Finding Women’s Ambition in 19th-century American Literature

(Roundtable)


American / Women's and Gender Studies

Kristin Lacey (Boston University)

Separate spheres ideology—the assumption that women managed the domestic sphere, while men worked in the public sphere of the marketplace—reigned in scholarship about 19th-century American literature for decades. Because we commonly associate ambition with careerism and the marketplace, authors’ figurations of ambitious women remain largely overlooked. Notable exceptions include Fanny Fern’s semi-autobiographical mid-century novel Ruth Hall (1854), whose eponymous protagonist breaks into the writerly marketplace, and Edith Wharton’s undeniably ambitious female characters at the turn of the 20th century, most notably Undine Spragg, who stops at nothing to achieve the social position she craves. But what about the other women who populate the 19th-century imagination? This roundtable will explore 19th-century manifestations of women’s ambition—within the home, in artistry, in the marketplace, in society. In what narratives are female characters more covertly ambitious than Ruth Hall or Undine Spragg? How do female writers, in particular, convey their approval of or disdain for ambitious women? How does female ambition transform amid the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the rise of capitalism? How is ambition gendered and moralized? How does an author’s gender affect their depiction of women’s ambitions? How can thinking about women’s ambition in the home, the workplace, or liminal spaces contribute to the ongoing complication of separate spheres ideology? How do intersections of race, age, ability, and/or class impact authors’ representations of ambition?

This roundtable will explore 19th-century manifestations of women’s ambition—within the home, in artistry, in the marketplace, in society. What does ambition look like in different historical periods, regions, or genres? How is ambition gendered and moralized? How does an author’s gender affect their depiction of women’s ambitions? How can thinking about women’s ambition (whether in the home, the workplace, or liminal spaces) contribute to the ongoing complication of separate spheres ideology?