Overlooked Sources of Feminist Material in Unlikely Archival Collections: Recoveries and Reconsiderations of Writer Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’ (1844-1911) Letters to 19th Century Physician S. Weir Mitchell (1829-1914)

Overlooked Sources of Feminist Material in Unlikely Archival Collections: Recoveries and Reconsiderations of Writer Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’ (1844-1911) Letters to 19th Century Physician S. Weir Mitchell (1829-1914)

Peitho Volume 24, Issue 24 Fall

Author(s): Susan Ghiaciuc, Cathryn Molloy, & Vanessa Rouillon

Susan Ghiaciucis an Associate Professor in James Madison University’s School of Writing, Rhetoric and Technical Communication. Her scholarly work has appeared in Disability Studies Quarterly, MLAProfession, Writing on the Edge, Journal of Urban Learning, Teaching, and Research. She is co-author of “I am different/So are you: Creating Safe Spaces for Disability Disclosure (A Conversation)” in Negotiating Disability: Disclosure and Higher Education, University of Michigan Press, and she serves as co-director of the Disability Studies Minor at JMU.  

Cathryn Molloy is Associate Professor and director of undergraduate studies in James Madison University’s School of Writing, Rhetoric and Technical Communication. Her work has appeared in To Improve the Academy, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Qualitative Inquiry, College English, Technical Communication Quarterly, and Rhetoric Review. She is the author of Rhetorical Ethos in Health and Medicine: Patient Credibility, Stigma, and Misdiagnosis and coeditor of the edited volumes Women’s Health Advocacy: Rhetorical Ingenuity for the 21st Century, and Strategic Interventions in Mental Health Rhetoric.  

Dr. Vanessa Rouillon is an independent scholar who specializes in African American rhetorics and activism during the first half of the twentieth century. Her research is foremost archival, non-traditional, community-engaged, and biographical. Her work has appeared in ChallengeLanguage Assessment QuarterlyThe Public i, and the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics. She is coauthor of Transnational Literate Lives. She is also the author of the documentary Albert R. Lee: “A Man of Substance, One of Illinois’ Finest Traditions” (November 2018), funded by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which honored the first though unrecognized dean of African American students. She is currently working on her biography of Mr. Lee. 

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Highly successful 19th century physician S. Weir Mitchell (1829-1914) is known in feminist circles for his development of the controversial rest cure for hysteria, which evolved from his work with malingering soldiers during the Civil War to whom he would assign “the most disagreeable jobs, so that after a few weeks in the latrines they were eager to return to the front” (Showalter 298).  Mitchell recognized that women were “house caged,” but his rest cure still “prescribed obedience and sent them home[2]” (Cervetti 91). Mitchell believed that a woman would happily return to the mundane circumstances of her day-to-day life after being forced to spend weeks in utter boredom. Mitchell, a leading specialist on injuries of the nerves, worked with Civil War amputees at Turner’s Lane hospital in Philadelphia and maintained a clinical practice along with his son John in the same city. He also was well-known for his work with women with mysterious mental health conditions (Schuster).  

American writer and novelist Charlotte Perkins Gilman was, arguably, the most famous patient to undergo the rest cure—a treatment she found much more harmful than helpful. In a letter which Gilman poignantly and hopefully wrote to Mitchell to seek out his help, she wrote, “I understand you are the first authority on nervous diseases. Are you on brain troubles too? There is something the matter with my head.  No one here knows or believes or cares.  Of course, they can’t care for what they don’t believe. But you will know” (Knight 274).  Gilman sensed that she was suffering from something that was “brain”-based.  She was quite right; if we were to venture a contemporary guess: Gilman had postpartum depression. Unsurprisingly, the rest cure made her feel much worse. 

Feminist researchers have found women’s contributions in archival collections that are largely dedicated to preserving the life and work of male family members and friends. Mitchell’s archives, though, would not be an obvious source of feminist material since he is a known misogynist. In this essay, we ask readers to reconsider Mitchell’s archives via letters a strong feminist woman—American writer and intellectual Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844-1911)—wrote to him. These letters show how a woman responded to and interacted with Mitchell’s notoriously misogynistic notions of women’s worth. In so doing, we seek to offer a description and contextualization of specific material in an archival collection that we believe could be of potential interest to Peitho readers.  

Using Phelps’s letters as a case study, we argue that notoriously misogynistic historical figures’ archival collections might house important material for feminist researchers and that these texts should be recovered and reconsidered for their value in potentially identifying previously unknown or unacknowledged roots of contemporary feminist theories and terminologies. That is, feminist researchers might overlook the papers of figures such as Mitchell as potential sites of feminist work due to their notorious misogyny, yet such collections may house remnants of little-known resistance to that misogyny. Mitchell often turned to women for emotional support (Cervetti 225), especially to published writers who could offer feedback on his own writing endeavors; among them was American author and intellectual Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844-1911). Phelps leaves compelling nine letters only behind in Mitchell’s archives (1884-1897), yet we focus here on Phelps as her letters present a clear and assertive feminist engagement challenging Mitchell’s problematic views on women; these extant letters are ultimately a reflection of a 25-year friendship of equals. Phelps’ letters to Mitchell, along with letters from other women (such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman or Anne K. Williams Mitchell, his daughter-in-law), are part of the archival material housed in the Mitchell Papers, at the Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Below, we offer samplings from Phelps’ impressive feminist texts to show how even archival collections that would seem to be mere celebrations of dominant misogynistic figures could house women’s relevant articulations of independent (and early) feminist stances. We hope readers are encouraged to seek out similar texts in other unlikely collections.  

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844-1911): The “Professional Invalid” 

Born in Boston in 1844 to a religious father and a literary author mother, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps was a prolific fiction writer whose work explores a transitional period in women’s lives—a departure from Victorian models, and an opening of professional spaces for women during the second half of the 19th century (Stansell; Tuttle). When she began to write back-and-forth with Mitchell, the forty year-old author was already a self-determined “professional invalid” with an established literary career. Activist, intellectual, frail, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps became a keen observer of her social experiences. Importantly, her health informed her fictional and personal writings as well as her friendships. While she regarded Mitchell on occasion as an acquaintance only, Phelps’ friendship with Mitchell as it comes across in her letters to him reveal her efforts to assert her worth and the validity of her embodied knowledges of health via the relationship.  

While Phelps’ letters persistently portray the author as sickly, she draws from these and other embodied experiences—frail health and bouts of insomnia included—to inform her foremost intellectual self. Her exchanges with Mitchell are sustained peer engagements in which she makes sense of her own condition (or rather surrenders to it and counters his claims to have treatments that could help her) and articulates the difficulties of a professional career in writing for women. She does so while offering Mitchell praise and criticism on his fictional characters and responding to his comments on her work with either gratitude or vigorous distance. Her willingness to engage in a professional literary friendship through letters with this man is an exercise in the art of “personal comprehension between a man and a woman” (Letters to S. Weir Mitchell, Thanksgiving Day, 1884)—a rare occurrence and a modeling of gender equality on her part, and a much-needed intellectual practice between the genders, so she thought. Their professional friendship—her literary feedback, his medical interest in her health—continued for 25 years, until her death in 1911. 

In her letters to Mitchell, Phelps pushed back against his misogynistic views of women in three ways: through articulations of her embodied experiences of constant weakness, exhaustion, and insomnia, which only she could comprehend; via feedback on Mitchell’s fiction; and through the creation of an ideal care provider in the form of the protagonist and title character in her novel Dr. Zay. Far from merely a fictional character, though, Dr. Zay was an aspirational figure she hoped to make manifest in a specific way—a truth that comes through in her references to her attendant habit of giving financial support to women in medical schools. Indeed, Phelps’ references to her patronage of young, aspiring female doctors alongside her polite refusals to succumb to Mitchell’s brand of treatment—allopathic—stake out strong feminist positions worthy of recovery and reconsideration.  

Phelps’ Embodied Experiences  

Sometimes deferent to her physician friend, Phelps nonetheless manages to articulate a complex identity in her letters to Mitchell—at once health broken, yet determined and confident in the validity of her observations, both medical and literary. One kind of awareness—her health—is not severed from her professional awareness—her writing and reviewer sage. In one letter, she claims to have an appreciation of Mitchell’s medical training, yet she is clear that she also has a great deal of medical knowledge “from [her] long, varied, and more or less intimate acquaintance with [his] profession” (Letters to S. Weir Mitchell, January 25, 1884). Repeatedly, too, she asserts her authority as a woman who, though enduring a “pretty serious” condition (Letters to S. Weir Mitchell, November 18, 1884), acts upon her patient status rather than solely being acted upon. While she acknowledges, for instance, that drugs have indeed been prescribed, she is clear that she knows they won’t help her. In one letter, for example, she makes it clear that while a prescription medication may help her debilitating insomnia, she nonetheless won’t take them. As she puts it to Mitchell, “Thank you for your kind wish to do something for me. The main trouble with that is that I am a devout homeopathist … I do not think it right (for me) to take drugs … I have been torn to shreds by insomnia.” (Letters to S. Weir Mitchell, February 3, 1884).   

Ahead of her time, Phelps was well aware that her condition was likely chronic and that she would not see a cure in her lifetime. Her letters make it clear that Mitchell continually offers to treat her and believes he can help her, yet she consistently shows her confidence in her own self-knowledge when she makes it clear that she will not be cured via his methods and that she does not fully trust his type of medical authority. Phelps tells Mitchell: “I thank you for your kind offer of medical help. It is good in you, and I have meant to say so before now (Letters to S. Weir Mitchell, February 16, 1884). She is clear, then, that she will not be availing herself of his medical help and that the nature of the correspondence is not that of a doctor-patient, but of literary and intellectual peers.

Feedback on Mitchell’s Fiction  

In her letter dated February 27, 1884, it is clear that the exchanges back-and-forth began not with an understanding of her need for his medical help, but with plans to exchange manuscripts for literary feedback. In her notes to Mitchell on how the relationships between men and women should be represented in fiction, she is clear in her desire to offer him feedback on his writing and to do so from her vantage point as a woman. As she notes, “The novelist, especially, needs ample room for his hero and heroine to develop that most difficult of arts—personal comprehension between a man and a woman. I think it very rare—very rare; and the lack of it is the saddest thing in the world; especially in women’s worlds” (Letters to S. Weir Mitchell, Thanksgiving Day, 1884).  

Ever the intellect, Phelps read not only Mitchell’s fiction, but also his work published in medical journals. Phelps offers comments about this man’s medical stories (per his request), yet is careful to bolster the validity of her observations on Mitchell’s fictional writing—especially his characterization of women—by referring to her embodied experiences in health and medical settings:  “I greatly enjoy the vividness of your characterizations and balance of constructions, and the result of the special training brought to bear upon your material. This last I can perhaps peculiarly appreciate, from a long, varied, and more or less intimate acquaintance with your profession” (Letters to S. Weir Mitchell, January 25, 1884). As she also notes, “Having been a ‘professional invalid’ in ‘good and regular standing’ for almost half my life, I have a realizing sense of the ‘points’ in a well-drawn Doctor, and am rather alive both to the weaknesses and the nobility of the race” (Letters to S. Weir Mitchell, January 25, 1884). 

Phelps also is careful to buffer her observations with deference to Mitchell’s status as a doctor, yet she still makes space to assert the criticisms in her observations; as she wrote: “The saddest thing about the profession is that it inculcates a kind of self-defence, that may be almost brutal in the tenderest man; to save himself from being spent and wrecked by sympathy, or its correlative thoughtfulness, he may force himself into a coat-of-male that bruises—if not kills—a patient. But what a lecture on the profession. I should beg your pardon” (Letters to S. Weir Mitchell, November 18, 1884).  

In response to a critical review of his work, Mitchell must have said that he should not write any more fictional accounts of doctors, to which Phelps replied with encouragement to simply vary his representations: “So. Do not say you will write no more doctors. Write the Other kind of a Doctor. Analyze a nobler one—Say some things no one but a Doctor can say” (Letters to S. Weir Mitchell, November 18, 1884). In all of her correspondence related to his literary works, Phelps is clear that she considers herself his peer in writing and that while she does respect his authority as a medical doctor, she suggests that he should, likewise, respect her authority as longtime consumer of medical care.  

The Creation of Dr. Zay  

As is clear above, resistance, awareness, and agency took the form of her treatment choices—she trusted homeopathy, a practice which allowed her to merge her life with her writing. Phelps also displayed these strong traits in her fiction writing, perhaps most notably in her most known novel.  Phelps’ novel Doctor Zay was published in 1882 as was well-received, and she used references to her strong female character to further assert her value in her letters to Mitchell. “Touching the doctors of fiction,” as she put it, Phelps introduces Mitchell to her fictional character Doctor Zay, a physician, a woman, a homeopathistRhetorically, using knowledge of her condition, and her acquaintance with male and female doctors, both allopathic and homeopathic—she crafts a woman doctor, doctor Zay, which in the eyes of an ill, male, fictional patient appears to have strong, yet feminine hands. The patient perceives “… a woman of medium height, with a well-shaped head. … [and] … dress and carriage of a lady” (Phelps, Doctor Zay, p. 44). Confused, ill, posing no further resistance, the patient yields, “I am in a woman’s hands!” (Phelps, Doctor Zay, p. 44). 

Mitchell’s reception of Doctor Zay must have been carping. Phelps was equally blunt. In a letter to Mitchell dated November 18, 1884, not only does she disapprove of his comment, but she points to his male ways of knowing. In a related correspondence, she observes: 

As to Doctor Zay … Were I an old friend, instead of a very new one—or, I ought rather to say, new acquaintance—I should take you to task a little for what you say of women physicians. It doesn’t seem to me quite fair; or else you really don’t know! … and most men Doctors do not. I know women physicians thoroughly. For some years my most intimate friend was one of them. I know the career from matriculation to success or failure. I have directly, or indirectly, been the means of putting four [our emphasis] young women into the profession; who have all honored it, so far.  (Letters to S. Weir Mitchell, November 18, 1884) 

Phelps defends women physicians from experience, as patient, observer, and, as she makes clear in this letter, a financial supporter.  

She argues rigorously for Mitchell to accept the authenticity of the representation in the form of Dr. Zay: “Although a woman and a homeopathist, you will be liberal enough to grant her professional courtesy, I think” (Letters to S. Weir Mitchell, February 3, 1884). Her insistence on the validity of Dr. Zay as a representation of a medical professional alongside her support of women wishing to become medical doctors impart her strong feminist views in letters written to a man who’d not, by all accounts, held women in very high esteem in professional spaces, and in particular, in medical professions.  


Overall, we contend Elizabeth Stuart Phelps—the “professional invalid,” the constant patient—embodies ways of pushing back against medical authority and mainstream medicine and uses writing—novels and letters—to advocate for alternative perspectives. Phelps expressed her dissatisfaction with public medical discourse and practice through her critique of Mitchell’s literary works. Beyond simply resisting traditional medical advice, Phelps reconfigures it to suit her needs in her creation of Dr. Zay and attendant financial support of women in medical schools. Phelps’ letters are, thus, examples of early feminist work in agency, in professional and personal authority stemming from marginalized persons’ knowledge of their own embodied experiences and intellect. Phelps’s writing is likewise invitational, visionary, stubborn. She breaks through Victorian “morals” and writes her voice into science. Rather than staying mute, Phelps engaged in an epistolary professional friendship with Mitchell to articulate an alternative experience. In Phelps, readers will find a strong writer who challenges a then-prominent medical doctor on medical and literary grounds. The existence of these letters point to important recovery work for contemporary archival feminism—to identify notorious patriarchs and misogynists and to elevate the voices of the women in their lives who dared to challenge and resist their ideologies. After all, it is misogyny and patriarchy we have to blame for the fact that Mitchell is most remembered, quoted, celebrated, and reviled from the 19th century letter writers represented in his archives. We, thus, ask Peitho readers: 

  • What other feminist texts might be hidden in notoriously misogynistic male archival collections, and how can these texts be identified and recovered? 
  • How might epistolary exchanges and other ephemeral sources of feminist activism inform contemporary practices of feminist scholarship? 
  • How might archival materials like these help scholars to recover a fuller feminist timeline such that it could inform a more robust set of contemporary feminist archival methodologies? 

End notes

[1]Charlotte Perkins Gilman, of course, was arguably the most famous patient to undergo the rest cure—a treatment she found much more harmful than helpful. In a letter Gilman poignantly and hopefully wrote to Mitchell to seek out his help, she wrote, “I understand you are the first authority on nervous diseases. Are you on brain troubles too? There is something the matter with my head.  No one here knows or believes or cares.  Of course they can’t care for what they don’t believe. But you will know” (Knight 274).  Gilman sensed that she was suffering from something that was “brain”—based.  She was quite right, if we were to venture a contemporary guess: Gilman had postpartum depression. Unsurprisingly, the rest cure made her feel much worse. 


[2]As Mitchell put it in his 1877 volume Fat and Blood, “When they are bidden to stay in bed a month, and neither to read, write, nor sew, and have one nurse—who is not a relative—then rest becomes for some women a rather bitter medicine, and they are glad enough to accept the order to rise and go about when the doctor issues a mandate which has become pleasantly welcome and eagerly looked for” (41). 

Works Cited 

Cervetti, Nancy. S. Weir Mitchell, 1829–1914: Philadelphia’s Literary Physician. State Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012. Print. 

Knight, Denise D. “‘All the Facts of the Case’: Gilman’s Lost Letter to Dr. S. Weir Mitchell.” American Literary Realism 37.3 (2005): 259-77. Print. 

Mitchell, Silas Weir. Fat and Blood. Philadelphia: J.P. Lippincott, 1893. Print. 

Phelps, Elizabeth Stuart. Doctor Zay: Afterwards by Michael Sartisky. New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1993. Print. 

Phelps, Elizabeth Stuart. Letters to S. Weir Mitchell, 1884, 1887, 1897. Series 4.3, Box 9, Folder 278. Silas Weir Mitchell Papers MSS 2/0241-03. Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. 

Showalter, Elaine. Hysteria Beyond Freud. Oakland: University of California Press, 1993. Print. 

Schuster, David. “Personalizing Illness and Modernity: S. Weir Mitchell, Literary Women, and Neurasthenia, 1870-1914.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 79.4 (2005): 695-722. Print. 

Stansell, Christine. “Elizabeth Stuart Phelps: A Study in Female Rebellion.” The Massachusetts Review 13.5 (1972): 239-256. Print. 

Tuttle, Jennifer. “Letters from Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (Ward) to S. Weir Mitchell, M.D., 1884-1897.” Legacy 17.1 (2000): 83-94. Print.