This column by American studies professor Ben Railton explores the connections between America’s past and present.
Relationships between men and women have dominated our national headlines and conversations for the last few weeks. We’re collectively debating questions of whether “boys will be boys” and what constitutes predatory behavior and sexual assault, and whether girls and women who testify to their experiences are vulnerable victims or manipulative “con” artists. In an extension of the #MeToo moment, we’re engaging with narratives of sex and agency, of ideals and realities of gender and relationships, and of whether and how women can escape or transcend all of these limiting images through their own voice.
While much about this moment feels strikingly new, these debates have been part of America since our founding era. Indeed, two of our first bestselling novels helped construct some of the first such images in popular culture, in two very different ways that parallel more and less sympathetic narratives of women, but ultimately portray them as powerless victims.
British-American writer Susanna (Haswell) Rowson published more than twenty books in the course of her prolific career, but it was Charlotte: A Tale of Truth (1791), that would become the bestselling early American novel. Despite its telling subtitle (partly an attempt to avoid the era’s critiques of fiction as immoral), Charlotte was not based on any one historical figure or story; instead, Rowson built on various contemporary images of sex and seduction to create her portrayal of a beautiful, naive 15-year old girl who was tragically used, abandoned, and destroyed by a predatory man and his privileged allies.
Charlotte’s world features a clear-cut vision of right and wrong, good and evil. From the first moment he sees the innocent Charlotte, the villainous English soldier Montraville sets out to seduce her, with the help of his equally predatory friend Belcour and Charlotte’s elitist teacher Mademoiselle La Rue. Their plot requires them to bring Charlotte to the United States, seemingly a more lawless space where Montraville can get Charlotte pregnant and then abandon her to her fate. That fate includes not just single motherhood and poverty but also defamation, shame, and eventually death, as Charlotte’s introduction to the world of romance and sex entirely destroys her. She is entirely passive but a thoroughgoing victim, not just of one predatory man but of an entire social order (Mademoiselle La Rue is particularly heartless in her consistent refusals to aid Charlotte). Rowson’s amplified the era’s narratives of young women as innocent, even angelic creatures located apart from adult society’s realities and vices, an impossible position for adult women to occupy comfortably.
Another early bestselling novel, Hannah Webster Foster’s anonymously published The Coquette; or, The History of Eliza Wharton (1797), offers a very distinct and much more critical (if certainly still nuanced) depiction of women and sex. Foster’s titular protagonist was based closely on the prominent and scandalous story of Elizabeth Whitman (1752-1788), a Connecticut socialite who was known for her flirtations with various social and literary figures and who, at the age of 36, died after giving birth in a Massachusetts tavern to a stillborn, illegitimate child. As stories of Whitman’s “disappointment” and death circulated throughout New England, minsters and other public figures used it as the occasion for moral lectures about sex and romance, and out of those narratives Foster created her “Novel, Founded on Fact.”
The Coquette creates its story out of letters between its main characters and others in their lives, and as such it does offer a multi-layered perspective and portrayal of its fictional version of Elizabeth Whitman. But while Foster’s Eliza Wharton is still in some ways the victim of a predatory seducer, the immoral Major Peter Sanford, she is also far more of a manipulative contributor to her own tragic fate: Wharton turns down the honest and dedicated affections of Reverend J. Boyer in favor of Sanford’s flirtations. When Sanford eventually leaves her to marry another woman, Wharton continues her affair with him nonetheless, and it is that adulterous relationship that produces the unmarried pregnancy that leads to Wharton’s shame and death. While Wharton is thus likewise destroyed by romance and sex, her “coquettish” personality and desires have made her a more active participant in that arc; in Foster’s narrative, women’s sexuality is at least in part a dangerous thing, one that links them to predatory men and scandalous ends. Since adult women could never quite remain the angelic figures illustrated by Rowson’s Charlotte, such narratives of their fallen and threatening nature became central parts of the period’s images as well.
If Charlotte Temple and Eliza Wharton thus exemplify two distinct but similarly limiting images of women, Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820), another prominent 1790s writer and activist, modeled an alternative to both, one featuring far more agency for women’s voices. Judith Sargent’s early adult life seemed destined to follow a tragic path similar to those fictional stories. Born and raised in Gloucester, Massachusetts, Sargent married local ship captain John Stevens when she was only 18 years old. Stevens would spend the next decades accruing substantial debt, and when he abandoned Sargent to escape debtors’ prison (he died in the West Indies in 1786), she was left both a single mother to their daughter and solely responsible for her husband’s debt. Yet she had already begun to write and publish groundbreaking journalism, essays, and poems. Through those works and her progressive social ideas she connected with the Unitarian Universalist Reverend John Murray, who in 1788 would become her second husband and a lifelong partner.
Judith Sargent Murray published many significant works throughout the 1790s and beyond, with the three-volume collection The Gleaner (1798) representing a career highlight. But it was one of Murray’s first published works, the poem and essay “On the Equality of the Sexes” (1790), that offers with striking clarity an alternative and empowering vision of women’s voices. In the short opening poem, Murray reflects on how narratives of women have limited and oppressed their identities, writing, “But imbecility is still confin’d,/And by the lordly sex to us consign’d;/They rob us of the power to improve,/And then declare we only trifles love.” Yet in the essay that follows, and in every part of her career and life, Murray embodies the limitless possibilities of women to challenge and transcend such images, express their voices, and contribute to every aspect of their community and society.
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