Women's Studies


Fugitive science, antislavery politics, and women in the flash press: Readex Report (April 2020)

In this issue: Turn-of-the-century black intellectuals challenge a dark pseudo-science; the contentious politics of antislavery in early 20th-century newspapers; and the flash press reveals ordinary and outrageous lives of urban women.


Archives of Freedom: Fugitive Science in Antebellum Black Newspapers

Britt Rusert, Associate Professor, University of Massachusetts Amherst

fugitive science.jpgFugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture (NYU Press, 2017) traces a forgotten history of black resistance to the ascendency of racial science in the nineteenth century. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, naturalists, medical doctors, comparative anatomists, and a variety of gentleman scientists became increasingly interested in the construction of human taxonomies that justified regimes of settler colonialism and enslavement in the Americas. Enslaved and indigenous people were easy targets for human experiments because of their capture and confinement within spaces like the plantation, the slave ship, and later, the reservation. > Full Story

Reverend Peter Thomas Stanford Pushes Back: The Politics of Antislavery in the Early Twentieth-Century Press

Fugitive science, antislavery politics, and women in the flash press: Readex Report (April 2020)

‘Women Who Wheel’: How the Bicycle Craze of the 1890s Helped to Expand Women’s Freedom

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In the late 19th century women began participating in the bicycle craze which men had enjoyed for two decades. This craze did not last long, but for women it was exciting and liberating. It was mostly affluent society women who defied the naysayers and avidly took to the streets on wheels. By 1889 American newspapers were spreading considerable ink on this latest trend.

In January 1889 the New York Tribune reported on a six-day bicycle race in Madison Square Garden for women only. The competition promised

…an exhibition of woman’s endurance that will rival the female walking matches that took place in certain cities seven or eight years ago….Fifteen women will start in the race and a dozen of the required number have already signed contracts to appear. The women will race eight hours a day instead of twenty-four.

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Two years later in 1891 the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran an illustrated article on the “astonishing recent growth of the bicycle habit,” noting particularly that women were flocking to participate. Reporter John Heaton wrote:

‘Women Who Wheel’: How the Bicycle Craze of the 1890s Helped to Expand Women’s Freedom

Hetty Green, “Financial Amazon” of the Gilded Age

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At the southern edge of the picturesque village of Bellows Falls, Vermont, stands a modern TD Bank building. Erected on the site of the former home of Hetty Green, it’s a fitting tribute to the richest woman investor of her day who owned banks, railroads, mines and much else besides. When Mrs. Green passed away in 1916 at the age of 81 she left to her children Edward and Sylvia an estate worth upwards of $100 million dollars. Adjusted for inflation that would be about $2.4 billion dollars in 2020. That’s serious money for the “financial Amazon” who took money very seriously, which engendered grudging respect and fear from the “sharks of Wall Street.”

Mrs. Green, the financial Amazon who has proved herself a match for the schemers and sharks of Wall Street, who occasionally engineers mysterious movements there, who has several times put the bears to rout in corners on Reading, in which her clutch on the throats of unfortunate shorts was none the less strong because it was that of a woman’s jeweled hand, was really the cause, it has always been held, of the failure of John J. Cisco’s Sons, the bankers, last year.

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Hetty Green, “Financial Amazon” of the Gilded Age

“Through the tears, confident and determined”: American Women Get the Vote One Century Ago

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August 18, 1920, was a momentous day for the women of America. When Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the act granting equal suffrage for women, which had been passed by Congress earlier in the year, became the law of the land. The preceding months of 1920 was a time of growing enthusiasm, apprehension, and frustration for the women and men who advocated for this landmark legislation.

On January 7, 1920, the Anaconda Standard of Montana published an article headlined “Suffrage Amendment is Still Short in 12 States.” At that time 36 states had to ratify a proposed amendment for the act to be added to the Constitution.

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Two days later, in a widely print Associated Press story, the Democratic leader of New Jersey attacked the amendment calling it “the mother of all ‘isms,’ the greatest menace now threatening the stability of the American government and American institutions.” He added that with along with prohibition the amendment “was forced through an effeminate, absentee congress of cowards by coercion and intimidation.”

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“Through the tears, confident and determined”: American Women Get the Vote One Century Ago

Women in War: From the American Indian Wars to the American Civil War

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The experiences of women in wartime have been less well documented than those of men. Their contributions, their sufferings and heroism merit closer attention. The wealth of digitized primary sources in Readex collections offer fresh opportunities for researchers to study women who lived through, and often participated in, conflicts across multiple centuries and continents. In this post, we will touch on the diverse roles played by women in American wars from the early days of settlement through the middle of the 19th century.

The earliest European settlements in North America conflicted with the various Indian tribes which populated the eastern lands of the continent. One popular type of publication was the captivity narrative. In 1754 Susanna Willard Johnson and her family were taken captive by the Abenakis and held for four years. After her release she published a popular account.

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Women in War: From the American Indian Wars to the American Civil War

“An equality of wages”: The Evolution of Working Women’s Rights, as Captured by Early American Publications

Among the United States’ earliest and most fervent supporters of working women’s rights was an Irish immigrant named Mathew Carey, who arrived in Philadelphia in 1784. In that city he established a publishing business and a book store, and used his expertise to print broadsides and pamphlets that advocated for progressive causes.

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Toward the end of his life, Carey became a champion of poor seamstresses and spoolers, the women who wound cotton or yarn onto spools. In 1831 he wrote a pamphlet titled “Address to the Wealthy of the Land, Ladies as Well as Gentlemen, on the Character, Conduct, Situation, and Prospects, of those Whose Sole Dependence for Subsistence, is on the Labour of their Hands.” The title page includes a quote from “Barton’s Essay on the Progressive Depreciation of Agricultural Labour:”

We must never forget that THE LOW RATE OF WAGES IS THE ROOT OF THE MISCHIEF, and that unless we can succeed in raising the price of [their] labour, our utmost efforts will do little towards effectually bettering their condition….The increasing necessities of the poor [women] arise from the depreciation of labour, and consequently EVERY REMEDY WHICH FAILS TO COUNTERACT THIS DEPRECIATION, does no more than skim over the wound, without reaching the seat of the disease.

“An equality of wages”: The Evolution of Working Women’s Rights, as Captured by Early American Publications

“Humbugs and fol-de-rols!”: Highlights from Nineteenth-Century American Drama

This final release of plays from Nineteenth-Century American Drama includes a devastating assault on Abraham Lincoln, an all-female cast in a courtroom drama meant to ridicule women, and a “Negro sketch in two scenes.”


The Royal Ape. By William Russell Smith (1863)

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William Russell Smith was a U.S. congressman from Alabama who served from 1851 to 1857. He subsequently served as a member of the first and second Confederate Congresses. Smith was not the first, nor the last, to describe Lincoln as a simian. He wrote this “dramatic poem” after the Union’s defeat in the Battle of Manassas as the South preferred to call what the North called the First Battle of Bull Run. It is dated January 1, 1863, in anticipation of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Smith’s cast of characters—with the exception of two former slaves, two White House maids, and extras including officers, soldiers, citizens, and senators—are all prominent politicians and generals of the time. In following the action of the play, knowledge of the actual events of the time provides some perspective.

Act I, Scene I, occurs in the White House on the eve of the battle which Smith refers to as Manassas. We discover Mrs. Lincoln and her son Robert who would have been age 20. He has just returned from the House of Representatives and describes with gusto a physical fight that had broken out there.

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“Humbugs and fol-de-rols!”: Highlights from Nineteenth-Century American Drama

Rhyming Verse Reveal, Wielded Women, and a Fraught Freedom: Readex Report (March 2019)

In this issue: Ferreting out forgotten verses of a gifted female poet; using women’s reputations as weapons in Jacksonian Era politics; and Caribbean slaves take faltering steps toward freedom.


The Value of Digitized Newspaper Collections in Researching Neglected Women’s Writing: Two Newly Recovered Works by Ella Rhoads Higginson, First Poet Laureate of Washington State

Laura Laffrado, Professor of English, Western Washington University

RR March 2019 1.jpgIn recent years, my scholarly efforts have been devoted to the recovery of Ella Rhoads Higginson (1862?-1940), the first prominent literary author from the U.S. Pacific Northwest and the first Poet Laureate of Washington State. Internationally celebrated for her writing, Higginson put the Pacific Northwest on the literary map. People across the nation and around the world were first introduced to the Pacific Northwest and the people who lived there when they read Higginson’s award-winning… > Full Story


The Role of Women in Early American Presidential Campaigns: Using Newspapers to Explore the Informal Politics of the Jacksonian Era

Rhyming Verse Reveal, Wielded Women, and a Fraught Freedom: Readex Report (March 2019)

The Short Plays of Neglected Female Author Frances Aymar Mathews, a Contemporary of William Dean Howells and Edith Wharton

51e3GlaHyjL__SX338_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThe most recent release of Nineteenth-Century American Drama includes most of the short plays, or comediettas in one act, by the prolific Frances Aymar Mathews. This understudied author was born in New York City in the middle of the 19th-century. She began publishing in the 1880s. In addition to plays, her written output included feature articles, short stories and such novels as My Lady Peggy Goes to Town and Allee Same.

Eighteen of Mathews’ shorter plays are included in this release. When reading her works, Edith Wharton comes to mind. They were contemporaries, shared a Manhattan upbringing during the Gilded Age, and were sensitive to class distinctions and social niceties. It may be something of a stretch to compare Mathews to Jane Austen, but both women are close observers of the foibles of the prosperous and employ a satirical view of them. There is one more comparison to make, to wit, William Dean Howells. Again, this may be a stretch, but the famous Howells and the obscure Mathews wrote short plays which, as previously noted here, featured wealthy people with ample time to expand upon largely trivial events.

The Short Plays of Neglected Female Author Frances Aymar Mathews, a Contemporary of William Dean Howells and Edith Wharton

"Using the Weed" and Other 19th-Century Plays for ‘Female Characters Only’

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This month’s release of Nineteenth-Century American Drama: Popular Culture and Entertainment, 1820-1900, adds several plays with all-female casts. Three such works are highlighted here.


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Written by George Melville Baker and first published in 1865, “Using the ‘Weed’” takes place in a small boarding school for young ladies. There are seven characters including Miss Betty Bookworm who is the principal of the school, her assistant Mrs. Starch, three young ladies, and the twin sister aunts of student Clarissa Harlowe Smithers.

Clarissa is a playful girl who takes pleasure in rattling her spinster guardians. To the distress of her classmates, she is dedicated to her sewing machine:

Mary. I declare, Clari, you will wear yourself out at the sewing machine.

Fanny. Your devoted attachment to that useful but tiresome instrument is really surprising.

Clarissa. Law, girls, I shall never tire of it. You know it is a novelty to me.

Fanny. Novelty! Why, I imagined there was not a family in the world without one.

Mary. Mother has had one ever since I can recollect.

Fanny. The idea that a young lady, with such a romantic name as Clarissa Harlowe Smithers, should become such a devoted slave to the needle and treadle is very surprising.

"Using the Weed" and Other 19th-Century Plays for ‘Female Characters Only’

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