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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Talking Back: Disabled Women's Autobiography 1850-1950

  • Author(s): Chandler, Bailee Daniele
  • Advisor(s): Sanchez, Rosaura
  • Davidson, Michael
  • et al.

Talking Back: Disabled Women’s Autobiography examines the life and writing of four disabled women in the United States from the antebellum period through the end of the Progressive Era. I examine how these women use autobiography to represent the intersections of disability with other identities such as race, gender, sexuality, class, and social positions such as enslavement and enfreakment. My methodology involves close readings of various genres of life writing including autobiographies, memoirs, dairies, letters, and filmic representations that are juxtaposed with popular representations of disabled people within historical contexts such as slavery, early medicine, and freak shows. From my investigation I have found that these women use autobiography to call into question the values of individualism that influence popular representations of disabled people as helpless, dependent, and pitiable. I argue these women challenge cultural conventions of independence and autonomy, including those that undergird the genre of autobiography. In doing so, these women offer important alternatives of disabled women as powerful and disruptive of traditional conventions.

Chapter one examines issues of race and disability in Our Nig by Harriet Wilson, a black indentured servant in the antebellum north. I argue that Wilson challenges dominate proslavery and antislavery representations of disabled blacks and repositions dependency as a means to negotiate economic and social agency. Chapter two investigates The Little Locksmith by Katherine Butler Hathaway, an upper class white woman that is bedridden with spinal tuberculosis. I argue Katherine complicates conceptions of dependent disabled women through interdependent relationships and offers an alternate model of reciprocity that challenges ideals of individualism and self-determinism. Chapter three looks at the context of the early twentieth century freak show through The Loves and Lives of the Hilton Sisters, about conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton. The narrative points to the linguistic and generic attempts that are meant to norm and contain bodies within conventions of individualism. As conjoined twins, their embodiment challenges ideals of singular self-reliant individuals just as their narrative disrupts the linguistic and generic conventions meant to contain and explain their anomalous embodiment.

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