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BIZZELL, Patricia

FALL 2010, 40:4, pages 385 - 401

Chastity Warrants for Women Public Speakers in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction

Abstract: Accusations of sexual impropriety have been used against women public speakers at least since the Renaissance. Nineteenth-century America was no exception. In constructing public personae that worked with prevailing gender ideologies, women tried to preserve the appearance of sexual purity. This concern for chastity carried over into fictional representations of women public speakers. While some authors depicted such figures negatively, the three examined here--Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Louisa May Alcott, and Frances E. W. Harper--all defended the woman public speaker by providing warrants within the narrative structure for her chastity and by giving her a public mission that was appropriately feminine. These women authors also provided a utopian moment in their narratives in which the social benefits of allowing their protagonists to speak in public are dramatized. Studying the literary representations of women speakers, in any era, helps to illuminate the cultural milieu in which such women made their way.

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