Elevate Difference

Romancing the Vote: Feminist Activism in American Fiction, 1870-1920

Leslie Petty has written a scholarly text that examines a particular set of novels from the late 19th through early 20th century that depict politically active women and intended for those involved in the women’s movement. She argues that through these types of novels, the texts themselves helped to create and sustain these movements.

Petty has done a exceptional job of shedding light on this heretofore “submerged” tradition. Through research and analysis, she looks at several texts from that era including, Out of Her Sphere (1871) by Elizabeth Boynton Harbert, Fettered for Life (1874) by Lillie Devereaux Blake, Iola Leroy by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, The Bostonians by Henry James and many others.

This fascinating text begins by defining those whom would most likely be appealed to for joining the ranks of the feminist movement, namely white middle-class women, while women of color are conveniently pushed further to the margin, and race relations in these novels becomes what Petty describes as the “absent present.” However, in true feminist fashion, Petty also includes marginalized voices who championed for the inclusion of humans of all walks of life who would benefit from the women’s rights movement.

Petty’s work goes on to look at several other novels through the early 20th century, including The Bostonians by Henry James, the only novel of this particular tradition that is a part of the American literary canon. Her work is presented in an academic tone, with strong evidence to support her assertion that these literary novels helped to add new members to the women’s activist movement while also sustaining the existing members. If the artists and writers are the pulse of a nation, then surely the artists and writers can also create that pulse.

Written by: Margaret Muñoz Garza, April 5th 2007