Interview with Historian Elizabeth Young


On Women and Literature
Well there is really an extraordinary richness and variety to women's writing in the U.S. in the period before the Civil War. Women used literature in a variety of ways. Many of them used it to engage politically with issues of the day. The most famous example would be Harriet Beecher Stowe. Its really impossible to overstate or overestimate the influence of Uncle Tom's Cabin, her novel published in serial form. And then in 1852 on American culture really kind of transformed the world of the U.S. And Lincoln famously credited it with bringing on the Civil War. She is the most famous example but many other women writers used writing of different kinds, fiction, non-fiction, memoirs, letters, journals, journalism to be heard in the larger world. Margaret Fuller is another example, a lot of political journalism in writing on women and men, writing on gender.

African American writers enslaved and free wrote at length and very importantly about slavery. The most famous example is Harriet Jacobs slave narrative. And then just a variety of different kinds of writing, I think to push against both the limitations of their own sphere, what was called women's sphere and to try to make their opinions known and change political questions of the day. Often women's writing in the antebellum period is grouped under, is called domestic writing or sentimental writing. What is meant by that is that women writers were writing about, sometimes I think what is meant is that they are writing about the home or about home and family or about their children. Sometimes what is meant is that they were writing to try to elicit a sentimental effect, to make people cry. And I think that sometimes those designations, domestic and sentimental are used to denegrate women's writing for that period. For a long time critics ignored this writing even though, or perhaps because it was the most popular writing of the day, critics kind of put it aside and focused on a group of male writers during the time.

But what has happened more recently in the last generation of scholarship and work by feminist critics and historians especially, is that we have come to understand that domesticity and sentimentalism are often strategies that women writers use to engage with the world and to engage with political questions and to ask serious often radical questions, even though their techniques or their stories can seem conservative or can seem in some ways limited. Domesticity and sentimentalism are often, I think, very radical and powerful strategies for women writers of the time.

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