NeMLA 2020: Finding Women’s Ambition in 19th-century American Literature

deadline for submissions: 
September 30, 2019
full name / name of organization: 
Kristin Lacey
contact email: 

This roundtable session is a part of the 51st annual NeMLA convention in Boston, MA, to be held March 5-8, 2020. Abstracts must be submitted through NeMLA's database:

Separate spheres ideology—the assumption that women managed the domestic sphere, while men worked in the public sphere of the marketplace—reigned in scholarship about 19th-century American literature for decades. Because we commonly associate ambition with careerism and the marketplace, authors’ figurations of ambitious women remain largely overlooked. Notable exceptions include Fanny Fern’s semi-autobiographical mid-century novel Ruth Hall (1854), whose eponymous protagonist breaks into the writerly marketplace, and Edith Wharton’s undeniably ambitious female characters at the turn of the 20th century, most notably Undine Spragg, who stops at nothing to achieve the social position she craves. But what about the other women who populate the 19th-century imagination? This roundtable will explore 19th-century manifestations of women’s ambition—within the home, in artistry, in the marketplace, in society. In what narratives are female characters more covertly ambitious than Ruth Hall or Undine Spragg? How do female writers, in particular, convey their approval of or disdain for ambitious women? How does female ambition transform amid the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the rise of capitalism? How is ambition gendered and moralized? How does an author’s gender affect their depiction of women’s ambitions? How can thinking about women’s ambition in the home, the workplace, or liminal spaces contribute to the ongoing complication of separate spheres ideology? How do intersections of race, age, ability, and/or class impact authors’ representations of ambition?

Please submit proposals of 250-300 words, a biography of 100 words or fewer, and note how you would address one of the topics above or a similar topic.

All submissions must be sent through the NeMLA CFP database:

Submission deadline: September 30, 2019. 

For more information, visit:

Direct questions to Kristin Lacey (