Powell, Laura L.

Cover showing embroidery, for Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'The Scarlet Letter', 1850. Cover showing embroidery, for Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'The Scarlet Letter', 1850.

Laura Powell defended her dissertation in 2011 at the University of Nevada. The title of her work is: Sew speak! Needlework as the Voice of Ideology Critique in The Scarlet Letter, "A New England nun," and The Age of Innocence.  


In the nineteenth century, needlework, and embroidery in particular, became a signifier of feminine identity. Needlework was such a significant part of women’s lives and so integral to the construction of femininity in nineteenth-century America that both pictoral and narrative art demonstrate numerous representations of women embroidering. The sheer volume of these representations in the nineteenth century suggests that the practice of embroidery provides a way of speaking for women—a representation of the voice of subjectivity silenced by patriarchal ideology.

Because needlework serves as a signifier of ideal femininity, it provides uniquely fruitful and previously unexplored opportunities for investigating how women negotiated with the constraints of ideal femininity, especially as represented in fiction. Indeed, needlework in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Mary Wilkins Freeman’s “A New England Nun,” and Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence reveals a character at odds with patriarchal ideology. In each of these three texts, the representation of the embroidering woman— Hester Prynne, Louisa Ellis, and May Welland—not only reveals the “falseness” of the gender ideology constructed around her but also suggests that the practice of embroidery in fiction serves to critique that ideology, opening a space of possibility in which women can negotiate their participation in or refusal of the ideological constraints of gender.

For the full text, click here (retrieved 21 November 2016).

Digital source of illustration (retrieved 21 November 2016).


Last modified on Monday, 21 November 2016 18:48