Femalities: Materialist Embodiment in Nineteenth-Century American Women’s Writing



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This dissertation is a study of movements––those that occur on, within, and beyond the body and those set in motion by the energetic and endlessly renewing material forces that take on different forms outside of it. In my introduction, I trace Margaret Fuller’s use of the concept “femality” in her early writing and Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845) before reconfiguring femality within a new materialist framework. Building on innovative interdisciplinary work within the field of nineteenth-century studies as well as working with critical studies in a number of related theoretical fields, such as new materialism, posthumanism, and animal studies, I examine women’s novels such as Julia Ward Howe’s The Hermaphrodite (unpublished in era, 1840s), Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s A Story of Avis (1877), and Hannah Crafts’s The Bondwoman’s Narrative (unpublished in era, 1850s). Each chapter explores the concept of femality in a wide range of experience and materiality. As a paradigm that creates various modalities of potential between the body and materiality, femality demonstrates how materiality shapes personhood through complex and surprising encounters. In these chapters, I explore several of these modalities, such as materiality as textures of ecstatic connection and metamorphosis as fluidity (Howe), animality as co-existence and plurality (Phelps), and the wild as experiential ground for female ecologies (Crafts). In the epilogue, I return to Fuller to consider how a recognition of materiality’s potential might transform our view of everyday moments. This study seeks to unsettle traditional conceptualizations of the body by reformulating it within a materialist domain. In contrast to a frame that posits the body and materiality as passive entities, femality, as a materialist optic, recognizes both the body and materiality as potentialities of contact, exchange, and transformation. As a secondary concern, movements between female bodies and entities of the environment, such as plants, trees, and birds, reveal a configuration of womanhood that is plural and ecological. While some movements eventually slow or reach their resting state, others keep going, endlessly becoming, to take on new forms and ecological dimensions.



Femality, New materialism, Embodiment, Body, Environment, Nineteenth century, American literature