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  • Writer's pictureSusan Stoderl

The Widow Was Ready to Write!

Last week in my Fanny Fern | A.F.R.A.I.D. Series, I wrote about the “Cult of True Womanhood,” also known as the “Cult of Domesticity.” This week I would like to look at the fate of being a widow with children and having no money. In A.F.R.A.I.D, (American Females for Righteousness, Abasement, Ignorance, and Docility), my opera of 2005, I wrote the libretto based on the writings of Fanny Fern and other pertinent sources of the 1850s to 1870s. Fanny Fern wrote from personal experience. She was widowed from her first husband with three children with no funds or help from her family. She took the only available way out of abject poverty by marrying her second husband. The marriage was abusive forcing her to leave and eventually divorce. Once again, she found no help from her family or offer of a job. She lived in a hotel trying to support her two living children by writing. The divorce and hotel life were considered scandalous. In 1846 her brother Nathaniel started his own publication, the Home Journal (which survives today as Town & Country). In 1852, she sent Nathanial articles that he refused to print. However, his editor, James Parton, liked them and printed several anyway. Nathanial found out and Parton resigned in protest. He also later became Fanny’s third husband and chief believer in her talents.


Scene 1 of A.F.R.A.I.D. is based upon "The Widow’s Trials" published in 1853.

Fanny Fern is walking down Broadway in Lower Manhattan. She is trailed by the two women of A.F.R.A.I.D., Senza Bliss and Constance Purity.

Fanny Fern (Ace Reporter)

The funeral is over, and the widow comes back to her desolate home. There are the drugs, the tempting fruits and flowers, which all came too late for the sinking sufferer. Dear Uncle John, and certain other lady friends, came from his church and said…

Constance Purity (A.F.R.A.I.D Cult Member)

"Whom the Lord loveth, he chasteneth. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.”

Senza Bliss (President of A.F.R.A.I.D)

“You must get submissive or, you'll have other trouble sent upon you."


“Just like Rev’rend Pease says!”

Fanny Fern

“Dear Uncle John, editor of ‘the Morning Star,’ rigid sectarian of the bluest school of divinity, enjoys an immense reputation for sanctity. Nothing is dearer to him, save the contents of his pocketbook. One day, I came to ask Uncle John to employ me as a writer: I believe I have talents that I might turn to account. I have literally nothing to depend upon.”

Senza Bliss

“And you know what he told her?”

Constance Purity


Senza Bliss

That her husband was a spendthrift, and if she’d managed the house better, she’d have money.

Constance Purity

Why doesn’t she take up sewing?

Senza Bliss

This is what happens, my dear Constance when a woman doesn't know her place!

Fanny Fern

And that my dear friends is how Grata, having been changed to Sara, Payson Willis Eldredge Farrington Parton, became, Fanny Fern.

NOTE: Fanny mentions Rev. Pease in this excerpt. He started the Five Points House of Industry in the early 1850s. It was not a particularly pleasant place because of the influence of the Cult of True Womanhood, the women and children were looked upon as people who needed to be “saved” and were otherwise worthless. Families were rarely kept together which resulted in a lot of tragedy.

. . . the majority of children put up for adoption by the Five Points charities were not actual orphans; at least 60 percent put up by the mission had living parents. Anecdotal evidence from the Monthly Record of the Five Points House of Industry suggests that most of the children it sent to adoptive homes also had at least one living parent. A variety of circumstances prompted parents to give their children up for adoption. Alcohol abuse frequently played a role.... The vast majority of non-orphans given up for adoption had lived not with alcoholics but with widowed mothers who simply could not earn enough to support their children.... Most adoptees were given up voluntarily by desperate parents. But when charity workers found children’s treatment or living conditions abhorrent, they sometimes took the youngsters forcibly.
From: A Five Points "Orphan" Is Taken in by Reverend Pease and the Five Points House of Industry · SHEC: Resources for Teachers (
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