Unruly tongues of American women writers sparked revolutions in language
"Women should be seen and not heard." That was a well-known
maxim in nineteenth century America.
American women writers--such as Louisa May Alcott, Kate
Chopin, and Willa Cather--devised a brilliant method for crashing
that barrier to creativity. In her new book, UNRULY TONGUE:
IDENTITY AND VOICE IN AMERICAN WOMEN'S WRITING,
1850-1930 (University Press of Mississippi, $40, cloth)
Martha Cutter says the ten African American and Anglo
American women she studied wrote as inside agitators. Over time
they created a new theory of language.
Cutter says, "From 1780 to 1860 American writers were
preoccupied with the feminine virtues of purity, piety,
submissiveness, and domesticity--a constellation of attributes
known as the domestic saint, or True Woman."
But that soon changed. As more women were educated and more
women began to work outside the home, women writers found a
need to express themselves with a growing sense of
In the first years covered by her book, Cutter found writers Fanny
Fern, Harriet Wilson, and Louisa May Alcott employing female
characters who stayed within their domestic roles and stuck to a
very submissive script.
"The years from 1850 to 1930 reflected a great deal of cultural
change," Cutter says, "as the New Woman gradually displaced
the True Woman, and the domestic voice was replaced by one
that was more concerned with the theoretical basis of women's
In this atmosphere, Cutter finds writers Anna Julia Cooper, Mary
Wilkins Freeman, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Frances Harper, and
Kate Chopin writing about women who bring unruly tongues and
independent thinking to traditional female roles.
These writers enabled those that followed, such as Willa Cather
and Jessie Fauset, to create characters with masculine and racist
voices and undermine those characters from the inside.
Throughout her book, Cutter discovers how these ten writers,
even those who wrote in what appears to be a purely feminine
and domestic voice, found ways to rethink language and create
new identities and new voices that were both feminine and unruly.
Martha J. Cutter is an assistant professor of English at Kent State University. She has contributed critical essays to Mary Wilkins Freeman: A Study of
Short Fiction, The Politics of Passing, The Canon in the
Classroom, and many scholarly journals.