Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Out of the Archive: "What Shall the Girls Do?"

I recently put the finishing touches on a paper I'll be delivering at the Annual Meeting of the OAH (Organization of American Historians) later this month. It's based on a side project of mine on women in the lyceum lecture circuit. Because I can't get every delightful piece of research into a 20 minute paper, I thought I'd share one of my favorites with you: 

In April 1869, an anonymous letter to Elizabeth Cady Stanton appeared in The Revolution, the publication of the National Woman’s Suffrage Association, titled “What Shall the Girls Do?” The writer identified herself as part of “a class of girls in America” who “belong to the higher rank in life, but…are not obliged to do anything, but they feel a certain necessity for an outlet and a desire to accomplish something toward their own maintenance.” Accomplished in “history, elocution, meta-physics” as well as French and the pianoforte, our writer had dabbled in writing but exhausted her paltry “store of plots” producing “trashy affairs.” She tried to go upon the stage, but was “whisked off into the rural districts” where her “cherished dreams of spell-bound audiences and world-wide renown vanished.” And now, she longed for something more--stimulating.  "I believe in woman's home duties," she assured Stanton, "but they satisfying neither my intelligence nor my soul." What was a girl to do?

Stanton's response was empathetic but measured.  She urged “patience, perseverance, and pluck," cautioning that "every road to glory has its thorns and briars and puzzling labyrinths." Sound advice for any era!  

One of the things that delights me about this source is how well it speaks both to its own historical moment yet still echoes down to the frustrations of many an ambitious and impatient American girl--or boy. Our writer doesn't want to tour the rural districts unknown and unsung; she wants to be a star or bust! How many times have we felt that singular impatience, that desire for instant rewards and renown?  She's young, she has everything she thinks she could need to be a success, but where to put her energies to "cash in"? (In this case, I think the writer's impatience is also as sign of her comparative class privilege.  This girl of "higher rank" wants something more, but she wants it now and in its best possible form.)  
But this letter also reflects the particular struggles of a generation of girls coming of age in a very different postbellum world.  In the 1860s, educated middle class women began to push into white collar professions.  Our anonymous writer captures the frustrations of a class of women who were increasingly well educated but unsure of where that might lead.  In this case, the only possible careers this writer could imagine were writing or acting.*  "Perhaps you will tell me to give music lessons," she wrote.  Please don't!  She had had more than enough of that.  

Source: The Revolution 29 April 1869.

*I also find it remarkable that a girl of her upbringing would pursue acting as a career, but this clearly reflects changing perceptions of the theater among the new middle class of the 1860s and 70s (as well as changes that had been taking shape in theater since the 1850s, but that is something you'll just have to read about in my book!).  In short, the longstanding association of acting with immorality, as a profession suitable only for people from acting families who were themselves beyond the pale of polite society, and the view of the theater itself as a morally dangerous place was gradually passing away.

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