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:
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.