C & P and Transatlantic Feminism

Caroline Wigginton

Rutgers  University

I’ll confess up front that I volunteered for this semester’s Just Teach One as I liked the idea of a shared pedagogical experiment. I had never heard of the selection, The Story of Constantius and Pulchera, though such distinctively named titular characters boded well for an interesting and odd read if nothing else.

My modest hopes were rewarded, and I opted to incorporate it into my upper-division historical feminist theories course for Women’s and Gender Studies majors and minors, subtitled “Transatlantic Feminisms in the Age of Revolutions.” I had already slated Susanna Rowson’s play Slaves in Algiers for a unit on Captivity, Romance, and Revolutionary Rhetoric, but there was room to include C&P. My students, all women, admitted being “consumed by the drama” of what they categorized as an early American soap opera, and, as one student put it, they appreciated how the narrative “reward[ed] [Pulchera’s] autonomy with what she wanted,” Constantius. They debated whether the resolution legitimated arranged marriage and patriarchy (since Constantius was chosen by her father, even if he later changed his mind).  Would its eighteenth-century female readers see romance in obedience? Would they find an exhilarating freedom or a terrifying rootlessness in Pulchera’s shipboard adventures? Why didn’t it end with Constantius’s death and Pulchera’s continued adventures in drag? The story’s anonymity offered them a challenge in that they had to plumb the text in order to form opinions on possible feminist expressions and foreclosures rather than resort to what was often a too easy equation of female-authorship with radicalism and resistance.
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