A radical romance: The intersection of the conversion narrative and the romance plot in proletarian novels, 1862--1939

Date of Completion

January 2007


Literature, American




As working women invaded the public space of the factory in the nineteenth century, they challenged Victorian notions of female domesticity and chastity. With virtue at the forefront of discussions regarding working women, aspects of working-class women's culture - fashion, fiction, and dance halls - become vivid signifiers for moral impropriety. Thus, attempts to censure these activities become overt attempts to censure female sexuality in the workplace. My work examines these leisure activities as central aspects of working women's identity, and suggests that these activities, as aspects of a cohesive working women's community, signify the first steps toward a unified labor movement. Building on the contributions of feminist labor historians, I argue that these informal and often ignored "trifles" of female community provide the building blocks for female solidarity in the workplace. Most critical approaches to working-class fiction emphasize female suffering rather than agency, and I argue that working women themselves viewed aspects of consumer culture and new avenues for courtship as extensions of their rights as breadwinners. The strike itself is an intense moment of political upheaval that lends itself to more extensive personal and sexual freedoms. My analysis of strike novels provides a fuller picture of working-class women as they simultaneously navigate new identities as "working ladies" and enter the dramatic and sometimes violent world of labor activism. ^