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Ethnic women's literature and politics: The cultural construction of gender in early twentieth-century America

Carol Jeanne Batker, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Ethnic women in early twentieth-century America constituted a significant literary and political presence. Their gender politics were varied, according to the specifics of historical and cultural location. My dissertation demonstrates the heterogeneity of gender politics early in this century by detailing how ethnic women's fiction contests the political discourses of ethnic women. I use the multiplicity of issues in Native American, African American, and Jewish American women's texts to illustrate the importance of grounding gender in a particular historical moment. In addition, my study examines the ways in which ethnic women in the United States have used discourse to empower themselves. By reading fiction in relation to political history, I demonstrate how literary strategies of resistance are culturally constructed.^ An exploratory venture in method, this work develops a historically specific critical practice. Drawing on current feminist criticism as well as poststructuralist theory, I focus initially on the ways in which contemporary critical practices continue to obscure the political agendas in ethnic women's texts. The subsequent four chapters demonstrate how narrative contests rather than reflects history. History, like literature, is dynamic and conflicted; accordingly, I construct pluralistic histories in each chapter, detailing the debates over class, sexual, and ethnic politics within ethnic women's communities.^ I argue that novels appropriate and rewrite political discourses acting as interpreters, using history to legitimate particular politics. I argue, for instance, that Their Eyes Were Watching God employs the language of the black women's club movement and the "Classic Blues" to refute racist and classist sexual ideologies which position African American women as libidinous, while it simultaneously struggles to advocate sexual subjectivity for women. Drawing upon the writings of Jewish women labor organizers and social workers, as well as Orthodox teachings and the literature of the Haskalah movement, I suggest that Bread Givers challenges notions of femininity which were opposed to manual and wage labor. My final two chapters argue that Mourning Dove's Cogewea employs Native American women's writing from the turn-of-the-century Pan-Indian movement to counter assimilationist ideology and represent gender as a specific means of resisting cultural imperialism. ^

Subject Area

Comparative literature|African American studies|Modern literature|Black studies|American literature|Native American studies|Judaic studies

Recommended Citation

Batker, Carol Jeanne, "Ethnic women's literature and politics: The cultural construction of gender in early twentieth-century America" (1993). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9316616.