, Volume 35, Issue 1, pp 61-72
Date: 07 Jun 2008

“A woman — white — to be”

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The essay explores the issue of Emily Dickinson’s participation in the ongoing social debate on subjectivity and gender in nineteenth-century America. This was a pivotal time for middle-class women who, as subjects and agents of the Cult of True Womanhood, a gender-related ideology dominating the era, had to meet contradictory expectations to maintain their social status. Dickinson, despite her habitual withdrawal from public life, appears to be well-informed about these and other issues of social reform. Although she has been charged as elitist and insensitive to disadvantaged social groups, I will argue that Dickinson displays a keen understanding of the problematics of (dis)advantage, and power. While the poet may have been less concerned with the plight of slaves or immigrants, she nevertheless closely scrutinizes the seemingly privileged class of white middle-class American women. I hope to show through the analysis of some of her poems, most importantly “A Charm invests a face” (Fr 430), how Dickinson critiques the image of the True Woman through the rhetorical means of her unique language and how she ultimately reveals the vulnerability and illusory nature of the privileges enjoyed by this class of women.