116th Annual Conference - Bellingham, Washington
Friday, November 9 - Sunday, November 11, 2018

Acting Passive in the Early Republic: White Women’s Roles in Susanna Rowson’s Reuben and Rachel 

Molly Ball, Eureka College

Rowson’s 1798 novel, Reuben and Rachel, works to imagine an expanded role for white women and confirm the myth that the early republic is uniquely egalitarian. As female characters’ sentimental performances spur historical “progress,” they demonstrate their merit and suggest that those who fail to execute similar performances deserve marginalization.


Susanna Rowson, an actress, playwright, educator, and novelist active from the 1780s to the 1820s, sought to expand women’s role in the early republic. In a 2008 study titled Prodigal Daughters, Marion Rust argues that Rowson’s fiction and plays taught early American women to actively support the new nation. According to Rust, Rowson’s work does this by “transform[ing] gentility…from an inherited condition to a practiced art available to any determined and literate Anglo-American woman” (6). In other words, Rowson’s work suggested that, by acting in a genteel, virtuous manner, a woman could distinguish herself and her nation. A woman’s actions, not her birth, would define her social status. In turn, this would confirm the nation as an egalitarian meritocracy. Yet to realize these ends, a woman’s activity had specific limits. She must act, but must also dissemble the desires motivating her action, since these could compromise her virtue. Thus, women had to perform passivity and activity simultaneously.


Rowson’s attempts to negotiate this imperative to be both active and passive illuminate how gender and race intersect in much sentimental U.S. literature. This is particularly visible in her 1798 historical novel, Reuben and Rachel. Tracing a family history that begins with Columbus’ son’s marriage to a Peruvian princess and that ends just before the Revolutionary War, Reuben and Rachel moves from an aristocratic and racially diverse past to an increasingly middle class and predominately white present. The novel casts these changes as positive historical progress. Moreover, this “progress” seems to result from female agency—the novel foregrounds women’s active role in history. However, women’s ability to effect historical change diminishes as the novel advances. As several critics have observed, the heroines in the novel’s first half are much more active than those in its second half; as women propel history’s seeming “progress,” they create a world in which later women’s roles get dramatically circumscribed. Moreover, the novel’s female characters also create a world that is increasingly inhospitable to racialized characters. Thus, the historical “progress” depicted in the novel has a stultifying effect on women’s agency and on racialized populations.


In this way, the novel links the perceived contradiction between feminine agency and feminine virtue to a central contradiction in U.S. culture: that a supposedly egalitarian democratic order is founded on racialized and gendered subordination. Reuben and Rachel illustrates how casting white women’s ability to perform a “new gentility” as proof of the nation’s meritocratic principles actually makes these women complicit with a regime that prizes whiteness—an accident of birth—over individual merit. Thus, the novel shows how the power Rowson claims for middle class white women depends on their willingness to produce and police exclusionary social codes. This unfolds through various characters’ didactic performances of sentiment. As female characters instruct their audience through emotional displays, they not only model the behaviors proper to active, virtuous American women, but also suggest that other groups who fail to act out emerging middle class values deserve their marginalization.