Date of Award
Campus Access Thesis
Master of Arts (MA)
Leonard von Morzé
This project examines the changing role of women in late eighteenth-century America through Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette; or, The History of Eliza Wharton published in 1797. One of the most popular novels of the day, Foster’s novel, like many other sentimental works, narrates the seduction and trials of an unmarried woman. Yet, Foster goes beyond the seduction plot tradition and openly examines the interrelation between gender, citizenship, education and marriage of women in revolutionary America. In doing so, she takes leave of the confines of the sentimental novel and uses the genre as a means to comment on the social challenges facing women in the new Republic.
Women were ready to be involved in political discourse as a result of Revolutionary ideals. Newfound freedom encouraged American women into active involvement in political life, in education, and in pursuit of individuality. However all the improvements afforded them by society in this respect were to the service of republican ideals. The biggest improvement for women was in access to education, but that is used only within the boundaries of virtue. Their new role required that they be virtuous, productive members ofsociety; passive in the public sphere but fully engaged in private. This expectation left matrimony and a domestic life as the primary use of their practical education.
The Coquette, in the same perspective, reflects the lack of any viable alternative for women between an immoral life and the ideal "republican wifehood". The middle ground is not available for them; they are either accepted as virtuous or outcast as whores. Republican womanhood in this sense controls the possible emergence of the female sensibility as opposed to women's public presence in the patriarchal society of the book’s heroine. This system has its own method to dictate ideals through societal pressures; mostly commonly through the circle of women guiding each other toward acceptable behavior. Yet despite the efforts of her respectable friends and her own virtuous inclinations, the readers still witness her fall.
The Coquette sympathizes with Eliza and hints at the reasons of why and how her ruin takes place. Are seduced women responsible for their own fall? Where do the constraints of societal norms define their fate? Through Eliza, Foster shows how the women of the new nation are restricted to take the role society expects of them.
Hidir, Serap, "The Coquette and the Changing Role of Women in Revolutionary America" (2012). Graduate Masters Theses. 150.