Mediating the Sexes: Women, Technology, and Work in American Narrative 1840-1900

Callie Jaye Gallo, Fordham University


Ella Cheever Thayer’s bestselling 1880 novel Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes begins with a “significant noise.” The noise, a rapid series of short and long mechanical emissions, comes from a telegraph sounder. Thayer’s telegraph-girl protagonist immediately wonders if the “smart operator” is a man or a woman. Finding the answer to her question means confronting what is at stake for women personally and professionally when they work on the wire. “Women, Technology, and Work in Nineteenth Century Narrative 1840-1900” analyzes texts that offered a range of ideas about who operates and uses new communication technology and contends that, like Thayer’s protagonist, they did so along gender lines. I argue that representations of new media of communication in the latter half of the nineteenth century were preoccupied with women and work. I study the material form and commercial use of three media of communication, the penny press, the daguerreotype, and the telegraph, and trace how they activated networks of discourse that plotted the co-evolution of gender and professionalism. These networks designated who benefitted and belonged in new media environments in both corresponding and contradictory ways. In a project combining a media ecology approach with a feminist lens on American literature and culture, my research examines Edgar Allan Poe’s early 1840s detective fiction alongside Margaret Fuller’s proto-feminist work Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845); Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables (1851) and Fanny Fern’s Ruth Hall (1854) alongside a subgenre I call daguerreian comedy; and Henry James’s In the Cage (1898), Ella Cheever Thayer’s Wired Love (1880), and Lida A. Churchill’s My Girls (1882) alongside popular techno-romances of the period. Exploring each narrative as a link in larger network of discourse about women, class, and work shows how our media form distinct ecologies that affect women’s public and private identities. These texts broaden our understand of the complex, ideological work carried out in narrative to understand and shape gender amidst changes facilitated by modern communication technologies and associated their professional cultures.

Subject Area

American literature

Recommended Citation

Gallo, Callie Jaye, "Mediating the Sexes: Women, Technology, and Work in American Narrative 1840-1900" (2019). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI22623075.