From Martyrs to Mothers to Chick in Choos: The Medieval Female Body and American Women's Popular Literature

Gina M. Sully, University of Nevada, Las Vegas


Placing the generic conventions of medieval hagiography, Nina Baym's insights about nineteenth-century American sentimental fiction's overplot, and contemporary American women's popular literature into tension illuminates some important commonalities. First, biographers of the medieval virgin saints and authors of contemporary American women's popular literature deploy the same overplot that Baym identifies as characteristic of American women's nineteenth-century popular fiction. Second, in order to define feminine virtue and establish the virtue of their protagonists, nineteenth-century and post-millennial American women writers rework the contrastive tropes by which hagiographers establish their heroines' virtue. Third, struggles for ascendance in the domestic realm gesture toward its inherently political functions. Fourth, contemporary American women's popular literature presupposes and reproduces a medieval configuration of the female body as a site for narrative and political conflict and locates women's work in a hybrid domestic-work space. Finally, the literary reconfiguration of the workspace undoes the public-private distinction on which theories of democratic liberalism rely to construct male citizenship.