Mae Cornwell


In the decade preceding the American Civil War, American authors Fanny Fern and Frank J. Webb wrote Ruth Hall (1855) and The Garies and Their Friends (1877), respectively. Although both novels feature female characters determined to better their lives, Fern’s lens focuses on white women while Webb’s is set on African American women. In analyzing these two texts, this essay defines race as Webb does: not simply as skin pigmentation, but as the combination of ancestry and communal identity, spawned from centuries of ingrained social morays interpreted as truth. These “truths” may appear arbitrary, but in fact carry tremendous clout in determining the lifestyle of everyday women. This essay examines the differences between those lifestyles, particularly in terms of how the women living them navigate the standards of womanly propriety and its economic implications. Comparative analysis demonstrates that white women like Ruth Hall have a greater burden placed upon them to behave “properly”--that is, to act demurely and follow a man’s lead--which disables most from entering the work force and earning money. However, because white women can marry white men (who are adequately paid) they have an overall higher standard of living (in economic terms, at least) than their African American counterparts. By contrast, African American women (who are not enslaved) join segregated communities that negate much of White Propriety’s influence. In addition, African American women are required to join the workforce, because the men are undercompensated; however, this grants them agency denied to white women.