Beyond Domesticity: U.S. Women Writers, 1770-1915


Introduction l True Womanhood l New Women l Growing Up Female l Political Women l Suffrage l Abolition l Women and War l Work Outside the Home l Cookery and Fancy-Work l Work Inside the Home l Mothering l Marriage l Marriage and Divorce l Regionalism l Travel l Bestsellers l Highlights l English 437: Students Research Rare Books


New Women

"Joyous Expansion"


In many respects, the late-nineteenth-century celebration of the New Woman represented a turn away from the cult of true womanhood. Higher education, professional employment, political involvement, and athletics were among the areas into which women now demanded entrance. Instead of selflessness they pursued self-development, individuality, and independence. Unsurprisingly, many Americans greeted this new style of femininity with anxiety and disapproval, predicting a general disintegration of home life and national prosperity. However, as black clubwoman Dora Cole argued, the New Woman was really just like the old one – but with an added element of “joyous expansion”: 

“It has become a necessity for her to find an outlet for all this energy, hence her interest in church and state, in all that is on the earth or in the waters under the earth. Look in the home, is she not a more intelligent companion, a wiser, more judicious mother, a more stimulating and sympathetic friend?”

“Unwholesome in its influence”

Kate Chopin, 1850-1904.

The Awakening.
Chicago & New York: Herbert S. Stone & Company, 1899.
Joel Myerson Collection of Nineteenth Century American Literature.
the awakening
As this judgment from an early review in the L.A. Times indicates, many Americans weren’t ready for The Awakening when it was first published. Featuring a protagonist, Edna Pontellier, who commits suicide rather than sacrifice her artistic ambition to the obligations of motherhood, Chopin’s novel struck a rather sensitive nerve. It was years before her literary reputation recovered from the backlash.




Ella Wheeler Wilcox, 1850-1919.

Poems of Passion.
Chicago, New York, and San Francisco: Belford,
Clarke & Co., Publishers, 1888.
ella wheeler wilcox
Wilcox published more than twenty volumes of poetry during her lifetime. This was her most successful. Her writing was popular among proponents of New Thought – a movement based upon faith in the power of positive thinking to overcome material limitations. As this poem suggests, Wilcox also believed in more liberal attitudes toward women’s sexuality and flirted with the Free Love movement.

ella wheeler wilcox



“She was in the library when Mary Church Terrell was picketing the drugstores and cafeterias in downtown Washington, D.C.”

Anna Julia Cooper, 1858-1964.

A Voice From the South: By a Black Woman of the South.
Xenia, Ohio: The Aldine Printing House, 1892.
Purchased with funds from the Treasures Acquisitions Program.

Born into slavery in Raleigh, North Carolina, Cooper went on to become the fourth black American woman to earn a Ph.D. and was an important advocate for women’s education. Cooper was highly critical of male leaders who expected black women to sacrifice themselves to the “greater good” of racial justice. She also reproached white feminists who asked black women to prioritize gender equality over racial equality. Cooper argued that black women should be included – as black women – in both the work and the rewards of reform.


“Lifting as We Climb” – motto of the National Association of Colored Women

G.F. Richings.

Evidences of Progress Among Colored People.
Philadelphia: George S. Ferguson Company, 1902.
Ownership inscription of Pauline E. Hopkins (1859-1930) as editor of The Colored American Magazine, ca. 1901-1905.

Gertrude Mossell and Alice Ruth Moore, pictured here (the latter soon to become famous as a writer of New Orleans regionalist fiction under her married name, Alice Dunbar Nelson), were both prominent black clubwomen. Nationally networked and increasingly powerful in a variety of cultural contexts – including the temperance and anti-lynching crusades – women’s clubs played a vital role in the emergence of new womanhood in the latter half of the nineteenth century. White racism kept the movements racially segregated at the national level. But in places like Boston, club members enjoyed quite a lot of inter-racial support and collaboration.

Dedicated to all young women in search of careers or titled husbands

Kate Field, 1838-1896.

Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1873.
From the library of Alfred Chapin Rogers.

Field was the very archetype of new womanhood – highly educated, politically involved, privileged, ambitious…and a bit directionless. She pursued at various points of her life careers in acting, reform, and journalism. Hap-Hazard is one of her travel guides, written to help women navigate France, Britain, and Germany. A reviewer from The Nation deemed her views on French manners and British politics “as likely to be right as wrong” but found himself in reluctant agreement with her condemnation of “indiscriminate expectoration.”





"Slow advancing, halting, creeping”

Charlotte Perkins Stetson, 1860-1935.

charlotte perkins stetsonShe Walketh Veiled and Sleeping
in In This Our World.
Boston: Small, Maynard & Company, 1899.
“The Yellow Wallpaper.”
in The New England Magazine, January 1892.
Boston: Potter & Potter, 1892.

She Walketh Veiled and Sleeping” was read aloud at suffrage rallies. Its vision of new womanhood as a condition of simultaneous yearning and exaltation made Stetson an icon of the woman’s movement. But it is the short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" for which she is best known. Its damning autobiographical account of post partum depression and the so-called “rest cure” changed medical practice and challenged cultural assumptions about motherhood, women’s intellectual capacity, and marital dynamics.

Photograph, ca. 1880-1900.

Collection of McKissick Museum, Gift of Mrs. Frances Dwight.

The generation of middle and upper class women coming of age in the late nineteenth century enjoyed opportunities previously unavailable to women. More women attended secondary school and college than ever before. Educated women were introspective and concerned with society’s problems. Whether as career women or housewives, these “new women” crusaded for social change.

Next Page: Growing Up Female


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