Special Issue: Women Writing Disability
Guest edited by Michael Davidson
“Women Writing Disability”
Michael Davidson, University of California, San Diego
This introduction to the special issue provides a theoretical framework for exploring the intersections among women’s writing and disability in what is now the United States. Davidson sketches a genealogy for this discussion by tracing its early American origins in antinomian poetics of Anne Bradstreet, through later iterations by Emily Dickinson, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and María Amparo Ruiz de Burton, and into liberal rights discourse of the modern period. In outlining some of the broad concerns that run through the special issue–disability and sex/gender, disability and poetics, disability and race, reform and embodiment–Davidson illuminates the importance in disability studies of broadening the concept of bodily and cognitive impairment to include their constitutive relationship to the concept of identity. The introduction thus previews the issue’s focus on the history and literature of disabled women who write, the ways that disability is figured in writing, and how women have resisted being written into an ableist and masculinist script.
“The Benevolent Education of Maritime Laborers at America’s First Schools for the Deaf”
Mary Eyring, University of California, San Diego
This paper examines the career of Sarah Pogson Smith, a British-born author who spent her early life in Charleston and then moved to New York, where she remained after her marriage failed in 1824. As her unhappy marriage dissolved, Pogson Smith began donating the profits of her writing to the New York Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb, founded in 1818. She faced the liabilities that dogged her contemporaries: women’s writing tended to be intensely local in its appeal, generally required the author to speak as an authority on domestic matters, and often failed to generate significant revenue. She also recognized her particular limitations, as a southern woman living and writing in the North and as a single, childless woman who could claim no credibility on topics of home and family. In the New York Institution, however, she saw a way to address these deficiencies. The school’s emphasis on deafness as a disability that plagued communities throughout the nation gave it relevance beyond its northern location and thus allowed Pogson Smith the remarkable chance to support a charitable initiative with national appeal in an era of regionally specific charity work. The school’s paternalistic attitude toward deafness invited Pogson Smith to perform the role of “mother” for an infantilized group and thus to assume a degree of credibility on domestic matters despite her own childlessness. Most importantly, Pogson Smith’s charity work encouraged her social network to validate her laudable literary efforts not just with subscriptions to her work, also but with “tokens of friendship” that allowed her to support herself as an early example of the charitable women writer.
“Freakery and the Discursive Limits of Be-ing in Julia Ward Howe’s The Hermaphrodite“
Nicole C. Livengood, Marietta College
Julia Ward Howe’s The Hermaphrodite draws on a matrix of popular and scientific discourses—ranging from the language of freak shows to the paradigms of race science, medicine, and the law—to investigate the “truth” about bodies and the constant process in which so-called normal and deviant bodies are created, maintained, and undone. Through her intersexual protagonist Laurence, Howe demonstrates how these discourses collide to stabilize and dis-able ambiguous bodies in the construction of the normal. Laurence’s body is objectified by those who approach him as they would a display at P.T. Barnum’s freak shows, and as they interpret him as a scientific and medical specimen. Those who gaze at and interpret Laurence render him voiceless as they use their own voices to reject the possibilities to reject the threats that uncertain identity categories encompass. However, Howe’s choice to allow Laurence to speak in first person offers an unusual mid-nineteenth-century portrayal of people who have or who are perceived as having disabilities. Laurence is allowed to speak both of and for himself, and this narrative technique enables readers to experience the emotional consequences of being the deviant body against which the normal is constructed and legitimized. The tragedy is that there is no discourse that recognizes Laurence as wholly human; he therefore cannot recognize himself as a legitimate human being.
“Lyric Underheard: The Printed Voice of Laura Catherine Redden Searing”
Jessica Lewis Luck, California State University, San Bernardino
In her 1864 book Idyls of Battle and Poems of the Rebellion, Laura Redden Searing’s poems “face the nation”; first, in the sense that she stood before it as a woman and a deaf person in defense of sign language, but also in that she worked to give the nation a face—a new, more inclusive face that included women, people of color, and the Deaf. Through the poetic device of apostrophe and the lyric “we” in her poems, she attempts to constitute this more expansive and sympathetic national identity as well as her own identity within it. Even in the vocative mode of apostrophe, however, her poems reconstitute the lyric itself as something written and read, not spoken and heard. Searing’s deaf poetics plays on the fact that the economic and social conditions of the nineteenth century had created a remote audience of readers of both poetry and the news. The “printed voice” of this period is thus not so much a vocative mode as a scriptive event, requiring a form of “listening” known to hearing and deaf readers alike. John Stuart Mill famously described the lyric as “not heard but overheard,” but Searing’s poems illustrate how the lyric of the late-nineteenth century United States was actually “underheard” by all its readers.
“Ill Fated: The Disease of Racism in Julia Collins’s The Curse of Caste“
Sarah Schuetze, University of Kentucky
In Julia Collins’s serialized novel The Curse of Caste, the violence of racism is felt by white and black characters as an illness that spreads from one to another. Through this contagion, Collins establishes an alternative family tree linking the births of black and white members of the Tracy family. Whereas sick or disabled individuals are culturally conceived as lacking authority because of their bodies, Collins’ sick individuals possess authority because the health of their bodies is compromised. The physical limitations on their speaking and writing during periods of illness means their disabled bodies contain the knowledge they hold and others seek. The attention Collins pays to the vital information located in their suffering bodies brings their physical disability into the forefront of the narrative, hinging its development on what these characters know. Using the disability studies paradigm permits us to address the social world of the novel as well as the physical (or material) experiences of the author and the reader. Collins’ own declining health prevented her from continuing the narrative, and when she ultimately died, she left The Curse of Caste unresolved. The incomplete narrative becomes a testament to the powerful knowledge a sick person (the author, in this case) can have. This reading resists the conclusions suggested by William L. Andrews and Mitch Kachun as normative reshaping of what I call a disabled text.
“‘What mighty transformations!’: Disfigurement and Self-Improvement in Emma May Buckingham’s A Self-Made Woman“
Jaime Osterman Alves, Bard College
This essay examines Emma May Buckingham’s little-known 1873 novel, A Self-Made Woman; or, Mary Idyl’s Trials and Triumphs, in which a young girl embarks on a program of self-construction that was popularized in scores of self-making manuals aimed at (and read by) legions of nineteenth-century American males yet rarely available to their female counterparts. Striking for the agency and self-realization it affords a female character and readers, Buckingham’s novel is additionally remarkable for the fact that its protagonist begins her narrative as a “sickly, puny” ten-year-old, “dwarfed” and “deformed” in face and limb by a bout of scarlet fever she endured before the novel’s start. Despite various obstacles, Mary educates herself, finds work, and saves her earnings to fund a set of radical elective surgeries that lengthen her contracted limbs and “correct” the facial features distorted by her illness. Alves traces the function of Mary’s disfigurement in Buckingham’s novel, questioning its centrality to the project of her self-making, and interrogating, as well, the meaning of its gradual, somewhat troubling “eradication.” The essay introduces readers to an author whose significant and pervasive relationship to disability complicates and enriches our understanding of how representations of disfigurement can be both metaphorical and literal in a single text. In her examination of a unique and overlooked plotline wherein a disabled woman frees herself of affliction and pain, Alves argues that Mary’s experience of disfigurement lets her act in the world with self-determination and agency on behalf of herself and suffering others.
“‘Dropping crooked into rhyme’: Djuna Barnes’s Disabled Poetics in The Book of Repulsive Women“
Mary I. Unger, Ripon College
This essay argues that Djuna Barnes’s first collection of poetry, The Book of Repulsive Women(1915), imagines poetry as an escape from the standardizing impulses of the American System, a program of civic and cultural regulation that dominated the United States in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Through ugly laws, City Beautiful movements, eugenics, urban planning, and other coordinated efforts, Americans increasingly tried to make the modern world—particularly New York City, where Barnes began her literary career in the teens—more efficient, orderly, and predictable. Yet the avant-garde poems and drawings that comprise Barnes’s collection feature ugly and disabled women who meander the streets of New York, disrupting this highly regulated cultural scene. By animating the ugly, disabled, queer, and unruly as a modern aesthetic, these bodies, and thereby the verses that house them, offer an alternative to the normalizing American System, thus situating poetic form as perhaps the last space for disability in the modern United States, even as Barnes herself questions the efficacy of the arts in changing the dominant cultural order. In restoring Barnes’s Repulsive Women, this essay revives an important though neglected text in Barnes’s oeuvre and in the larger narrative of US disability.
“A Different Integration: Race and Disability in Early-Twentieth-Century African American Drama by Women”
Ann M. Fox, Davidson College
Affirming the importance of critically reading disability and race together, this essay argues that through the inclusion of disability, the playwriting of African American women before 1940 formed an important retort to the manipulation of African American identity in drama and culture. Their intersections of disability and race countered powerful cultural misappropriations of the African American body: those embodied onstage in minstrel shows and supposedly serious plays by ostensibly sympathetic white playwrights, and the pseudoscientific knowledge that determined the African American body to be feeble, inferior, and therefore at the disposal of whites. Examining three plays by African American women (They That Sit in Darkness, A Sunday Morning in the South, and Mine Eyes Have Seen), this essay describes two ways the authors interweave representations of disability and race. First, the playwrights write disability more fully into history, supplementing those depictions of disability used only as metaphor for hardship; this work offers direct testimony of the material experience of African American bodies post slavery and under institutionalized racism. Second, the authors invoke disability as part of a call to audiences to see both race and disability as socially constructed. Allied with race, disability suggests that such understanding is the first step towards creating a new vision of human interrelationships—not through a universalizing impulse that erases the particulars of experience or metaphorizes them into invisibility, but through treating difference as an opportunity for mutuality and interdependence.
Adele M. George Jewel Kerr (1834-?)
Rush Seitz, Independent Scholar
Laura Laffrado, Western Washington University
In this Profile of George, who was born deaf to hearing parents and struggled to obtain an education and livelihood, Rush Seitz and Laura Laffrado build upon the work of Christopher Krentz, who recently excerpted George’s long-forgotten autobiography, A Brief Narrative of the Life of Miss Adele M. George, (Being Deaf and Dumb), to share new findings that document the history of George’s life. Tracing multiple editions of her Narrative across decades of the US nineteenth century, Seitz and Laffrado reveal George to be a resourceful, courageous public woman who prospered late in life in an unsympathetic world that multiply marginalized her. The recovery of her life and further information about her texts expands and nuances our frames of understanding regarding nineteenth-century US women, writing, and disability, particularly as George’s life defies ableist assumptions concerning the economic, social, and physical conditions necessary to enable female professional authorship.
Excerpt from A Brief Narrative of the Life of Miss Adele M. George, (Being Deaf and Dumb)
Adele M. George
“Politics and Sympathy: Recognition and Action in Feminist Literary Disability Studies”
Diane Price Herndl, University of South Florida
This essay focuses on three recent works that have traversed, illuminated, and challenged the gender/disability divide: Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature; Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, and Garland-Thomson’s Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities; and Kim Hall’s Feminist Disability Studies. It concludes by gesturing more briefly toward several important new books that carry the scholarly conversation forward. Price Herndl structures her essay with reference to three central themes running throughout the scholarship: visibility, recognition, and action through literary criticism.
Love’s Whipping Boy: Violence and Sentimentality in the American Imagination by Elizabeth Barnes
Mary Louise Kete
Style, Gender, and Fantasy in Nineteenth-Century American Women’s Writing by Dorri Beam
Novel Bondage: Slavery, Marriage, and Freedom in Nineteenth-Century America by Tess Chakkalakal
- Playing Smart: New York Women Writers and Modern Magazine Culture by Catherine Keyser
- Out on Assignment: Newspaper Women and the Making of Modern Public Space by Alice Fahs