American Women Writers and Nineteenth-Century Social Reform

Caroline Woidat
State University of New York—Geneseo

Before the addition of Sincerity to Just Teach One, the syllabus for my upper-level undergraduate course on American women writers and nineteenth-century reform had always started with either Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple or Hannah Foster’s The Coquette as a means of introducing Republican era concerns and debates before our exploration of such topics as temperance, slavery, Indian removal, education, labor, immigration, health care, and women’s rights. As an alternative selection to Charlotte Temple, Rowson’s Sincerity presented new challenges to students thinking about the relationship between literature and social reform. Whereas Charlotte’s transatlantic passage juxtaposes her English and American identities, the action in Sincerity spans the American Revolution but appears isolated from it. Given its European setting and the characters’ seeming indifference to affairs on the other side of the Atlantic, how might we read Sincerity as an American novel concerned with social reform in the United States? Students examined Sarah’s conflict with European values and traditions, weighing the significance of her flight from England to Ireland, for example, and her fraught relationship to the Marquis of H—. Drawing from critical approaches to other early American novels, we asked whether Sincerity might construct a national allegory with Sarah’s struggle to survive and maintain her ideals while bound to unreliable “protectors.” Many of the issues that Sarah faces, of course, are ones that concerned early advocates of women’s rights—the moral double standard for women and men, the obstacles to women’s employment and economic independence, the pressure upon women to marry at all costs, etc. We explored these connections using the database/journal Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000, a collection of document projects with primary sources edited and introduced by historians. Students compared Sincerity to other works by Rowson and her contemporaries in Bonnie Laughlin Schultz’s document project How Did Susanna Rowson and Other Reformers Promote Higher Education as an Antidote to Women’s Sexual Vulnerability, 1780-1820? A presentation group selected documents of interest and led discussion of their relevance to Sincerity, focusing upon Rowson’s role as an educator and writer of textbooks, and the novel’s portrayal of Sarah’s own efforts to “teach” herself and others. Students found Sincerity less didactic than Charlotte Temple, in part because of the ambiguity created by the novel’s multivocal epistolarity—a form that also calls attention to the impact of reading and writing upon women’s lives. The course syllabus also paired Sincerity with Jan Lewis’s “The Republican Wife: Virtue and Seduction in the Early Republic” (1987), an essay that worked well to contextualize and problematize Sarah’s character as the “exemplary wife” (versus “mother”). Lewis’s argument sparked animated conversation about Sarah’s relationship to Darnley and the idea that women are responsible for “seducing” men into virtue. As we studied later nineteenth-century American women writers (such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Jacobs, and Louisa May Alcott), students continued to make references to Sincerity, using it as a touchstone for considering evolving ideas about women and their role in social reform.

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