By Gabrielle Fearon
The “Woman Question” was a controversial nineteenth century debate about the role of women in society, debating the position women held in politics and culture versus their traditional role. This is illustrated in works of literature and journalism by Harriet Beecher Stowe. In Stowe’s article, “The Woman Question” (1869), she describes the lack of freedoms women have and advises readers to address women’s rights. However, Stowe later seems to depart from this position, as seen in her novel, My Wife and I: or the Harry Henderson’s Story, specifically in Chapter 25 — “A Discussion of the Woman Question from All Points,” where the characters argue against the Women’s Rights Movement. This stance is rivaled by a progressive one of the same era, a short story called “The New England Nun,” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. Freeman’s story sides with women’s rights, a position that eventually wins and leads to women’s rights being granted.
Notably, the Women’s Rights Movement and its participants challenged and demanded the right for women to vote. Nonetheless, critics presented themselves. My Wife and I: or the Harry Henderson’s Story, Chapter 25 “A Discussion of the Woman Question from All Points” primarily relayed the naysayers’ viewpoint through the characters: Ida, Mr. Van Arsdel, Mr. Henderson, and Eva. Their conversation on the matter begins after Mr. Van Arsdel is “badgered” into purchasing Miss Audacia Dangereyes’s paper. Her aggressive conduct astonishes him because it lacks decorum and refinement, which women, in those times, should always possess. Mr. Henderson refers to her as a “female bully” because he has never experienced that sort of behavior from a woman and believes it may occur again (Ch 25). These choice words showcase the opinions held against the Women’s Rights Movement. All in all, it is corrupting women by making them coarse as shown by Audacia Dangereyes’ conduct. Therefore, it will do harm to society. For Mr. Van Arsdel states, “the influence of […Audacia] on young men would be demoralizing” (Ch 25). A corrupt woman will infect and spread corruption. The whole state will be in disarray if women are allowed to vote.
If there were a fitness test for who could participate in the state, women would not pass because they are innately weaker than men and cannot handle the complexity of political affairs. Women are unreasonable and hysterical because they live in an “imaginary” world (Ch 25). They are not governed by common sense and this characteristic is crucial in voting and composing legislation. The progressive proxy, Ida, stipulates that even with the same social and legal rights, women are still weaker than men (Ch 25). On that note, Mr. Van Arsdel elaborates by listing how women are inept. First, he suggests that women do not possess the ability to be “hard” and “sharp” like men (Ch 25). Grimy state matters need this sort of candidate and women are simply too soft. Second, women who run for office will be “mauled, pummeled, and covered by dirt” (Ch 25). If a woman is willing to take on and win a race, then it reveals that her character does not align with societal expectations of decorum and refinement; hence, she should not be a government official. Mr Henderson adds that once women lose these qualities, then “ the quagmire of politics, foul enough now, will become putrid” (Ch 25). Granting women the right to vote will permit them into a landscape they are unqualified for and will soil the fabric of American politics.
If women are granted the right to vote, the worst case scenario is war and mischief. This idea is mentioned by multiple characters. They perceive a woman’s right to vote as the match that is going to set everything ablaze. Mr. Henderson thinks society will revert to its “mere animal basis” (Ch 25). Before there were laws and institutions, this will be done away with as exemplified in Audacia’s conduct. Ida views Audacia’s paper as a gauge for “war” and “mischief,” and she believes that “disagreeable” times will arise if someone similar to Audacia could vote, become an elected official, and participate in legislation (Ch 25). She even turns her focus to the entire Movement. It is an “excrescence” and “diseased growth” of the progressive party (Ch 25). Additionally, the Movement will result in the “immediate dissolution of civilized society” (Ch 25). Society will suffer if it grants women the liberty to advocate for themselves through the legislative process. Furthermore, it is not a necessity because it injures women trying to become independent, and they do not need politics to contribute their voice (Ch 25). All ln all, women do not need to vote simply because it is not a necessity and it will create disorder.
For women to become voters, society needs to evolve. This idea is introduced by Ida. She suggests that women will earn the right to vote once there is a “…generation with superior education and better balanced minds and better habits of consecutive thought [… and all around a] superior culture and education” (Ch 25). Altogether, society needs to mature before they can take women seriously as voters. But, society is not the only thing that needs to evolve, it is women as well. They need an education. Female intuition is not enough. This argument was proposed in support of women’s suffrage. But, Mr. Van Arsdel believes it is not enough to run a country, and Mr. Henderson believes that women cannot learn how to quickly govern by it, but Ida lays out that women must be willing to wait and come into rights because it takes time to prepare for the ballot (Ch 25). During the nineteenth century, women were simply not educated enough for voting and elected office.
Since these comments sprouted from the abrasive Audacia Dangereyes’ encounter, where is her opinion in all of this? Her perspective is left out. Purposely or not, her position is viewed as radical. It is clearly laid forth as we first examine her name. Audacia closely resembles audacious and Dangereyes sharply sounds like danger. Put these two together and it screams “beware of such a person, especially one that represents the Women’s Rights Movement,” to readers. My Wife and I: or the Harry Henderson’s Story, Chapter 25 “A Discussion of the Woman Question from All Points” does not fully encapsulate all the views on woman suffrage and moreover female liberation. Instead, it aims to demonstrate how inadequate women are for the ballot. Admittedly, Ida is correct in her description of Audacia Dangereyes, which is an “amphibious animal, belonging to a transition period of human society” (Ch 25). Society is gearing up to see a transition of women from the docile housewife to a functioning member of society that works, votes, and pays taxes.
An independent woman is self-sufficient. A prime example is Louisa Ellis from the short story, “The New England Nun” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, which demonstrates female independence. With the departure of her fiancé, Joe Dagget, Louisa leisurely enjoys sewing, cleaning, and baking, which are “very much part of her personality” (Freeman 439). These routines established a content and perfect life while she waited fourteen years for him. However, she has settled into that independence for “Louisa’s feet had turned into a path, smooth maybe under a calm, serene sky, but so straight and unswerving that it could only meet a check at her grave, and so narrow that there was no room for any one at her side” (442). There is no room for Mr. Dagget in her peaceful, solitary life. Her dog, canary, and hobbies fulfill it. His return disrupts her freedom because she will have to put aside those hobbies and assume wifely duties.
The return has an adverse effect on Louisa as exhibited in her behavior and thoughts in regards to her impending life with Mr. Dagget. Whenever he visits, his presence “…seem[s] to fill up the whole room” (440). There is no space for her. Her discomfort is clearly expressed in her body language. At the breakfast table, across from Mr. Dagget, she “kept eying him with mild uneasiness. Finally she rose and changed the position of the books, putting the album underneath. That was the way they had been arranged in the first place” (440). His overbearingness disrupts her space. He is clumsy, and she is neat. Louisa cannot operate around him because as soon as he leaves her home, she “…got a dust-pan and brush, and swept Joe Dagget’s track carefully” (441). She removes his existence. But with the upcoming wedding, she is trapped, which is carefully illustrated through the canary. Every time he appears, the bird awakes and “…flutter[s] wildly, beating his little yellow wings against the wires” (440). Its fearful reaction is similar to Louisa’s premonitions. She “repudiated them as indelicate, of course masculine belongings strewn about in endless litter; of dust and disorder arising necessarily from coarse masculine presence in the midst of delicate harmony” (443). She is living a nightmare that she cannot seem to escape. The undertone of fear continues when Mr. Dagget suggests releasing the dog, but Louisa “looked at the old dog and munching his simple fare, and thought of her approaching marriage and trembled” (444). The dog represents Louisa’s sexual fear. She is a virgin, and Dagget’s departure locks up that fear, but it is released with the upcoming nuptials.
Louisa escapes and regains her freedom. After she learns of Dagget’s romantic encounter with Lily Drier, Louisa realizes that “[she] had never known that she had any diplomacy in her, but when she came to look for it that night she found it, although meek of its kind, among her little feminine weapons” (446). She calls off the engagement. Louisa would much rather be free to do as she desires. Making this decision made her feel like “… a queen who, after fearing for lest her domain be wrested away from her, sees it firmly insured in her possession” (446). She no longer has to fear sex and she can sew all day while maintaining an orderly abode. For this reality, Louisa is thankful and will spend the rest of her days as an “uncloistered nun” (446). Because, she has ripped off the shackles of matrimony and servitude, which in part has granted her independence. This happily ever after feeling is comparatively the same as white male privilege.
Independence is a superpower that some take advantage or abuse. The impact of My Wife and I: or the Harry Henderson’s Story, Chapter 25 “A Discussion of the Woman Question from All Points” by Harriet Beecher Stowe and “The New England Nun” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman is tremendous. One argued for female confinement and the other demonstrated their freedom. Interestingly enough, which one won? For the most part, the consensus is the “Woman Question” has been addressed and Freeman’s point of view prevailed over Stowe’s— women are free. However, has the issue really been settled? There are arranged marriages, the sex trade, and unsolved kidnappings of black females in the United States. These instances and more urgently and diligently need to be addressed. The “Woman Question” needs to be redefined and expanded to incorporate those currently in need.
Beecher Stowe, Harriet. “Chapter 25 ‘A Discussion of the Woman Question from All Points.’” My Wife and I; or Harry Henderson’s Story, J.B. Ford and Company, 1876. The Project Gutenberg EBook, 2015. np.
Beecher Stowe, Harriet. “The Woman Question.” Hearth and Home, 7 Aug. 1869.
Wilkins Freeman, Mary E. “The New England Nun.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, vol. 2. Robert Levine ed. New York: Norton, 2017. 439–446. Print.
Course: ENG 222 American Literature II, Spring 2020
Assignment: Literary Analysis
Instructor: Jeff Partridge
Instructor comments: Gabby Fearon makes a strong argument in this essay for ENG 222 American Literature II, showing that Stowe’s chapter on “All Points” regarding women’s rights is hardly on all points at all. She left out the radical argument of the day for women’s rights, which Gabby supplies in her skillful discussion of Freeman’s story “The New England Nun.” What I most admire about Gabby’s writing in this essay is the way she gathers textual evidence to support her argument and patiently walks the reader through it. The essay is lively in its argument and skillful in its execution.
Photo credit: “Nation Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies” by Thomas Hawk. Licensed through Creative Commons.