she represents herself as a celibate matron, who served the suffering immigrant masses through Hull-House, as if they were her own children. Although not a mother herself, Addams became the “mother to the nation,” identified with motherhood in the sense of protective care of her people.

Hull House enabled Addams to befriend and become a colleague to early members of the Chicago School of Sociology. Her influence, through her work in applied sociology, impacted their thoughts and their direction. In 1893, she co-authored the Hull-House Maps and Papersthat came to define the interests and methodologies of the School. She worked with George H. Mead on social reform issues including promoting women’s rights, ending child labor, and mediating during the 1910 Garment Workers’ Strike.

Addams worked with labor as well as other reform groups toward goals including the first juvenile-court law, tenement-house regulation, an eight-hour working day for women, factory inspection, and workers’ compensation. She advocated research aimed at determining the causes of poverty and crime, and supported women’s suffrage. She was a strong advocate of justice for immigrants and blacks, becoming a chartered member of the NAACP. Among the projects that the members of the Hull House opened were the Immigrants’ Protective League, the Juvenile Protective Association, the first juvenile court in the United States, and a Juvenile Psychopathic Clinic.

Addams’ writings and speeches, on behalf of the formation of the League of Nations and as peace advocate, influenced the later shape of the United Nations.

Woman in the Nineteenth Century by Margaret Fuller

Woman in the Nineteenth Century is a book by American journalist, editor, and women’s rights advocate Margaret Fuller. Originally published in July 1843 in The Dial magazine as “The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men. Woman versus Women”, it was later expanded and republished in book form in 1845.

The basis for Fuller’s essay is the idea that man will rightfully inherit the earth when he becomes an elevated being, understanding of divine love. There have been periods in time when the world was more awake to this love, but people are sleeping now; however, everyone has the power to become enlightened. Man cannot now find perfection because he is still burdened with selfish desires, but Fuller is optimistic and says that we are on the verge of a new awakening. She claims that in the past man, like Orpheus for Eurydice, has always called out for woman, but soon will come the time when women will call for men, when they will be equals and share divine love.

America has been hindered from reaching equality because it inherited depravity from Europe, hence its treatment of Native and African Americans. Fuller quotes the ancient Medes on how all people are equal and bound to each other; those who infringe on others’ rights are condemned, but the biggest sin is hypocrisy. Man needs to practice divine love as well as feel it. Among those who practice it are the abolitionists because they act on their love of humanity; many women are part of this group.

Fuller then begins to examine men and women in America. She observes that many people think that in marriage, man is the head of the house and woman the heart. Problems with the law derive from the problem of women being viewed as inferiors, equal to children but not men. The truth is that women need expansion and seek to be like men; they need to be taught self-dependence. The idea that equality between men and women would bring divinity to new heights because it would help fulfill the lives of both men and women is reinforced by looking at historical evidence where men and women were equally divine, including Christianity with its male and female saints. Women, Fuller says, need not poetry or power to be happy, which they now have access to, but rather intellectual and religious freedom equal to men’s.

The transition of marriage in earlier times as that of convenience into a union of equal souls is discussed in relation to four types of marriage, which Fuller ranks in ascending order. The first type, the household partnership, is merely convenience and mutual dependence. The man provides for the house, the woman tends to it. The second type is mutual idolatry where the man and woman find in the other all perfection to the exclusion of the rest of the world. The intellectual companionship is the next highest form of marriage. In this, man and woman are friends, confidants in thought and feeling with a mutual trust, but rarely love. Above all of these forms is the highest marriage, the religious union. It envelopes the other three to include mutual dependence, idolatry, and respect. The man and woman find themselves as equals on a “pilgrimage towards a common shrine.” Fuller also makes brief mention of the life of “old maids”, often looked down upon because they are not married, but she says that they have the opportunity for close communion with the divine which married people do not have to that extent.

Fuller then looks at the differences between men and women in order to enforce that women need their intellectual and spiritual resources strengthened. She says that the souls of men and women are the same, even with differences in masculinity and femininity. The differences are not between men and women, though, for both have masculine and feminine energies, but are between individuals: “There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.”

The conclusion of the essay is that before a true union can occur, each person must be an individual and self-dependent unit. For women to become such individuals, men need to remove their dominating influence, but women also need to claim themselves as self-dependent and remove themselves from man’s influence. Fuller ends looking forward and making a call for the woman who will teach women to be individuals….

There are many transcendentalist ideas expressed in the essay based on Fuller’s strong dedication to transcendentalism. One of the main ideas is the cultivation of the individual, which to Fuller included women as well as men. The essay applies the idea of the individual to the enlightenment of all mankind: allowing women as individuals to have greater spiritual and intellectual freedom will advance the enlightenment of both men and women and, therefore, all of mankind.

“The Great Lawsuit” also makes reference to the abolitionist movement. Women’s lack of freedom is paralleled to that of the slaves, one that was actively fought against by many people in the North, men as well as women. In doing this, Fuller is calling upon men’s compassion for the slave to be applied to women as well, and for women to expand their energy fighting for slaves’ freedom to their own.

The essay includes many allusions to other works in literature, history, politics, religion, and philosophy in order to demonstrate to the reader that she was qualified to write the work in an age when women were not allowed a college education. The work reflects her life, for she was very active in politics when women were still expected to devote themselves entirely to their family. Fuller identified with the PolishLithuanian nationalist Emilia Plater, a woman who raised a regiment against the Russians.

 

 

 

4 replies »

  1. By the bye, numerous works of the above can be found at Project Gutenberg, for those who live on their eReaders.

    Charlotte Perkins Gilman (including “Yellow Wallpaper”): http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/author/27

    Margaret Fuller (Including “Woman in the 19th Century”): http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/author/2829

    Jane Addams (including “Twenty Years at Hull House”): http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/author/602

    Harriet Beecher Stowe (including “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”): http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/author/115