English, Department of


Date of this Version



A DISSERTATION Presented to the Faculty of
The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska
In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements
For the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Major: English
Under the Supervision of Professor Melissa J. Homestead
Lincoln, Nebraska: May, 2011

Copyright 2011 Shannon McMahon


For the 19th and well into the 20th century, marriage was the most formative institution that defined women’s civic presence in the American community. Nancy Cott’s Public Vows provides crucial context for my study. Cott shows how marriage not only implied a structure for private life but also participated in public order, namely the wife’s civic status was subsumed by the status of her husband. An unmarried woman’s civic identity was ambiguous absent a husband who could represent her in the public sphere. For ethnic women, marriage did not guarantee access to the benefits and protections of U.S. citizenship, but, in some cases, further marginalized her in mainstream society. The four ethnic women writers in this study all belong to ethnic groups who were deemed unfit for U.S. citizenship. In different ways they all engage discourse about marriage and its limitations on female agency. The writers featured here are: Sioux activist Zitkala-Sa, Jewish American fiction writer Martha Wolfenstein, Anglo-Chinese writer Sui Sin Far, and African American writer Zora Neale Hurston. All of these ethnic women writers reject a narrow normative definition of U.S. citizenship and offer alternative paradigms from redefining womanhood to rejecting the marriage relationship altogether. They use fiction as a platform to agitate for change and as writers act with the full conviction of citizenship to voice opposition to unjust government policies.