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
Popular conceptions of women’s literature before the First World War typically derive from works like Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women that revere home, family, and moral values. And yet, domestic fiction only represents one strand of early American women’s writing. Alcott, for example, wrote in multiple genres – including gothic murder mysteries and travel journalism – and tackled the most controversial issues of her day, from the Civil War and abolition to postbellum struggles for racial justice, organized labor, and women’s rights.
And Alcott was far from alone. In this exhibition you will discover a diverse representation of literary styles, formats, and topics and encounter women writers from all walks of life. You will find narratives of travel both at home and abroad, arguments for and against slavery, a tale of wartime cross-dressing adventure, popular bestsellers as well as priceless rare books, suffrage poems and anti-suffrage essays, and a treatise on black women’s intellectual power. You will also find plenty of literary and non-literary works focusing on domestic matters – childrearing manuals and cookbooks, marriage plots, and sentimental verse about the various joys and sorrows of true womanhood. But here, too, the picture is more complicated than you might expect. For every story with a happy ending, you will find others with unhappy or at least unconventional outcomes. For every paean to domestic ideology, you will find other works offering sharp rebuttals. Among them, Harriet Jacobs reveals how slavery perverts conventional notions of girlhood and motherhood – for slaves and slaveholders alike; Charlotte Perkins Gilman argues that the home was anything but a haven; and Kate Chopin aligns childbirth with the death of female artistry.
In addition to numerous rare books and manuscripts from the Hollings Library, this exhibition features items from the South Caroliniana Library along with an extensive collection of artifacts from the McKissick Museum selected to complement the stories told by the texts on display and to further complicate conventional notions of U.S. women’s rich and diverse accomplishments before World War I.
– Katherine Adams, Associate Professor of English, Women’s and Gender Studies and Cynthia Davis, Professor of English, Co-curators.