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Van Vorst, Bessie McGinnis

VAN VORST, Bessie McGinnis

Born 1873, New York, New York; died 18 May 1928, Paris, France

Wrote under: Mrs. John Van Vorst

Daughter of John Jr. and Lydia Matteson McGinnis; married John Van Vorst, 1899 (died); Robert H. Le Roux, 1914

Bessie McGinnis Van Vorst was educated in New York City at private academies for women. She took up writing as a career after the death of her first husband. While living in France with her sister-in-law, Marie Van Vorst, she served as a correspondent for the New York Evening Post and a contributor to Harper's, Century, Revue des Deux Mondes, Saturday Evening Post, and Ladies' Home Journal. The close association with her sister-inlaw was of crucial importance to the development of Van Vorst's career. Her first two book-length publications were written in collaboration with Marie. After Van Vorst ceased actively writing herself, she continued to consult frequently with her sister-in-law throughout Marie's more lengthy career.

Their first novel, Bagby's Daughter (1901) centers on the complications surrounding the rapid courtship and European honeymoon of a prominent American manufacturer's daughter. Although quite comical, perhaps unintentionally, the moderately successful novel was dismissed by contemporary reviewers as "a wild-goose chase, mental, moral, physical and literary, leaving the reader uncertain whether he has been at the vaudeville or the grand opera." Their second collaboration, The Woman Who Toils (1903), catapulted the two women into public prominence. To research material for this muckraking exposé of the working conditions, values, and aspirations of women wage earners, the two women from fashionable and well educated upper-middle-class families adopted pseudonyms and worked for several months in various mills and factories. In her section, Van Vorst—or Esther Kelley, as she called herself—relates her experiences in a Pittsburgh pickle factory, a western New York mill, and several Chicago clothing establishments.

Van Vorst is especially disturbed by what she considers the moral and spiritual bondage of the working woman: "vulgar and prosaic, there is nothing in the language they use that suggests an ideal or any conception of the abstract…. What could be the result upon the mind and health of this frantic mechanical activity devoid of thought?" Although sympathetic to the plight of her coworkers, Van Vorst is critical of the younger women, who, she believes, worked only to satisfy an egotistical desire for shoddy finery.

Van Vorst is in no way an advocate of equal pay for male and female workers. As a strident propagandist for the domestic orientation of women as the wives and mothers of the nation, Van Vorst sees the vast numbers of working women as potentially destructive to the family and feminine sensibilities. Believing effective reform would arise through altering working conditions and combatting the increasing tendency of American manufacturers toward shoddy mass production, Van Vorst espouses the theory most women wage earners should be taken out of the factories and put to work in the "industrial arts": lace-making, hand weaving, and embroidery.

In her novel, The Issues of Life (1904), Van Vorst is as critical of women of her own class for what she perceived to be a willful shirking of domestic responsibilities as she was of wage-earning women. In what is essentially a melodramatic arraignment of club women, Van Vorst describes those disasters that befall women who embrace eccentric, frivolous, or egotistical theories. Only the heroine, Madeline Dillion, who quits the club and returns to her husband, escapes the crimes of infanticide, suicide, divorce, and reckless driving to which her less maternal friends succumb.

Letters to Women in Love (1906) bears striking resemblance to today's self-help manuals. Here again, Van Vorst's focus is domestic as she counsels women on effective means of safeguarding an endangered hearth. "Fireside particulars" become the crux of all the social problems that besiege American society. The success of marriage, of the family as a viable, thriving unit and, ultimately, the future well-being of the nation depend on the ability of women to ameliorate, compromise, and cajole.

Too often didactic and uncompromising in their delineation of women's familial duties, Van Vorst's works are not likely to enjoy any significant renewal of popularity or influence. Only The Woman Who Toils receives any attention today. But her writing, perhaps because of its limitations, does provide interesting insight into one aspect of the ongoing debate about the proper sphere of influence and activity of the American woman.

Other Works:

A Popular History of France (1906). The Cry of the Children (1908). A Girl from China (1926).

Bibliography:

Filler, L., The Muckrakers (1976). Hill, V. L., Strategy and Breadth: The Socialist-Feminist in American Fiction (dissertation, 1979). Maglin, N., Rebel Women Writers, 1894-1925 (dissertation, 1975).

Other references:

Bookman (April 1903). Critic (Jan. 1902, May 1904). Independent (26 May 1904, 10 Jan. 1907). Literary World (Feb. 1902, April 1904). Nation (19 Dec. 1901, 5 May 1904, 1 Nov. 1906). Overland Monthly (May 1903).

—VICKY LYNN HILL

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