Working in the Diminutive: Women Professionals in Postbellum U.S. Literature (1861-1905)
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Around the time of the American Civil War, middle-class women began entering full-time employments outside the home at greater rates than ever before. In order to be perceived positively by men and non-working women, these women professionals had to frame their work as unthreatening to heteronormative patriarchal structures placing women exclusively in the home and men in employments outside it. Straddling ideals of “True Womanhood,” which emphasized meekness and domesticity, among other traits, and “Real Womanhood, which suggested women could be more robust without loss of femininity, women set the parameters for proper employments and created new niches of work middle-class women could perform without perceived losses to their femininity or domestic acumen, and by extension, class and social status. Further, uses of specifically feminine language such as female diminutive terms like “authoress” and “doctress” kept women professionals in separate categories from their male counterparts; this was often an intentional move women made to seem less threatening. This work done to sanction middle-class women’s non-domestic work can thus be seen as a sort of compromise between true financial and personal independence and continued social acceptability, a compromise that helped a large group of middle-class women find both success in professions and positive portrayals in novels and periodical literature of the later nineteenth century.