Writing Woman’s Empire: Imperialism and the Construction of American Femininity in Antebellum Literary Discourse
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This dissertation examines the interplay between the language of empire and femininity in antebellum literary culture by focusing on texts that offer gendered meanings of America as a new empire in their depiction and imagination of the types of femininity the novelty of the land would give rise to. Where Amy Kaplan’s “Manifest Domesticity” posits that the imperial subjectivity of white women took shape in and through the language of domesticity during the time of Manifest Destiny, I start by showing that the imperial construction of white femininity began earlier in the Revolutionary period by revisiting the tenet of Republican Motherhood. In the first chapter, I discuss how the colonial context shapes the question of the divided American female subject in Wieland, the very first text by the first professional American novelist, Charles Brockden Brown. Wieland portrays America as the place where the enlightened white female subject transforms itself through the contact with savage otherness both from within and without. The new type of female subjectivity that Brown depicts as arising from the nation that continuously expands its borders and expels the original inhabitants is the divided subject whose inner psychological terrain resembles and mirrors the exterior terrain—a subject that uncannily anticipates Gloria Anzaldúa’s borderland subject. Using Anzaldúa’s theory, I trace how Brown disrupts the equation of whiteness with rationality to question white ownership of the land. If C.B. Brown treats white femininity as the site of colonial confusion and anxiety, Lydia Maria Child and Margaret Fuller cast it as the major imperial source for the nation by rewriting the national history as the story of woman’s empire and fusing utopian hope for a better world for women with the nation’s imperial aspirations. Chapter two discusses Hobomok where Child opposes masculine forms of colonial venture to offer feminine forms of colonization as more humane and effective ways of building an empire by feminizing sentimentality. Chapter three traces the development of Fuller’s imperialism from Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 to Woman in the Nineteenth Century. I revise the previous understanding that the two texts represent Fuller’s growing criticism of the American empire by showing that Fuller does not so much disapprove of her nation’s imperial progress as attempt to elevate it through the moral source of white women. Chapter four examines the intersection between emancipation and empire that underwrites the plot of the first Afro-American novel, Clotel. William Wells Brown criticizes the notion of America as a woman’s empire, but he still reproduces the discourse of white women’s moral power and its attendant imperial claims to enlist their support. Rather than giving white women’s moral duty a nationalist cast, however, Clotel puts it in the transatlantic context of the emancipationist politics of the British Empire.
Lee, Seung Hee (2014). Writing Woman’s Empire: Imperialism and the Construction of American Femininity in Antebellum Literary Discourse. Doctoral dissertation, Texas A & M University. Available electronically from