Liberalism and Feminist Political Thought In U.S. Women's Suffrage Fiction, 1856-1891

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Dorri Beam

Subject Categories

American Literature | American Studies | Arts and Humanities


Abstract The U.S. women’s suffrage movement and nineteenth-century reform fiction are both associated with the political project of inclusion. According to scholars of women’s rights advocacy, suffragists portrayed political inclusion based on the equality thesis and natural rights as a liberal ideal. And they portrayed women’s subordination as a failure to live up to this ideal. Feminist and antiracist political theorists, however, have argued that minority Americans’ subordination is not separate from but inherent in liberalism. This dissertation builds off of feminist and antiracist political theory to argue that suffragists did not simply apply the liberal egalitarian ideal to women. In the fiction they wrote, suffragists revised popular literary genres and tropes. In doing so, they also reconceptualized liberalism to be more inclusive of women. Scholarship on nineteenth-century reform literature focuses primarily on how reform fiction popularizes reformist ideas and promotes social justice by evoking emotion from readers. By reading suffrage fiction as political theory, this study argues that suffrage novels think, as well as feel, about the injustices they portray and the reforms they advocate. In chapter one, I examine how Laura Curtis Bullard revises the disobedient daughter trope, a trope commonly found in woman’s fiction, to argue that Bullard reconceptualizes liberalism’s division between the individual and the family. In Christine; Or Woman’s Trials and Triumphs (1856) granting women the right to determine their own spheres is crucial to resolving both the novel’s interpersonal conflicts and the philosophical opposition between the individual and the family that exists within liberal political thought. In chapter two, I examine how the postbellum suffrage novel Fettered for Life; Or Lord and Master. A Story of To-day (1874) continues Bullard’s project of reconceptualizing the liberal individual. In advocating for women’s freedom of choice, Bullard also advocated for women’s autonomy—that is, for women’s authority to determine and direct their lives. In sensational postbellum feminist novels, however, women’s autonomy is associated less with freedom of conscience and more with self-ownership. I examine Blake’s depiction of women’s suffering to argue that the bodies of Blake’s female characters—the bruised and battered wife, the overworked and exhausted wife, the rape victim—expose the metaphor of civil death as literal and extend liberalism’s critique of the patriarchal state to patriarchal marriage by showing the destructive and deadly effects of male authority on women’s bodies. In chapter three, I discuss Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s novel Minnie’s Sacrifice (1869). Through the Black suffragist heroine, Harper advocates for Black women’s inclusion into the body politic during a time when neither abolitionists nor white women’s rights advocates included Black women in their reform visions or efforts. Even more crucially than its advocacy for inclusion, however, is the novel’s critique of privilege as the basis for citizenship, and its imagining of new forms of inclusion and national belonging that promote gender and racial justice. In Minnie’s Sacrifice, Harper represents the Black suffragist heroine as a Moses figure for a post-slavery context to imagine liberation from, not inclusion in, existing sociopolitical hierarchies. In chapter four, I discuss Wynema: A Child of the Forest (1891) by S. Alice Callahan (Muscogee [Creek]) and “Indians Versus Women” (1891) by Anna Howard Shaw. Wynema and “Indians Versus Women” are centrally concerned with the relationship between women’s and Indians’ rights, and both texts endorse women’s suffrage and condemn the U.S. military’s violence against Lakota women and children during the Wounded Knee Massacre. Callahan’s novel offers two seemingly conflicting perspectives about U.S. citizenship. Wynema, the novel’s Muscogee (Creek) heroine, supports women’s suffrage; Wildfire, the fictional Lakota chief who refuses to surrender his weapons to the U.S. military and live on a reservation, rejects U.S. citizenship. Significantly, however, Callahan links Wynema and Wildfire without attempting to reconcile their conflicting opinions. Rather than read this unresolved tension as evidence of the text’s literary and political failure, I read it as evidence that the novel acknowledges multiple histories of women’s oppression and rejects white suffragists’ assumptions that women’s suffrage is a universally emancipatory project.


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