New Women Writer-Protagonists: Comparing Louisa May Alcott’s Jo and Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne

Alcott, date and author unknown. public domain, via wikimedia commons.

Alcott, date and author unknown. public domain, via wikimedia commons.

By Tiffany Johnstone


It is no coincidence that Canadian Lucy Maud Montgomery’s (1874–1942) Anne of Green Gables (1908) resembles American Louisa May Alcott’s (1832-1888) earlier two-part text Little Women (1868-1869), published as one book in 1880.  Both coming-of-age narratives engage in debates about gender prevalent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Both feature independent female protagonists who must negotiate traditional gender roles and increased opportunities for their sex.  While Little Women and its two sequels (published in 1871 and 1886) follow all of the female members of the March family, they focus on Josephine (“Jo”) March who struggles the most to free herself from gender expectations.  Similarly, Anne of Green Gables (1908) and its many sequels (published between 1909 and 1939) track Anne Shirley whose independent nature conflicts with social expectations.  Jo and Anne have both become iconic characters that are in many ways emblematic of the turn of the 20th century’s New Woman.[1]  Their most obvious and well-known literary predecessor is Elizabeth Bennett from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) who consistently uses her own wit and independence of mind to flout gender conventions.  However, the updated dilemmas for Jo and Anne lie not so much in their independent natures as in their literary aspirations.  In a meta-textual twist, both Little Women and Anne of Green Gables mirror the lives of their authors.  Each represents the struggles of the New Woman through the figure of the New Woman writer, thereby equating female emancipation with increased powers of self-expression.

In terms of subject matter, Alcott and Montgomery either deliberately or inadvertently echo earlier famous 19th century texts by and for women (most notably those by Austen and the Brontë sisters).  They recall these earlier texts by focussing on the emotional and psychological development of independent female characters who somehow manage to challenge social expectations, while also ultimately finding socially acceptance and personal fulfillment in marriage.  In terms of genre, both women can be seen as drawing in key ways on the sentimental novel, which first emerged in the 18th century and which placed a strong emphasis on the value of emotion and the pursuit of ideals of virtue (“Sentimental Novel”).  19th century North American women writers found massive mainstream success in sentimental novels that often contained domestic themes and a hetero-normative focus on marriage.  For example, E.D.E.N. Southworth (1819-1899) was a 19th century American writer who drew on the sentimental genre and whose texts may have been judged harshly by literary critics despite their immense popularity.  Famed American 19th century author, Nathanial Hawthorne (1804-1864) is known to have denounced such popular women writers, referring to them as a “damn mob of scribbling women!” (Qtd. in Berlatsky).  Aside from drawing on the inspiration of the sentimental genre, Alcott and Montgomery also use more contemporary elements of realism through their preoccupation with the details of daily life and less melodramatic emotional extremes and plot twists than those that occur in many sentimental novels.  Both authors acknowledge their own realist turn by parodying Jo and Anne’s interest in the sensation genre, a type of popular 19th-century adventure and crime literature known for featuring graphic and gratuitous scenes of violence and sexuality (“Novel of Sensation”).

Louisa May Alcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1832.  She was the second of four sisters and her parents were teacher and transcendentalist Amos Bronson Alcott and social worker Abby May.  In 1838, the Alcotts relocated to Boston.  Bronson founded an experimental school and joined the Transcendentalists along with philosophers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.  After a year spent in the Utopian Fruitlands community in Harvard, the Alcotts bought a house in Concord, Massachusetts in 1845.  Educated mostly by her own father, Alcott also studied periodically with Emerson and Thoreau, early feminist Margaret Fuller, and novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Like many women of limited financial means at the time, Alcott, in addition to writing, worked as a governess, a domestic, and a teacher.  Financial pressures are said to have led to thoughts of suicide and she described alienation from traditional modes of femininity.  She never married or had children.  While Alcott broke ground as a professional female writer, she also supported her family and even took care of her niece after the death of her sister.

Alcott was a suffragist and the first woman in Concord to register to vote.  In the fight against Black slavery, she, along with her family, was an abolitionist and supporter of the Underground Railroad.  Her first literary success came with Hospital Sketches (1863), her account of working as a nurse during the American Civil War (1860-5).   She received still more acclaim with the publication of the first part of Little Women.  The series was a near-instant cult classic, creating an important source of income for her family, a devoted readership, international acclaim, and approximately nine film adaptations.  Alcott wrote at least 26 complete long works of fiction in addition to many short stories, plays, poetry, and non-fiction throughout her life, and she continued writing until her death in Boston in 1888.

Katharine Hepburn as Jo, 1933. By RKO Radio Pictures (work for hire) ([3] (direct link to image).) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Description publicity still of Katharine Hepburn as Jo, 1933. By RKO Radio Pictures (work for hire) ([3] (direct link to image).) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Little Women series, which defines Alcott’s career, is based in many ways on her upbringing and the character of Jo seems to be at least partly autobiographical.  Like Alcott, Jo March lives in Concord in a household of four sisters with idealistic and anti-authoritarian parents.  The story follows their daily life as they cope with financial and health struggles and the absence of the father in the Civil War, (the latter detail of which was not autobiographical).  The daily lives of women stand at the centre of the text.  Jo’s struggle to find her voice as a New Woman and as a writer is the main narrative arc.  Like Alcott, Jo actively rejects traditional gender roles.  She refuses the marriage offer of a childhood friend so as to focus instead on her career.  Later, she forms a more unconventional relationship with an older German intellectual.  Like her creator’s, Jo’s rebellion further manifests itself in a fervent desire to write fiction.  Her departure for New York for employment as both a governess and a writer is an important symbolic departure from traditional expectations.  Significantly, Jo initially devotes herself to sensation fiction.  Aside from the Little Women series, Alcott employed the sensation genre at times throughout her career, writing many popular thrillers under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard.  However, just as Alcott seems to have made her name with the more realist Little Women, so too does Jo prioritize realism.  Upon criticism that her writing did not ring true, she elects a more realistic portrayal of her upbringing, a symbolic return to her roots that in some ways mirrors Alcott’s loyalty to her family and her career-defining success with Little Women.

Japanese poster for the 1949 film version. By MGM ([1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Japanese poster for the 1949 film version. By MGM ([1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Jo’s path nevertheless somewhat diverges from Alcott’s.  She marries the German professor and establishes a school.  Her marriage and decision to choose the more traditionally feminine career of teaching signal a more conventional life path than that of the unmarried professional writer.  In setting Jo’s trajectory, Alcott was following a familiar sentimental narrative structure made famous by Austen and the Brontës.  On the one hand, a conventional ending could have been a deliberate appeal to readers and publishers, a more pressing necessity for professional female authors who had to work harder to justify themselves in a male-dominated field.  However, Jo’s fate can also be read as a creative engagement with social pressures that women of her time faced.  Like Alcott, Jo negotiates between traditionally masculine and feminine roles, between the public and private sphere, and between social rebellion and social acceptance.

Alcott had to find a balance between increased opportunities and more traditional roles.  As a popular and trailblazing writer, she helped to legitimize professional female authors even as she demonstrated her own domestic loyalty to and financial support of her family (Chapman and Mills 12).  The woman writer who rebels against and then returns to more traditional domestic gender roles embodies a complicated message, namely the difficulty of gaining a creative voice in public employments while maintaining domestic respectability and authority.

Montgomery, 1897-1901. Anonymous author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Montgomery, 1897-1901. Anonymous author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Born in Clifton, Prince Edward Island in 1874, Lucy Maud Montgomery was raised by her maternal grandparents Alexander Marquis Macneill and Lucy Woolner Macneill in Cavendish.  Her father, Hugh John Montgomery, sent her to live with them after her mother, Clara Woolner Macneill Montgomery, died of tuberculosis shortly before her child’s second birthday.  Like many Maritimers, he then left for the west where he was effectively lost to his daughter for many years.  Their charge later credited the strictness of the Macneills for both loneliness and a strong imagination.  She went to school in Cavendish and in 1893 began studying as a teacher at Prince of Wales College, Charlottetown.  Licensed in 1895, she went the following year to Halifax’s Dalhousie University to study literature.  She seems to have had several romantic attachments and some marriage proposals, all of which she ultimately rejected, preferring to wait for a more suitable candidate and the securing of a reliable income as a writer.  After 1898, she lived mostly in Cavendish with her widowed grandmother who died in 1911.  Between 1897 and 1907, she published over a hundred stories in newspapers and magazines. In 1908, she published Anne of Green Gables, which cemented her literary success.

In 1911, she married Presbyterian minister, Ewan Macdonald (1870-1943).   They moved to Leaksdale, Ontario where he secured a congregation while Montgomery continued to write, while also performing the expected duties of a minister’s wife.  She raised two sons and had an additional stillborn son, an experience drawn upon in the Anne series.  Managing a husband who suffered bouts of mental illness, Montgomery relied on her writing for income and affirmation.  In 1926, the family moved to another small Ontario town, Norval.  When Ewan retired in 1935, they shifted to Swansea near Toronto.  She died in Toronto in 1942 leaving a widower and was buried in Cavendish.  While the official report claimed a coronary thrombosis, a note suggests depression and suicide.[2]

Montgomery wrote nine Anne books and 20 novels.  She also published a memoir, poetry, and hundreds of short stories.  Her Anne books received international acclaim in her own lifetime and, subsequently, films, a spin-off television series, booming tourism for PEI, and a cult literary fan-base.  Even Mark Twain who famously criticized Jane Austen’s books professed love for Anne.  Montgomery was the first Canadian woman to become a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and she remains one of the most internationally recognized Canadian authors.

Like Alcott’s Little Women, Anne of Green Gables presents uncanny parallels with the life of Montgomery who stated that “Anne is as real to me as if I had given her birth” (Gerson, “Dragged” 151).  The books start with orphaned Anne Shirley’s adoption by elderly rural farmers, sister and brother Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert.  Like her creator, the child is a lonely outcast with a wild imagination and extravagant literary aspirations.  Anne too rejects romantic love at first to pursue independence in education, teaching, and writing.  Like Montgomery before she married, Anne returns to where she grew up.  At the end of the first book she delays going away to school on a scholarship to look after her adoptive mother, a choice that some reviewers and Montgomery herself sometimes found “too conventional” (Gerson, “Dragged” 149).  Anne draws on her upbringing for literary inspiration.  Like her American predecessor Jo, she gives up sensation stories for greater realism and eventually marries childhood friend Gilbert Blythe and raises several children.  Her life, like Jo’s, but unlike that of either author, is bound up in a narrative of  heterosexual marriage and domesticity.

A lobby card for the 1919 film. By Realart Pictures ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

A lobby card for the 1919 film. By Realart Pictures ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Alcott and Montgomery show the struggles of professional women writers to gain a voice and carve out more independent paths for women.  Despite, and no doubt partly because of, their iconic status as authors of children’s books and popular novels for women, Alcott and Montgomery arguably do not share the same level of literary canonization as several of their male contemporaries.  As literary critic Carole Gerson points out in relation to Canadian women writers, “achieving celebrity is not the same as enjoying canonicity” (Canadian Women in Print 196).  The 20th-century North American modernist backlash against popular literature written by and for women was influential in minimizing the presence of successful women writers in literary canons.  Alcott’s and Montgomery’s struggles with depression demonstrate the personal costs of challenging the status quo.  Their lives nevertheless forecast different options and offer at least a measure of inspiration. Both the Canadian and the American found in their work and in their readers significant comfort and consolation.  In a bravely experimental move, they replace the distanced narration of Austen and the Brontës with a more raw, autobiographical style that re-imagines a New Woman in their image—that of the professional writer—and encourages readers to similarly use their creative powers to invent new modes of identity.  The immense popularity of both Little Women and Anne of Green Gables, and particularly of their protagonists, testifies to how much (especially female) readers sought optimistic new models of female creative agency.

Jo and Anne’s success in combining the domestic and the professional for massive popular audiences was extremely important.  Even contemporary world-renowned Canadian feminist author Margaret Atwood admits that as a young writer, she was struck by how women’s creative freedom seemed often to be equated with self-sacrifice, punishment, and even death (Sullivan).  In the 21st century, this motif continues to darken contemporary literature and film such as the recent film, Black Swan (2010).  Alcott and Montgomery bucked such misogyny.  Despite the recurring dismissal of figures such as Alcott and Montgomery as unrealistic and sentimental on the part of modern critics (Gerson, Canadian Women in Print), these authors re-envision female self-expression as rewarding and powerful.  In their new model, independent women artists struggle and rebel but nevertheless reap personal satisfaction and social acceptance.  The immense continuing popularity of Jo and Anne helped to make un-penalized creative freedom (in women’s art and in women’s lives) a goal for later generations of women.



Alcott, Louisa May, and NetLibrary, Inc. Ebook Collection. Little Women and Good Wives. Champaign, Ill.: Project Gutenberg, and Boulder, Colo.: NetLibrary. UBC Library. Web. 28 June, 2013.

Berlatsky, Noah. “That Damn Mob of Scribbling Women!”—An Interview With Bee Ridgway” The Hooded Utilitarian: A Pundit in Every Panopticon. 21 May, 2013. Web. 1 Jul. 2013.

Chapman, Mary and Angela Mills.  Treacherous Texts. U.S. Suffrage Literature, 1846-1946. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2011.

Gerson, Carole. Canadian Women in Print, 1750–1918. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2010. Project MUSE. Web. 30 Jun. 2013.

– – -. “Dragged at Anne’s Chariot Wheels’: L.M. Montgomery and the Sequels to Anne of Green Gables.” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada. 35.2 (1997): 143-159.

Miller, Kathleen A. “The Magic of L.M. Montgomery: Her Life and Works.” Children’s Literature 38 (2010): 254-259. Project MUSE. Web. 30 Jun. 2013.

Montgomery, Lucy Maud. Anne of Green Gables. n.p., 1908. Project Gutenberg Online Catalogue.  UBC Library. Web. 28 June, 2013.

“Novel of Sensation.” The Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. 3rd Ed. 1992.

“Sentimental Novel.” The Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. 3rd Ed. 1992.

Sullivan, Rosemary. The Red Shoes: Margaret Atwood Starting Out. Toronto: Harper Flamingo Canada, 1998.




[1] While this term emerged in specific ways in the 1890s, I use it in a more general way to indicate Alcott’s influence in earlier narratives and debates about independent women that helped to lead to more specific New Woman discourses at the end of the century, which then in turn influenced Montgomery’s later texts.  The importance of professional women writers in creating and representing New Woman discourses, particularly in the east coast publishing scene, also indicates Alcott’s earlier influence on such discourses.


[2] While Montgomery’s descendants released a note in 2008 that confirmed the author’s depression and suggested that she may have taken her own life, debates continue about whether or not the note was merely a private journal entry (Miller 256-257).

Rights of Woman: Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)


Painted by John Opie [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, 1797.

By Tiffany Johnstone


“[Wollstonecraft] is alive and active, she argues and experiments, we hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living.”
-Virginia Woolf, Qtd. in Ryall and Sandbach-Dahlstöm, 1.

Mary Wollstonecraft was a groundbreaking social critic, philosopher, novelist, travel writer, and advocate of women’s rights in Britain at the end of the 18th century. As an highly influential social thinker and figure in the literary movement of romanticism, she was a vocal participant in Enlightenment debates relating to women’s rights, education reform, and the French Revolution. Her insistence on the equality of women and men was perhaps the most controversial and persistent topic of her writing. While her work met with acclaim during her day, Wollstonecraft’s often unconventional lifestyle overshadowed her intellectual legacy until the 19th century when she became an important icon for suffragists.

Wollstonecraft’s early life involved struggles to free herself from financial insecurities and oppressive gender roles. She was born in 1759 in Spitalfields, London, the second of seven children. Her parents, Edward John Wollstonecraft and Elizabeth Dixon had a difficult marriage plagued by the former’s domestic violence and mishandling of finances. Her father was a handkerchief weaver who squandered his inheritance in various failed ventures as a farmer (Powell). Between 1778 and 1780, Wollstonecraft worked as a lady’s companion in Bath, a commonplace profession for respectable but impoverished daughters that she later critiqued in Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), and which she left to care for her dying mother. After the latter’s death, Wollstonecraft lived for two years with the family of her close friend and muse, Fanny Blood (d. 1785). The two women, along with Wollstonecraft’s sisters, formed a school in 1784 in Newington Green, home to many 17th century Protestant dissenters. The school, another recurring expedient for women with education but little money, closed when Wollstonecraft left, this time to nurse Blood who was dying from tuberculosis. Wollstonecraft next worked as a governess (her employments ran the gambit of opportunity for women in her predicament) in Ireland for a year, a job that inspired her children’s book Original Stories from Real Life (1788), as well as the decision to pursue the challenging career of professional writing. She moved to London to learn French and German, work as a translator, and write reviews for publisher Joseph Johnson’s (1738-1809) Analytical Review, a leading literary and political periodical of the day.

During this period immediately before the French Revolution, which set Europe and intellectuals afire, Wollstonecraft joined a radical community of activists and writers including the American colonist Thomas Paine (1737-1809) and the English philosopher William Godwin (1756-1836). This proved an especially productive period in her life. She made her mark on history in 1790 with the publication of A Vindication on the Rights of Man and, two years later, still more significantly, of A Vindication on the Rights of Woman (1792). Her relationship with married soi-disant radical artist Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) helped to precipitate her move to France in December 1792, where the French Revolution further inspired her assessment of the human condition.

In revolutionary Paris, Wollstonecraft began a turbulent affair with American author, businessman, and diplomat, Gilbert Imlay (1754-1828). In 1794, she gave birth to Fanny Imlay. That same year, her Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution was published in London. Gilbert Imlay and Wollstonecraft never married and her unrequited devotion resulted in two suicide attempts. In 1796, after a northern trip on Imlay’s behalf, she published Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.

The last year of Wollstonecraft’s life marked her return to literary friends in Joseph Johnson’s circle. She began a relationship with her old acquaintance, William Godwin. Following her pregnancy, they married in March 1797. Their marriage raised eyebrows once it was known that she had not been married to Imlay, that she had been pregnant out of wedlock twice, and that Godwin had previously denounced marriage. Despite the scandal, Wollstonecraft and Godwin found in each other intellectual equality, respect, and devotion. The two authors famously resided in adjoining houses in order to promote independence within the marriage. She gave birth to Mary, later known as Mary Shelley (1797-1851), who would become the famous author of Frankenstein (1818). Tragically, but like so many women of the time, Wollstonecraft died ten days after childbirth of puerperal fever and septicaemia, leaving a devastated Godwin. In 1798, he reread all of her work, edited, and published her remaining manuscripts, and made the fateful decision to write and publish Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. This biography, while an expression of his admiration, was so candid that it caused a scandal that largely eclipsed her political reputation throughout the next century.

Wollstonecraft’s intellectual legacy nevertheless persisted. While many prominent 19th century authors including the popular novelist Fanny Burney (1752-1840) disparaged her life and work, figures such as the romantic poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861), the novelist George Eliot (also known as Mary Ann or Marian Evans) (1819-1880) and American philosopher and proto-suffragist Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) respected Wollstonecraft. In the widely circulated Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845) (Botting and Carey 715), Fuller reinterpreted and defended Godwin’s Memoirs as well as Wollstonecraft’s character and body of work. In the 1880s, amidst a growing international movement for women’s suffrage, she was increasingly invoked as a foremother of feminist thought. American author Elizabeth Robins Pennell published her biography in 1884. In 1892, a centenary edition of Rights of Woman featured an introduction by British suffrage leader Millicent Garret Fawcett (1847-1929) that sought to reinstate Wollstonecraft in a canon of heroines. Wollstonecraft also proved an icon for prominent American suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), and Lucy Stone (1818-1893). All cited her in arguing for equal political and civil rights (Botting and Carey 716). Stanton and Stone are said to have quoted Wollstonecraft in the first edition of their radical newspaper, The Revolution, in 1868 (Ryall and Sandbach-Dahlstöm 7). Early 20th century activists and writers such as British modernist writer Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) and Russian anarchist Emma Goldman (1869-1940) and later second wave feminists similarly embraced her as an influential feminist thinker.

Wollstonecraft’s feminist legacy is best expressed in her texts. Her early work, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787) and Original Stories from Real Life (1788) made the case in effect for socialization, arguing that middle-class values such as reason and self-discipline could be instilled through education in children and women: inferiority was learned not natural. The much cited A Vindication on the Rights of Man responded to Conservative Irish philosopher Edmund Burke’s (1729-1827) condemnation of the French Revolution. She criticized the aristocracy and associated the equality of women with more democratic middle-class values. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman championed co-education and universal schooling (though poorer children would not reap all benefits). Invoking what would later be termed maternal feminism, she suggested that educated women benefit society as better citizens, wives, and mothers.

Wollstonecraft’s occasional deference to conventional gender binaries was understandable considering the iconic male intellectuals with whom she entered into public debate and whose hypocrisies relating to women she set out for readers. She sardonically dismissed male contemporaries such as Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) who argued that the end of women’s education was to please men.

Wollstonecraft also pushed genre boundaries. Her novels, Mary: A Fiction (1788) and Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman (1798) both critiqued the institution of marriage and the pressures on women to pursue romantic goals and prioritized other relationships including strong female friendships. Her thoughtful travel narrative, Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, emphasized the subjective lens of the traveller by foregrounding her personal struggles and political ideals. This text was one of the rare pieces by a female author that deeply influenced the male-dominated literary Romantic movement (Anka Ryall and Catherine Sandbach-Dahlstöm 2).

Wollstonecraft set invaluable precedents both as a successful professional female writer who sparred with male intellectual heavyweights and someone who struggled not only to theorize but also to embody a commitment to equality. The difficulties she faced and the overwhelming posthumous criticism of her life and work, testify to pervasive misogyny and prejudice. In the 21st century, Mary Wollstonecraft continues to remind readers that the ‘personal’ remains ultimately ‘political.’


Botting, Eileen Hunt, and Christine Carey. “Wollstonecraft’s Philosophical Impact on Nineteenth Century American Women’s Rights Advocates.” American Journal of Political Science 48.4 (2004): 707-722. Web. JStor. University of British Columbia Library. 26 May 2013.

Carlson, Julia Ann. England’s First Family of Writers: Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, Mary Shelley. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007. Web. University of British Columbia Ebrary. 26 May 2013.

Powell, Jim. “Mary Wollstonecraft—Equal Rights for Women: Wollstonecraft Established the Individualist Roots of Equal Rights.” The Freeman. Foundation for Economic Education. 1 April. 1996. Web. 16 2013.

Ryall, Anka and Catherine Sandbach-Dahlstöm. Introduction. Mary Wollstonecraft’s Journey to Scandinavia: Essays. Ed. Anka Ryall and Catherine Sandbach-Dahlstöm. Stockholm Studies in English XCIX. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2003. 1-21.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: With Structures on Political and Moral Subjects. 2nd edition. London: J. Johnson, 1792. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Web. Gale. University of British Columbia Library. 26 May 2013.

“Wollstonecraft, Mary.” The Cambridge Guide to Women’s Writing in English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Eds. Lorna Sage, Germaine Greer, and Elaine Showalter. 675-676.

Connecting Links: Race and Gender in the work of Edith Maude Eaton (Sui Sin Far)

Public domain image of Edith Eaton (provided by Dr. Mary Chapman, UBC).

Public domain image of Edith Eaton (provided by Dr. Mary Chapman, UBC).


By Tiffany Johnstone


“I give my right hand to the Occidentals and my left to the Orientals, hoping that between them they will not utterly destroy the insignificant connecting link.”
-Edith Maude Eaton, “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian,” 230.

The history of women’s suffrage in North America is best understood within the context of historical debates about borders, nationality, race, and citizenship. Edith Eaton (1865-1914), also known by her frequent penname, Sui Sin Far, a journalist and fiction writer who wrote and lived in Canada and the United States at the turn of the 20th century, is a prime example of a writer who crossed geographical and political borders to explore the gender- and race-discrimination surrounding political definitions of citizenship. Eaton travelled throughout Canada, and the United States, promoting the rights of women and people of Chinese, Eurasian, and mixed racial descent. While she is known for her ambivalent and even critical perspective on suffrage discourses for their lack of attention to class and race, her work illuminates the ways in which types of race-, class-, and gender-discrimination intersect in definitions of citizenship (Chapman).

‘Race’ is not the only explanation for Eaton’s relative obscurity in Canada. She also readily disappeared because much of her life and work unfolded in the United States. Recently, however, she has been coined the “‘mother’ of Asian North American literature” (Chapman) and her work has begun to receive increased critical attention in Canada for her bold engagement in political debates that traversed primarily the Pacific Ocean and the Canadian/American border (Chapman; Lape). Like the better-known Sara Jeanette Duncan, she was a prolific journalist and prose writer with an incisive style of cultural commentary, an interest in politics and women’s rights, and what scholars would now define as a transnational cultural perspective. Eaton often highlighted her mix of British, Chinese, Canadian, and American cultural backgrounds and took particular advantage of the permeability of the Canadian/American border at the time. She wrote boldly about being half Chinese and like E. Pauline Johnson she drew on her own experience of racial hybridity to promote racial tolerance. She wrote extensively about the experiences of Chinese and Eurasian people in North America. As with Johnson, Eaton struggled with health and financial issues, but was nonetheless prolific and politically outspoken throughout her life.

Eaton was born in Cheshire, England in 1865. Her father, an English merchant, met her Chinese mother on a business trip to Shanghai. After spending the first few years of her life in England, Eaton emigrated with her family (which would later include 13 siblings) to New York and then to Montreal around 1872. The family suffered financial setbacks. Like other literate and ambitious young women, such as the slightly older Winnipeger, Cora Hind (1861-1942), she turned to the new career of stenography to put bread on the table. That employment remained a standby throughout her life but she also slowly developed a market for her writing on the issues of the day.

The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) in the United States and the Chinese head tax in Canada in 1885, both of which sought to discourage Chinese immigration, followed hard upon Eaton’s arrival, shaping both her politics and her reception. Her publications stand out for their efforts to expose and combat growing anti-Asian sentiments in North America. Eaton’s fiction and non-fiction appeared in popular magazines such as Walter Blackburn Harte’s Lotus (Kansas City, Mo.), Youth’s Companion (Boston), Delineator (New York), Good Housekeeping (New York), Land of Sunshine (Los Angeles), New York Evening Post, and Montreal Daily Witness. In 1912, she published a collection of short stories about Chinese and Eurasian immigrants called Mrs. Spring Fragrance in Chicago. In the 21st century, that volume has been regarded as the hall-mark of her literary career. Amidst failing health in her forties, she returned to Montreal and her family to die and was interred at the city’s Mount Royal Cemetery.

Edith was not the only member of her family to take up writing as a career. Her much younger sister, Winnifred Babcock (1875-1954), was a successful novelist and screenwriter who went by the name Onoto Watanna. Unlike Eaton, Babcock sought to evade pervasive racism against Chinese immigrants by assuming an ostensibly Japanese name and persona as a writer. The diverging paths of these sisters indicate the fallibility and subjectivity of racial definitions at the time, as well as, ironically, the cultural weight placed on such definitions by the reading and voting public. As Eaton pointed out in her writing, the problem with citizenship was that it readily limited the rights of the individual according not only to gender and race, but also to supposedly fixed racial categories to which she, as a woman of mixed race, did not belong.

This sense of not belonging, which consumed many professional women journalists and writers, took centre stage for Eaton. In one of her most powerful articles, “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian,” published in Independent (Boston) in 1909, she weaves her personal experiences of racism and sexism in England and North America with accounts of the struggles of (often impoverished) Chinese immigrants to find acceptance in North American culture. In her anecdote about a poor female Chinese immigrant who rejects her white fiancé after he encourages her to deny her Chinese heritage, Eaton shows how economic hardship and racism exacerbate the disenfranchisement of women. She also draws similar connections between racism and misogyny in her account of a proposition from a man who equates her Chinese heritage with sexual submissiveness.

Eaton regularly fore-grounds her own racial and cultural hybridity by pointing out that she experiences prejudice from both sides of the racial divide she traverses. “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian” focuses on the struggles of Caucasians and even Chinese immigrants to decipher and label her racial identity. In this article, Eaton criticizes the very idea of citizenship as it was evolving before World War One. She portrays her mixed history and regular experience of not fitting in as somehow more authentic and interesting than exclusionary stereotypes of the ideal national subject (Chapman). Her refusal to ‘pass’ as either categorically Chinese or Caucasian or according to any specific nationality reminds readers of the long history of fluidity and negotiation when it comes to citizenship, race, and gender.

Eaton closes “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian” by confidently identifying herself as a politically self-conscious biracial woman at the opening of the 20th century. Anticipating Virginia Woolf’s famous 1938 statement, “as a woman, I have no country” (109), Eaton celebrates her individuality in this piece. She effectively dismisses North American concepts of citizenship as insufficiently advanced, stating: “After all I have no nationality and am not anxious to claim any. Individuality is more than nationality. [. . .]. I give my right hand to the Occidentals and my left to the Orientals, hoping that between them they will not utterly destroy the insignificant connecting link” (230). This extraordinary statement, which is hard to match among her contemporaries, invokes the complicated history of Asian-Caucasian relations in North America.

Her metaphor of the “connecting link” lays claim ironically enough to Canada itself. Chinese labour in the building of the transcontinental railways had joined west and east and guaranteed a northern nation. As a human ‘hyphen’, another metaphor used by later mixed-race Canadians (Nakagawa) she also assumes a transnational, cosmopolitan identity that transcends the very notions of citizenship that exclude her as a bi-racial and Eurasian woman. Like Pauline Johnson, she portrays herself as a crucial interpreter across cultural divides. Her choice of the title, “Leaves …”, echoes that of Leaves of Grass (1855), the famous poem by the prominent 19th century American author and cultural icon Walt Whitman. She, however, confidently adapts and extends the New Englander’s dream of inclusivity and diversity in North America to the realm of political advocacy.

Edith Eaton’s self-conscious self-portraiture and political agenda unsettle any static vision of the suffrage generation. While we do not know of any direct campaigning on her part, she too was a ‘New Woman’ of her day. Her contestation of both racial and sexual exclusions should be considered along side the preoccupation with gender of better-known mainstream suffragists. Not unlike the iconical Pauline Johnson, Eaton serves as an invaluable reminder that intersectional approaches to women’s rights characterized the heated debates of professional women writers at the turn of the 20th century just as they do those of many feminist scholars a century later.

Chapman, Mary. “The ‘thrill’ of not belonging: Edith Eaton (Sui Sin Far) and flexible Citizenship.” Canadian Literature 212 (2012): 191.

Eaton, Edith. “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian.” In Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings. Ed. Amy Ling and Annette White-Parks. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995. 218-230.

Lape , Noreen Groover. “Introduction: Rites of Passage, Contact Zones, and the American Frontiers.” In West of the Border: The Multicultural Literature of the Western American Frontiers by Noreen Groover Lape. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2000. 1-18 (234).

Nakagawa, Anne Marie. Director, Between: Living in the Hyphen. National Film Board of Canada (2005)

Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas. 1938. New York and Burlingame: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1963.