Power to Power
The Question of Female Agency in Ruth Hall
by Amulya K. Purohit
Advancing The Idea Of Women As Political and Business Leaders
In Mid-1830’s America
The late-Jacksonian America saw dramatic economic changes leading to unprecedented consumerist possibilities. An exponential increase in the number of entertainment centers, and an explosive growth of print culture aiming at a large “mixed-gender audience” explains the consumerist tempo of “the age of Barnum”. “By mid-1830s, the city’s [New York] 270,000 people could choose from over 50,000 and an ever greater number of weekly and monthly publications” (Greenburg 15).The market revolution promoted a “literary public sphere”, in the manner of the eighteenth century British, and nineteenth century European “bourgeois constitutional states” facilitated rational-critical-debates of art, literature, and society:
The public sphere in the world of letters (literaische offentlichkeit) was not, of course, autochthonously bourgeois; it preserved a certain continuity with the publicity involved at the prince’s court. The bourgeois avant-garde of the educated middle-class learned the art of critical-rational public debate through its contact with the “elegant world”. (Habermas 29)
As the Jacksonians embraced “a hands-off approach” to the market, laissez-faire economics flourished, and flourished vigorously. The “age of Barnum”, as Stephen Hartnett points out in his influential essay on Ruth Hall, is also marked by intense patriarchal hegemony and foul capitalist practices. True, the common man enjoyed better democratic participation; but then, Jacksonian persuasions were notoriously misogynistic.
In the gendered politics of power, women, especially middle-class women, found themselves becoming increasingly subservient to men. Eric Foner cites historian Sean Wilentz’s essay, “Society, Politics and the Market Revolution, 1815-1848”, to argue that there was an ideological division between the public sphere of men and the private sphere of women. Thus, women could not be seen to be part of the market forces apart from working for the household. In fact, every effort was made to exclude them from the public domain. The “market revolution” in the early and middle years of nineteenth century, posed a threat to male role as breadwinners among workers when more and more women came out to join the workforce. Joshua R. Greenburg, in Advocating the Man: Masculinity, Organized Labor, and the Household in New York, 1800-40 precisely describes the situation:
As part of this household-based market engagement, working men confronted numerous obstacles to their ability to fulfill perceived domestic responsibilities. Threats came …. in the form of competition from other workers, such as …, female workers, and African American workers. In response to such threats, working men organized the early labor movement, utilizing trade unions and political parties to champion their vision [of] household-based masculinity and protect their roles as breadwinners and fathers. Critically, it was as husbands and fathers that Oramel Bingham and thousands of skilled working men in New York between 1800 and 1840 turned to collective labor organizations in order to face threats to their household responsibilities and roles. (5)
It was against this background that Fanny Fern (Sara Payson Willis) wrote her novel, Ruth Hall (1855). In this essay, I will argue how the text subverts the power arrangements of its day.
Ruth Hall, the eponymous heroine of Fern’s novel, passes through different kinds of objectification, before she becomes a subject, and then finally, an autonomous agent. To better understand the question of agency in the novel, I engage Michel Foucault’s ideas concerning “discourse”, “power” and the “subject” in my reading of Ruth Hall. I will first discuss the concepts like “subject”, “agent”, and “power relations” in a given social ensemble and then examine how these forms affect social formation. And then, I will go on to read the text in the light of these ideas. Treating the text as a social document, I argue here that Ruth’s resistance is directed at the ideological roots of the disciplinary power of patriarchy. The bond she establishes between the text and audience is a strategy for a new activism to garner support for establishing women as equal partners with men on social terra firma. It furthers the growing idea of woman as a political and business leader. Indeed, Ruth’s is story of struggle for female agency.
Let me quote certain Foucaldian concepts relevant to this study:
According to Foucault, the individual subject is not an autonomous agent, but rather a social construct…. Agents, in contrast, exist only in specific social contexts, but these contexts never determine how they try to construct themselves. Although agents necessarily exist within regimes of power/knowledge, these regimes do not determine the experiences they can have, the ways they can exercise their reason, the beliefs they adopt, or, the actions they can attempt to perform. Agents are creative beings; it is just that their creativity occurs in a given social context that influences it.
A rejection of autonomy need not entail a rejection of agency: we can say the subject always sets off against a social background that influences him, and still insist he can reason and act in creative, novel ways to modify this background. (Bevir, 5, 6)
The novel narrates Ruth’s vicissitudes in a linear fashion: from a happily married person to widowhood, loss of personhood, and then onto her steady rise into a literary celebrity. Her march from non-entity to celebrity, however, is long and arduous. The process entails an “agonism”, a combat, where there is “less of face-to-face confrontation which paralyzes both sides than a permanent provocation” ( Foucault 222).
When she loses her husband, she is no more wanted by her parents and parents-in-law, who only grudgingly pay her a pittance. Systematically she suffers diminution; she is subdued and subordinated by her own relations. Ruth becomes a non-person, an object, a non-agent, a mere body. Her relationship with the patriarchal order is one of “agonism”. It marks the beginning of the process of her self-construction and struggle for agency. She must overcome the state of docility incited by the patriarchal disciplinary power, be independent, and cultivate recalcitrance and place herself in “power relations”. Foucault holds that “Power is exercised only over free subjects, and insofar as they are free ….Where the determining factors saturate the whole there is no relationship of power; slavery is not a power relationship when man is in chains” (Foucault 221).Patriarchal hegemony wouldn’t permit Ruth to take a job: one of the modes of enforcing disciplinary power is to confine women to the domestic “enclosure”. In the spatial distribution associated with disciplinary power, “one knows one’s place” (Foucault qtd. in McHoul et al. 69). Historian Wilentz makes it amply clear how the prevailing ideology kept women away from the public sphere. For the sake of convenience, Ruth becomes the pseudonymous “Floy” and writes for “The Standard”. Entering the patriarchal marketplace, she is placed in “power relations”.
By slow degrees, Ruth offers resistance to male hegemony. As a writer, she is in a position to produce “discourse” in the form of “sentimental rhetoric” to mould public opinion in favor of the disadvantaged. Also, her relationship with the capitalist forces represents “power relations through antagonism of strategies” (Foucault 211). Foucault says:
Generally, it can be said that there are three types of struggles: either against forms of domination (ethnic, social, and religious) ; against forms of exploitation which separate individuals from what they produce; or against the forms of that which ties the individual to himself and submits him to others in this way (struggles against subjection, against forms of subjectivity and submission). (212)
Ruth Hall struggles against all these types of oppression: domination of the patriarchal social system, exploitation of the publishing sharks, subjection of the unequal legal system. Ruth evolves her own strategy of combating these forces. As Foucault says: “The exercise of power is not simply a relationship between partners, individual or collective; it is a way in which certain actions modify others” (219). Alive to the sociocultural shifts, Fanny Fern shows how Ruth exercises power to shape her destiny. Even when she is penniless, she is not powerless. To neutralize the predatory impulses of her adversaries, she assumes the name of a cheerful neuter–”Floy”. This makes people think “her to be a man, because she had the courage to call things by their right names, and the independence to express herself boldly on subjects which to the timid and clique-serving, were tabooed”; some would even call her “a designing widow” (170). A gradualist that she is, she would bend and be firm as it suits her purpose; she would wait with patience till the “point of a possible reversal” (Foucault 225). After her husband’s death, when she is asked to part with his clothes, including his “wedding-vest”, she capitulates, knowing full well that on this point, the “law was on her side” (91). She does this because “in the present state of [her] affairs, [she] cannot afford to refuse” (94). She knows how to modify others: visiting the “insane Hospital”, she persuades Mr.Tibbetts to “break through your rules” and let her see the Mrs. Leon’s corpse. “The appeal was made so gently, yet so firmly that Mr. Tibbetts reluctantly yielded” (139).
The word strategy, among other things, designates “the procedure used in a situation of confrontation to deprive the opponent of his means of combat and to reduce him to giving up the struggle; it is a question therefore of the means destined to obtain victory” (Foucault 224-225). Ruth’s confrontation strategy against her in-laws is marked initially by obedience with a certain obstinacy; and later, when she comes into money through her writings, she treats them with aggressive contempt. It is a “type of action which reduces the other to total impotence” (Foucault 225). Ruth achieves this feat when she overpowers her father-in-law in her act of reclaiming her daughter, Katy:
“Humph!” said the doctor, “and you better than a beggar! The law says if the mother can’t support her children, the grandparents shall do it.” “The mother can–the mother will,” said Ruth. “I have earned enough for their support.”
“Well, if you have, which I doubt, I hope you earned it honestly,” said the old lady.
Ruth’s heightened color was the only reply to this taunt.
Tying her handkerchief over Katy’s bare head, and wrapping the trembling child in a shawl she had provided, she bore her to a carriage, where Mr. Walter and his brother-in-law, (Mr. Grey,) with little Nettie, awaited them; the door was quickly closed, and the carriage whirred off. (238)
Now let me discuss how Ruth assumes regulatory power and control in the marketplace, “a marketplace few understood so well or exploited so triumphantly as Fanny Fern” (Susan B. Smith xv). Her deft management of banking and finances demystifies the domestic hearth angel and places her on an equal footing with her male counterparts. When Ruth realizes her “market-value”, she demands a raise. When “The Standard” and “The Pilgrim” refuse, she immediately switches over to “The Household Messenger” in order to get “a remuneration as [her] genius and practical newspaperial talent entitle [her] to” (184). Yet another instance of her business acumen is her decision not to sell her copyrights for $800. Indeed, her speculations prove right and she reaps profits many times over when her book becomes a hit. At the end of the book we see Ruth as a justifiably proud “bank-stock holder” of $10,000 of those days.
In his essay, Stephen Hartnett points out how the heroine of Fern’s novel “becomes increasingly enamored of the public status, consumerist possibilities, and life-style freedoms made available to her by fame and fortune”(1). He persuades us that “Fern’s prose is not so much sentimental as dialectical and ironic” (2). And, one wonders if the book was not meant to celebrate “the conflation of capitalism and democracy” of the late-Jacksonian era. John Walter, Ruth’s benefactor, fails to fathom out what kind of person could Ruth possibly be. To him, she is “A bundle of contradictions!” (180). In this respect she represents the contradictions that characterize American character. In the light of his reading of Daniel Bell’s The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Luther S. Luedtke says: “America is a schizophrenic nation; its culture is drifting towards hedonism and consumerism even while its societal structure stands on the old virtues of thrift, hard work, self-denial, and efficiency” (24). Ruth’s behavior is like that of any social climber. As Hartnett says: “Hall triumphantly and crassly performs new found wealth by “tossing a full purse of money into Katy’s lap”. The point I am trying to make here is that consumerism is close to hedonism and that it promotes a certain kind of aggressive behavior. Ruth’s and Rabbit’s represent different degrees of consumerist behavior. If we go by “situation ethics”, such behavior is condonable. And, this gesture by no means dwarfs Ruth Hall’s achievements. Her successful entry into a male preserve, her combative strategy, her exploitation of the “nascent capitalist culture industry amounts to a clear political and cultural step forward for women” (Hartnett 12). The text is a discursive exterior that subverts male hegemony and paves the way for a counter-hegemony.
Bell, Daniel. The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. New York: Basic Books, 1976. Bevir, Mark. “Foucault and Critique: Deploying Agency Against Autonomy”. Political Theory. University of California Post prints. 1999, Paper1084.http://repositories.cdlib.org/postprints/1084
Fern, Fanny. Ruth Hall: A Domestic Tale of The Present Time. 1855. ed.Susan Belasco Smith. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1997.
Foner, Eric. Ed. A New American History. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990. Greenburg, Joshua R. Advocating the Man: Masculinity, Organized Labor, and the Household in New York, 1800-1840. http://www.gutenberg-e.org/IntroductionJrg.html
Habermas, Jurgen. Structural transformation of the public sphere: An Inquiry into a category of Bourgeois Society. Trans. Thomas Burger. Cambridge: MIT P, 1989. Hartnett, Stephen. “Fanny Fern’s 1885 Ruth Hall, The Cheerful Brutality of Capitalism, & The Irony of Sentimental Rhetoric”. Quarterly Journal of Speech. Vol. 88, No. 1, February, 2002, 1-18.
Leudtke, Luther S. “The search for American character”. Making of America: Society and Culture of the United States. New Delhi: Tata McGraw-Hill Publishing Company Limited, 1988. 7-34. McHoul, Alec and Wendy Grace. A Foucault Primer: Discourse, Power and the Subject. New York: New York University Press, 1993.
Smith, Susan. Ed. and introduction. Ruth Hall. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1997.
Wilentz, Sean. “Society, Politics and the Market Revolution, 1815-1848”. New American History. ed. Eric Foner. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990. 51-71.
Updike, John. Rabbit Is Rich. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982.