Phelps (Ward), Elizabeth Stuart

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PHELPS (WARD), Elizabeth Stuart

Born Mary Gray Phelps, 3 August 1844, Boston, Massachusetts; died 28 January 1911, Newton, Massachusetts

Also wrote under: Mary Adams, E. S. Phelps

Daughter of Austin and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps; married Herbert D. Ward, 1888

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (née Mary Gray Phelps) was the oldest child and only daughter of the popular author, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps. Her father was professor of sacred rhetoric at Andover Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. She identified so strongly with her mother, who wrote of her frustrations with the role of a minister's dutiful wife, that she adopted her mother's name after her death when Phelps was eight. She attended Abbot Academy and Mrs. Edwards' School for Young Ladies, both in Andover.

By 1868 Phelps had written 11 undistinguished Sunday school works and her first story to receive literary recognition, "The Tenth of January" (Atlantic, 1868), conceived under the influence of Rebecca Harding Davis. During the next two decades, Phelps found strong support from many other women writers, such as Lucy Larcom, Mary Bucklin Claflin, Annie Adams Fields, Harriet Prescott Spofford, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

In the late 1870s and early 1880s, Phelps' "boon companion" was Dr. Mary Briggs Harris, a physician in Andover. Phelps's female characters during this period were innovatively independent. But with the deaths of her brother [Moses] Stuart Phelps and Dr. Harris in the mid-1880s, the ever-declining health of her father, and her own increasing invalidism, Phelps' desire for male companionship increased, and her female characters showed decreased self-confidence. Letters suggest Phelps hoped for literary companionship from the much younger man she married in 1888. Although the couple continued to summer together in Gloucester, Massachusetts, after 1900 she and her husband spent their winters apart.

Phelps' career as a writer was established with the immediate and international popularity of The Gates Ajar (1868). As commonly interpreted, it offers the consolation of a heavenly afterlife to those bereaved by Civil War deaths. This, however, was the first of a series of books presenting Phelps' major theme of women's right to self-fulfillment. The Gates Ajar shows the quality of female support required for women to gain fulfillment; Beyond the Gates (1883), the social and cultural institutions needed; and The Gates Between (1887), the behavior required of husbands and fathers. In 1901, Phelps recast the last book as a play—Within the Gates, which was never produced—strengthening the wife-mother role. The Gates series suggests that if earthly society—including a misguided clerical establishment—could not meet the rightful demands of women and the poor, then surely a heavenly society must exist as compensation for such earthly deprivation. These books antedate the outpouring of Utopian literature that followed Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1888).

From 1869 until her marriage in 1888, Phelps actively supported women's rights. In the early 1870s she wrote feminist articles, published in The Independent and reprinted in the Woman's Journal. They dealt with the sexual double standard, women's economic and emotional independence, the sources of women's ill health, the "true woman" stereotype, and the problems of women in traditional marriages. She also used these themes in fiction for youth and adults. Early fictional examples include Hedged In (1870), about the social constraints placed on an unwed mother, and A Silent Partner (1871), dealing with men's prejudice against making a woman a business partner. Both novels emphasize women's, not men's, reliable support for women and women's persistent innovation of social structures designed to meet, rather than frustrate, people's basic needs.

In The Story of Avis (1877), Phelps tackled an imaginative reworking of her mother's life and fiction as well as of her own life. It is her most interesting work and contains her favorite heroine. Phelps shows that marriage has a devastating effect on a woman's artistic potential: Avis is expected to be dedicated only to her husband and children. The Story of Avis was praised by such literati as James T. Fields, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and John Greenleaf Whittier. But it aroused indignation in others. In 1879 and 1881, Phelps's father opposed her support for women by publishing two essays decrying woman suffrage. They were later collected in My Portfolio (1882).

Two humorous books draw on Phelps' experience as owner of a summer seaside cottage in Gloucester. An Old Maid's Paradise (1879), a series of sketches, shows women enjoying typically masculine pleasures, unhampered by male protection. Burglars in Paradise (1886), a spoof of detective fiction, reveals men's protection of women to be a mere charade and suggests the most insidious burglar of all is the suitor.

Phelps' only male protagonists appear in works written during her courtship and marriage. After her father's death in 1890, Phelps memorialized him in Austin Phelps: A Memoir (1891), then based her favorite hero, Emanuel Baynard of A Singular Life (1895), on her father's youthful ideals. The views on marriage here contradict those in The Story of Avis, much as Phelps's mother's and father's views on the subject differed. A Singular Life is a temperance novel: alcoholic men should be reformed so that women's lives might be safer—a more distanced advocacy of women's rights than that of her earlier essays and novels.

Phelps also supported antivivisection legislation, a cause that two novels connect with social wrongs against women: the vivisectors are men experimenting callously on dogs and women alike in Trixy (1904) and Though Life Do Us Part (1908).

Phelps' autobiography, Chapters From a Life (1896), is as tantalizing for what it omits as it is useful for its revelations. In addition to some 25 novels, she wrote poetry and short stories for the leading magazines of her day. The poetry is mediocre, but some of the stories are outstanding; they are collected in five volumes.

Although Phelps' work frequently lacks aesthetic merit, its importance lies in her ability to translate the psychological and sociological realities of her own life into literary figures. She was pulled in opposite directions by a woman's movement urging the self-fulfillment for which her mother yearned and a conservative Calvinist tradition of advocating the "feudal views" of women held by her father.

Other Works:

Mercy Gliddon's Work (1865). Up Hill or Life in the Factory (1865). Gypsy series (1866-1867). Men, Women and Ghosts (1869). The Trotty Book (1870). Trotty's Wedding Tour and Story-book (1873). What to Wear? (1873). Poetic Studies (1875). My Cousin and I (1879). Sealed Orders (1879). Friends: A Duet (1881). Doctor Zay (1882). Songs of the Silent World, andOther Poems (1885). The Struggle for Immortality (1889). Fourteen to One (1891). Donald Marcy (1893). The Story of Jesus Christ: An Interpretation (1897). The Successors of Mary the First (1901). Avery (1902). Confessions of a Wife (1902). The Man in the Case (1906). Walled In: A Novel (1907). The Oath of Allegiance, and Other Stories (1909). A Chariot of Fire (1910). The Empty House, and Other Stories (1910). Comrades (1911).

The papers of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (Ward) are at the Andover Historical Society, the Houghton Library at Harvard University, and Yale University's Beinecke Library.


Bennett, M. A., Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1939). Coultrap-McQuin, S. M., Doing Literary Business: American Women Writers in the Nineteenth Century (1990). Douglas, A., The Feminization of American Culture (1976). Hart, J. D., The Popular Book (1950). Kelly, L. D., The Life and Works of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Victorian Feminist Writer (1983). Kessler, C. F., Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1982). Phelps, A., My Portfolio (1882). Smith, H. S., The Gates Ajar (1964). Stewart, G. B. A., New Mythos (1979). Welter, B., Dimity Convictions: The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1976).

Reference works:

AW. DAB. NAW (1971). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

AQ (1977). Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies (Fall 1980). MR (1972). PMLA (1976). Regionalism and the Female Imagination (Fall 1977). Women's Studies (1978).


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Phelps (Ward), Elizabeth Stuart

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