Fanny Fern (Sara Payson Willis Parton, 1811–1872) was not an activist—she never made a speech or attended a women's rights convention—yet her novel Ruth Hall (1855) is one of the most significant feminist documents of the nineteenth century. In this autobiographical novel she takes what at the time was a revolutionary position, advocating women's economic independence and portraying a woman who—like Fern herself—realized the American Dream. Unlike other fictional heroines, for whom marriage is the only route to economic advancement, Fern's female protagonist gains monetary success through her own perseverance and self-reliance. Yet the inherent maleness of the concept of independent financial achievement was so embedded in the culture that no conventional reviewers recognized Fern's novel for what it was—a female success story. Instead, she was called "unfemi-nine" and criticized for "self-love" while the novel was decried as "abominable," "monstrous," and "eminently evil in its tendencies and teachings" (New York Tribune, 16 December 1854; Protestant Episcopal Quarterly Review, April 1885; Putnam's Monthly, February 1855; Olive Branch, 30 December 1854 and 13 January 1855). Commenting on this financial double standard, Fern wrote in the New York Ledger on 8 June 1861:
There are few people who speak approbatively of a woman who has a smart business talent or capability. No matter how isolated or destitute her condition, the majority would consider it more "feminine" would she unobtrusively gather up her thimble, and, retiring into some out-of-the-way place, gradually scoop out her coffin with it, than to develop that smart turn for business which would lift her at once out of her troubles; and which, in a man so situated, would be applauded as exceedingly praiseworthy.
What brought Fern to this radical position? Fern, as an avid newspaper reader, was clearly very much aware of issues and events. The first women's rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, and Fern would have read news of it and of succeeding conventions, as well as accounts of the speeches of women's rights activists and the ridicule heaped upon them by conventional sources. In her columns she often responded to items she had read in the newspaper, and these responses included satirical comment on critiques of women's rights' positions. But although Fern was aware of and sympathetic to developments in the feminist movement at the time, her own feminism was essentially a practical feminism, deriving primarily from her own experience.
Born Sara Payson Willis in 1811, Fern followed a traditionally feminine path until her husband, Charles Eldredge, died of typhoid fever in 1846, leaving her with two children and no money. Dependent on a begrudging father and father-in-law, she tried unsuccessfully to support herself as a seamstress. In 1849 she capitulated to her father's attempts to coerce her into remarrying as a means of support. Her second husband, Samuel Farrington, proved to be violently abusive, and in January 1851 she left him. Her relatives were scandalized, and her father and father-in-law, hoping to starve her into submission, refused to help her, while Farrington and his brother spread fraudulent stories labeling her as sexually promiscuous—stories which were later retracted by his brother. Unable to obtain a teaching position (probably because of the scandal), she began writing for the newspapers.
It was Fern's own experience that taught her that if a woman does not have money of her own, she is vulnerable to the whims and cruelties of those who do. Fern's position derived from her realization that men had used their control of money to exert power over her. First of all, her father, in his zeal to avoid having to support her and her children, had pressured her into marriage with Samuel Farrington, a man she did not love and who was repulsive to her. Second, during their marriage, Farrington had withheld money for her and her children's necessities in order to bend her to his will. Third, when she left Farrington, her father and father-in-law refused to support her and her children, in an attempt to force her to return to her abusive husband. But the most egregious example of the use of money as a means of exerting power was her father-inlaw's will. After she left Farrington, her father-in-law rewrote his will, leaving all of his money—and he was a wealthy man—to her two children (his only grandchildren) if she gave them up to him and his wife and agreed never to see them again. If she did not, all of his money would go to charity. It was the cruelty of this will that was the catalyst that created Fanny Fern. Knowing that if she did not earn enough money to support her children, she would either have to give them up or sentence them to a lifetime of poverty, Fern was driven to succeed. The publication of her first article and the signing of the will took place within eighteen days of each other.
Fern's recognition of the necessity of economic independence was also a result of her change in class status. Her descent into poverty after her husband died showed her that middle-class definitions of womanhood were not universal. It would be suicidal for the working-class woman to adopt the submissive dependency and ingenuousness that society prescribed for "true womanhood"; her survival depended on independence and knowledge of the world. Yet advice books for women unilaterally demanded piety, dependence, and submission. As William Andrus Alcott (1798–1859) wrote in The Young Wife in 1837, woman was created to be "man's assistant": "The very act of entering into the married state," he said, required complete "submission" (pp. 27–29). Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) in a speech before the women's rights convention in Boston in 1855 asserted that the proper function of woman was to "embellish trifles" and urged woman not to seek independence but to trust in a "good man" to be her guardian (Complete Works 11:403–404). Fern knew that not all women had a "good man" to rely on, and, after her drop in class, she saw that women without class status could not count on men to be their protectors. In Ruth Hall she shows how the boardinghouse loungers regard Ruth as sexual prey once they perceive that she is poor and alone (pp. 73–74). As Fern noted in the Olive Branch on 29 May 1852, the upper- or middle-class man who might see himself as a protector of women in his own class was often a "highwayman" in relation to working-class women: he took advantage of them, she said, because they were "alone and unprotected."
Fern's first article was published in June of 1851 in the Boston Olive Branch. She was paid fifty cents for it, and in November of the same year she began writing for the Boston True Flag as well. Her articles were immediately reprinted in newspapers all over the United States and Britain, and, although she did not receive any compensation for the pirated articles, the publicity brought her fame. In 1853 she published a collection, Fern Leaves from Fanny's Port-Folio, which became an instant best-seller, selling 100,000 copies in one year. The Boston editors refused to increase her pay (by then she was earning four and five dollars a column), even though their papers' circulation had soared after she began writing for them, and in late 1853 when a New York editor offered her twelve dollars a column for her articles she accepted his offer and moved to New York.
In 1855 Ruth Hall was published, bringing Fern more celebrity. The Mason Brothers, who published the book, had promised to use "extraordinary methods" to promote the novel, and they undertook one of the first examples of a modern advertising campaign—inundating newspapers and magazines with advertisements and creating a need for and a public image of the book. Before the publication of Ruth Hall, Fern's identity was unknown, but in December 1854 one of the exploitative editors whom she had satirized in the novel (William Moulton of the True Flag) spitefully revealed her identity in his paper, and the novel became a roman à clef. Readers were particularly interested to see Fern's satiric portrayal of her brother, the writer and editor Nathaniel Parker Willis (1806–1867), as the fop and social climber, Hyacinth Ellet. Although the revelation of her identity was painful for Fern, who had written the satirically autobiographical novel in the belief that her identity was safe, the publicity boosted sales of the book: more than 70,000 copies of the novel were sold in the United States in one year, and the book was translated into French and German. Stores began carrying the "Ruth Hall bonnet"; a popular song, "Little Daisy," was written about Ruth Hall's child in the novel; and the composer Louis Jullien wrote "The Ruth Hall Schottische," a dance tune dedicated to Fanny Fern, the sheet music of which bore a lithograph of a woman who very much resembled Fern (Warren, Fanny Fern, p. 124).
Fern having become a "hot commodity," Robert Bonner (1824–1899), the enterprising editor of the New York Ledger, who was seeking to expand the circulation of his fledgling weekly, attempted to persuade Fern to write for his paper. He offered her twenty-five dollars a column, and when she refused, he increased his offer until she finally accepted at one hundred dollars a column—making her the most well-paid newspaper writer of her time. Her serialized novella, Fanny Ford, appeared in 1855, after which she signed a contract to write an exclusive weekly column for the Ledger, which began in January 1856 and ran continuously until her death in 1872.
The overarching theme in all of Fern's work is women's economic independence. The protagonist of Ruth Hall pursues the goal of economic independence, as did Fern herself. After she finds that her culture's prescription of submissive dependency does not work, Ruth begins to assert her independence. When her brother, Hyacinth, refuses to help her, she vows that she will succeed on her own: "I can do it, I feel it, I will do it" (p. 116). The author describes Ruth as a ship "steering with straining sides, and a heart of oak, for the nearing port of Independence" (p. 133). Unlike most traditional nineteenth-century novels, Ruth Hall does not end with the heroine's marriage; in fact, there is not even an eligible man on the scene. The novel concludes, not with the picture of a new husband but with the picture of a certificate for ten thousand dollars in bank stock made out to Ruth Hall. That this is the only illustration in the book is indicative of the certificate's significance.
In addition to dramatizing this theme in the novel, Fern stated it explicitly in her newspaper articles. Writing in the New York Ledger on 19 December 1857, she called upon women to follow her independent example, in spite of the criticism they might receive from "conservative old ladies of both sexes." As she said of Harriet Hosmer (1830–1908), the sculptor, she was glad that Hosmer "had the courage to assert herself . . . even at the risk of being called unfeminine, eccentric, and unwomanly." Moreover, said Fern in another article, once women become successful, they need not worry about their critics: "They can stand the spiteful criticism with a good house over their independent heads, secured and paid for by their own honest industry" (Ledger, 8 December 1866). Not only would success silence or ameliorate the criticism, she said, but the financially independent woman would receive better treatment: "She won't have rough usage. She will be in a position to receive good treatment from motives of policy. . . . She will, in short, stand on her own blessed independent feet as far as 'getting a living' is concerned, as I do to-day" (Ledger, 18 September 1869). On 16 July 1870 she wrote in response to a newspaper writer who had criticized female physicians:
Why shouldn't women work for pay? Does anybody object when women marry for pay?—without love, without respect, nay with even aversion? . . . How much more to be honored is she who, hewing out her own path, through prejudice and narrowness and even insult, earns honorably and honestly her own independence.
The most revolutionary aspect of Fern's belief in women's economic independence was her assertion that such independence could be continued after marriage. Many nineteenth-century novels by women portray an impoverished young woman who is able to earn her own living. However, her independence is seen only as a stopgap measure, and by the end of the novel, she always gives up her independent career for marriage and motherhood. This is the plot of such novels as Susan Bogert Warner's Queechy (1852), Maria Susanna Cummins's The Lamplighter (1854), and Augusta Jane Evans Wilson's St. Elmo (1866). Fern, however, did not see marriage and economic independence as incompatible. It might be difficult to combine career and marriage, she said, but she believed that independence in marriage, such as she herself had attained, was not only possible but preferable to dependency (Ledger, 8 July 1871). On 18 September 1869 she wrote in the New York Ledger:
Woman, be she married or single, being able to earn her own living independent of marriage—that often hardest and most non-paying and most thankless road to it—will no longer have to face the alternative of serfdom or starvation, but will marry, when she does marry, for love and companionship, and for cooperation in all high and noble aims and purposes, not for bread and meat and clothes.
Although Ruth Hall ends with the protagonist's acquisition of economic independence rather than the acquisition of a husband, Fern herself did remarry. In January of 1856 she married the writer James Parton (1822–1891), a man eleven years younger than she. However, before the marriage, she had him sign a prenuptial agreement in which she made certain that all of the money she had earned prior to her marriage and all of the money she earned after her marriage would remain hers alone. Such a document was even more necessary then than it is today because in 1856 all of a wife's earnings automatically belonged to her husband.
Fern had had a close call in her second marriage. In 1853, before her identity became known, Samuel Farrington had obtained a divorce in Chicago on grounds of desertion. In September of that year, after her first book was published, Fern dispatched a lawyer to Chicago to determine what the effect of the divorce would have on her earnings. She must have been elated to read the lawyer's report that the divorce was absolute and that Farrington could not claim "any rights as husband . . . either in person or in property." Farrington was probably not very happy to learn this, however. When he had obtained the divorce he had been unaware that his estranged wife was the famous Fanny Fern, and if he had not divorced her, all of the money she earned as Fanny Fern would have been legally his. Although the Farrington marriage is left out of Ruth Hall, in Fern's second novel Rose Clark (1856) she portrays a woman whose experience was very much like hers with Farrington. The character, Gertrude, becomes wealthy after her divorce, and her ex-husband, John Stahl, attempts to get money from her. When his friend reminds him that because he has divorced her, the law will not allow him to touch her money, he says confidently: "All women are fools about law matters" (p. 345). Gertrude, however, is more astute than he had thought, and she sends him packing. It is probable that Farrington similarly attempted to get money from Fern, and if he did, she would have been fully armed with a copy of the lawyer's letter. That she was not a "fool about law matters" is apparent in the prenuptial agreement she had drawn up before she married James Parton; she made sure that she would never be financially vulnerable again.
LEGAL POSITION OF MARRIED WOMEN
Of particular importance here is the legal situation of married women in nineteenth-century United States. American law derived from British common law, and according to common law a married woman did not have an identity separate from her husband. As William Blackstone (1723–1780) wrote in the classic Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765–1769): "By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage" (1:430). A woman could not sue or be sued, own property separately, retain guardianship of her children, or keep any money that she earned. Tapping Reeve (1744–1823), the influential American justice, wrote in Law of Baron and Femme in 1816: "The husband, by marriage, acquires an absolute title to all the personal property of the wife" (p. 49). In England, wealthy families had long used marriage settlements to establish a separate estate for a married daughter through equity courts, but many of the American states did not have equity courts, and, even when the courts did exist, the process was expensive and complicated. In the 1840s some states began to pass Married Women's Property Acts, but these laws only dealt with inherited property, not the money that a woman earned; they did nothing for working- or middle-class women who did not have a wealthy father to leave money to them. The laws were designed primarily to protect wealthy fathers, who did not want a spendthrift son-in-law to spend a daughter's inheritance. In some cases—particularly in the South—the laws were a response to the Panic of 1837 and were designed to provide a way to shield property from a man's creditors. Before the Civil War only four states had passed laws protecting a married woman's own earnings. New York passed such a law in 1860, four years after Fern's marriage to Parton, but such laws were not retroactive.
Even after the laws were passed, a conservative judiciary continued to apply common-law principles in the interpretation of the laws. The courts ruled that, unless a wife was abandoned by her husband, her paid labor was "housework," or work done to benefit the household, and, as such, her earnings belonged to her husband as head of household. In Birkbeck v. Ackroyd (New York, 1878) the judge ruled, "The bare fact that she [the wife] performs labor for third persons, for which compensation is due, does not necessarily establish that she performed it under the act of 1860, upon her separate account" (see, e.g., Basch, pp. 206–223).
The Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 had passed resolutions asserting that "woman is man's equal" (Stanton et al. 1:72), and the resolutions at the convention in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1850 were more explicit with respect to women's economic rights, asking that all "avenues of civil and professional employments" be open to women and stating that "the laws of property, as affecting married parties, demand a thorough revisal, so that all rights may be equal between them; that the wife may have, during life, an equal control over the property gained by their mutual toil" (Stanton et al. 1:821). In 1854 Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in a speech to the New York Legislature, urged passage of a Married Women's Property Act that would enable women to "control the wages they earn—to own the land they buy—the houses they build" (Stanton et al. 1:605).
In advocating women's economic independence, Fanny Fern, however, was far in advance of her day. Most women's rights activists supported married women's property rights, but even they were divided on the issue of women's economic independence, particularly after marriage. Similarly, women writers, even those who were economically independent, did not advocate such a role for women—particularly married women—in their published work. The problem was that the concept of women's financial independence was associated with sexual promiscuity. Even such a liberal editor as Robert Bonner, who employed economically independent women like Fanny Fern and E. D. E. N. Southworth (1819–1899), did not publicly advocate economic independence for women. In an editorial in the New York Ledger on 14 May 1859 he wrote that if a woman was transplanted from the home to the marketplace, she became a "monster, a man-woman," a condemner of marriage, and an advocate of the "'largest liberty' in the indulgence of the passions." It was not until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the publication of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's works, particularly her Women and Economics (1898), that a woman writer pursued the issue of woman's economic independence, even of married women, in as systematic or outspoken a way as Fanny Fern. As Fern wrote in the New York Ledger on 26 June 1869, "I want all women to render themselves independent of marriage as a mere means of support."
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Joyce W. Warren