Jess Libow

Ph.D. Candidate, Department of English, Emory University

2021 to 2022
Research Fellow

Political Movement: Ability, Sex, and Reform in the Nineteenth-Century United States

“Political Movement” charts the influence of physical education on the emergence of American feminist writing. From transcendentalist Margaret Fuller’s aspirations for white women’s spiritual capacities to Zitkala-Ša’s (Yankton) assertions of Indigenous women’s cultural sovereignty, the active body was a central trope of nineteenth-century feminist expression. Crucial to the feminized labor of caregiving, the domestic science of physical education equipped women with a scientific vocabulary that allowed them to intervene in debates about sex and race and challenge the construction of women’s physical abilities as fixed. While exercise’s promise of vigorous womanhood could be empowering, many women writers experienced illnesses and injuries that undermined this ideal. For some, impairment heightened physical education’s urgency; for others, it prompted politics predicated on alternative embodiments. By emphasizing the body’s plasticity, I argue, the science of physical education enabled women to imagine both their bodies and the institutions that sought control of them as transformable.