In Giving Women: Alliance and Exchange in Victorian Culture, Jill Rappoport traces an unexpected and fascinating alternative history of the women’s movement that she locates in nineteenth-century gift-giving by and between women. Without opportunities to earn their own income or, in many cases, control their own property, the women in Giving Women find ways to enter the “volatile and profitable economic negotiations of power” (5) through the meaningful exchange of small and spectacular gifts. By giving, Victorian women expanded the public reach of their private relationships. Over the course of the century, these women became more and more creative in the giving of gifts, eventually using networks of giving women as powerful bases of political activism.
Though Rappoport refers to anthropological and philosophical gift theories (especially those of Jacques Derrida and Marcel Mauss) throughout her book, her study is far from dependent on these paradigms. Rather, Rappoport theorizes from the texts themselves. Working from canonical texts, ephemera, political magazines, New Woman fiction, and a host of other materials, Rappoport tailors her theory of “giving women” to the unique position of middle-class women in the nineteenth-century, and in so doing, maintains a (sometimes) tenuous balance between historical specificity and contemporary critique. There are moments, as in her discussion of abolitionist rhetoric in the stories of literary annuals, where Rappoport’s tendency to move back and forth between lived experience and ideology makes the argument seem inconclusive. However, her sensitivity to the gains and losses on both sides of any exchange generally work dramatically in her favor. Rappoport seems uniquely gifted with the ability to temper her suspicion with sympathy and her sympathy with suspicion.
Giving Women is divided into two sections. The first considers how single women expanded kinship circles, manipulated property laws, and increased the value of limited resources by means of what Rappoport refers to as “balanced” (7) gift exchanges, or exchanges where the giver is (eventually) repaid so that the accounts are always balanced. The first chapter in this section sets the political tone of the book, and moves quickly from a consideration of the practice of gifting literary annuals as a sign of friendship to analyzing the role annuals played in abolitionist circles on both sides of the Atlantic. In the pages of the annuals, freedom was often portrayed as a gift charitably given, often by privileged white women to their less privileged black sisters. Unsurprisingly, however, this gift often came with a price. As a gift, freedom indebted former slaves to their generous benefactors, even when those benefactors were their former masters. Even as Rappoport condemns the insidious effects of gift discourse in the case of abolitionism, she simultaneously draws our attention to the fact that it was in part because of this troubled discourse that women were able to infiltrate the world of political activism in the first place, setting a precedent for continued political involvement.
Chapters two and three deviate slightly from this public focus, turning instead to how gifts supported small communities of women by enabling them to share scarce resources. While Rappoport maintains the political importance of even this small-scale community building, what makes these two chapters stand out in the book are her arguments, not about politics, but about narrative. Rappoport boldly questions the critical consensus that Jane Eyre (1847) and Aurora Leigh (1856) are novels about individualization. Rather, by focusing on the role gifts play not only in cementing romantic relationships but in cementing sisterly relationships as well, Rappoport argues that these novels privilege the community over the individual. Indeed, the implications of this argument are so suggestive that one wishes Rappoport had given more attention to the broader implication of her readings for narrative theory. As it is, her re-thinking of the Bildungsroman in Jane Eyre and Aurora Leigh enables her to place the often uncategorizable Cranford (1851) within what she seems to be suggesting might be an established tradition of community-focused novels organized less by forward moving self-realization than by the circling reciprocity of giving.
The second part of Giving Women shifts the focus from balanced to asymmetrical giving, or giving that at least appears not to require an equal return. The first chapter in this section, through a reading of Christina Rossetti’s 1859 poem “Goblin Market,” positions self-sacrifice in the market. The following three chapters provide historical examples of how women gifted themselves into the public sphere. It is in her discussion of the Salvation Army, “New-Woman eugenics” (139) and women’s suffrage that Rappoport offers a significant challenge to the history of feminism. Here, Rappoport criticizes previous historians and literary critics for anachronistically reading their own political commitments onto the nineteenth century. Our own “distaste for older models of gendered ‘capacities’” (171), Rappoport writes, has stood in the way of our “understanding of the women’s movement and its relationship to a history of nineteenth-century authorship and activism” (171). At the same time, however, Rappoport is quick to caution us to remain critical even as we try to sympathetically understand the role difference feminism played in the pre-history of the twentieth-century women’s movement. In her discussion of the Salvation Army, for instance, Rapopport explains how the “slum sisters” (107) were able to use the concept of feminine self-sacrifice to consolidate their roles as both fundraisers and benefactors. When slum sisters gave up the privileges of middle class life, choosing to live among the poor and dress “lower still” (109), they did so in order to collect upon the debt such sacrifices incurred on their middle class sisters. At the same time, by emulating the working class women they served, slum sisters instituted themselves as a kind of third term that could blur the line between middle and working class women, uniting them in a common sisterhood with common needs and responsibilities.
From the Salvation Army, Rappoport makes the somewhat unsettling leap to what she refers to as “New Woman eugenics.” Again, difference feminism is shown to be a powerful tool in political activism, this time to disconcerting ends. Analyzing the novels and other writings of New Women writers such as Olive Schreiner, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Sarah Grand, Rappoport convincingly demonstrates how these writers used the scientific interest in eugenics to gain power through their status as mothers. New Women found themselves increasingly thwarted by the belief that a woman’s social and political advancement was necessarily at odds with the continued success of the men around her. By drawing on eugenics, some writers attempted to balance this account by stressing the sacrifices women must make to the nation as reproducers. In her choice of a mate and whether or not to have children, a woman could choose to sacrifice herself and her desires for the welfare of her race and nation. Using this logic, New Women writers attempted to trade biological gifts for social and political opportunities.
The epilogue to Giving Women carries Rappoport’s argument into the women’s suffrage movement of the early twentieth century. Focusing primarily on the suffragettes’ hunger strikes, Rappoport discusses how members of the movement used “spectacular” (141) displays of giving in order to gain support for their cause. In a manner similar to the self-sacrifices made by the slum sisters in chapter five, suffragettes made calculated gifts of their bodies. Their selfless sacrifices required remuneration—if not for themselves then for other women, women the suffragettes were able to perceive as sisters in part because of earlier efforts made by women to create powerful affiliations through networks of gift giving.
Perhaps the most important contribution Giving Women makes to the fields of both Victorian and gender studies lies in its daring reevaluation, and to an extent recuperation, of feminine self-sacrifice as a legitimate social and political strategy for nineteenth- and early twentieth-century women. Rappoport self-consciously positions her study against critics who continue to view female self-sacrifice as a symptom of a repressive ideology that made it difficult for women to imagine themselves as anything but second order citizens at the same time it incentivized the very selfless behavior that insured their subordination to their husbands, sons, doctors, and political representatives. By shifting our focus towards the sacrifices women made for other women, Rappoport transforms sacrificial victims into sacrificial agents, intentionally gifting themselves in order to reap tangible benefits, if not for themselves, then for future women whose interests they considered indistinguishable from their own. Recent work by critics and theorists such as D. A. Miller and Leo Bersani has explored more impersonal subject positions. Though this is not her primary goal, Rappoport’s observation about the personal and public utility of self-sacrifice raises similar questions about how we conceive of subjectivity and the primacy of selfhood. In so doing, Giving Women usefully reminds us that this seemingly radical way of living in the world is part of a well-established if often maligned female tradition—a tradition that has perhaps not been adequately considered in other studies of disempowered subject positions.
As Rappoport states in her introduction, “ideological pressures to give can threaten women’s autonomy. But Victorian discourses of giving also reveal the ways in which women shaped the language and goals of these ideologies, imagining and enacting their own exchanges” (5). Giving Women encourages us to circumvent the disciplinary pressures that threaten our own critical autonomy. By questioning the one-sided value we have placed on the independence of our Victorian subjects, and seeing them instead as willing participants in dynamic exchanges that occurred between them, we can enrich our understanding of nineteenth-century lived experience and perhaps repay an outstanding scholarly debt to the productive labor of giving women.
Ariana Reilly is a doctoral candidate at Princeton University. She published an article, “Always Sympathize! Affect, Surface Reading, and George Eliot’s Romola,” in Victorian Studies 55.4 (2013). Her dissertation, entitled “Leave-takings: Anti-Self-Consciousness and the Escapist Ends of the Victorian Marriage Plot,” examines the Victorian investment in alternative, un-self-conscious states of being, and argues that far from being a conservative British version of the continental bildungsroman, the Victorian marriage plot was a radically escapist genre, the endings of which promised an end to self-doubt, introspection, and the experience of independent subjectivity.