Agency and Women’s Geographies: Tracking Spaces and Mobilities in Progressive-Era Women’s Writing
Type of DegreePhD Dissertation
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This dissertation investigates dramatic changes in women’s geographic experience as represented in key literary texts from the Progressive Era. Focusing on the intersection between literature and material spaces in the urban environment, the literature discussed here maps the evolution of women’s expanding mobilities and occupation of urban space. I examine three specific spaces outside of the traditional domestic sphere in order to better understand how women in the Progressive Era contested normalized spatial boundaries and laid claim urban spaces that were not traditionally viewed as theirs. Through the application of feminist geography and space/place theory, I demonstrate how women during this period appropriated and reconstructed these spaces/places and, conversely, how these spaces/places transformed and influenced women’s agency and mobility. The Progressive-era spaces that I analyze are the settlement house, the street, and the skyscraper. I examine texts written between 1890 and 1935 and argue that women reimagined and re-appropriated the built environment of the city and outright challenged the dominant gender ideologies of the time. The first chapter concentrates extensively on the architectural, social, and cultural development of Chicago’s Hull-House through a discussion of Jane Addams’s Twenty Years at Hull-House (1910), Hull-House Maps and Papers (1895), and first-person accounts from immigrants associated with the settlement. The urban street is the subject of Chapter Two, which analyzes how modern architectural and social geographies of women’s leisure and entertainment influenced Djuna Barnes’s depictions of women’s use of urban space in her early journalism. The skyscraper is the setting of Chapter Three, which focuses on the relationship between the skyscraper and women’s work and provides a trajectory of women’s spaces in the skyscraper from Henry Blake Fuller’s The Cliff-Dwellers (1893) to Faith Baldwin’s Skyscraper (1931) and its 1932 film adaptation, Skyscraper Souls. The fourth and last chapter introduces a racial perspective on modernity in the United States by focusing on how Nella Larsen’s two novellas, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929), expand our knowledge of mixed-race women’s agency and mobility in urban spaces and how race plays a complicating and influential role in the ways her female characters move through and inhabit the spaces discussed in the previous chapters.