Gender Issue in 1797s The Coquette by Hannah Webster Foster Discussion

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The Coquette is an epistolary novel written by Hannah Webster Foster. It was published anonymously in 1797. The story (XXXII-XLIV) focuses on the female protagonist Eliza Wharton and her life around Boyer and Sanford. In this blog, we will focus on the insights that this novel provided towards gender in early America.


In letter 32 Sanford wants to break up Eliza’s relation with Boyer even though he does not want to marry her. In the last part of the letter, he wishes to find a wealthy lady that could pay for his loan. From this part, it is clear that Sanford isn’t a reliable person and he seems to be a playboy that does not worry about the consequences of his action. From this, we can tell that men are giving a lot of freedom since women cannot act like Sanford.

In letter 37, Sanford said he could put his head up, at present. This means that he wants to obtain Eliza without letting her know about the loan he has. We can see that Eliza probably still likes Sanford because he in the upper class/rich. In other words, social class is one of the main aspects of marriage.

In the next letter 38-39, Eliza clearly does not want to marry Boyer because she felt that she can’t be happy with him (Boyer is in the middle class unlike Sanford). During this period of time, female doesn’t have many choices. They do not have the freedom to choose their lover or chase the person they like. Based on Eliza’s actions, she lacks virtue.

In letters 40-44, Eliza is secretly meeting with Sanford and was discovered by Boyer. Boyer believes Eliza is unworthy to be his wife and abandoned her. Sanford who successfully breaks up the relation also went to find himself a wealthy life. Unfortunately, Eliza’s life was destroyed by Sanford because she is unwilling to accept the patriarchal ideas at the time. In other words, she is ruined because she is not following the gender norms.

Basically, Eliza is somehow accepting Sanford while she is supposed to stay loyal and marry Boyer. She constantly says that she is not ready for marriage while being friends with Sandford, another man. She finally regretted her actions after Boyer left, however, Boyer doesn’t accept her because of how Eliza is secretly holding a relation with Sanford.

In the patriarchal society, men who are in power believe that women should stay virtue and their life is to marry a husband. This idea shows that men do not have to face many problems comparing to women. Once a woman is found guilty of committing unvirtue action, she is basically marginalized by society. On the other hand, Sanford was able to find a wealthy wife while Eliza still has to apologize and find forgiveness from Boyer.


Unfortunately, Eliza died because she wanted the freedom of choice and independence. Because of her idea, Eliza is basically label as The Coquette, a woman who flirts. This means that Eliza is committing sin at that period of time which patriarchy rules the society.

On the other side, Sanford became poor because his wife left him. However, the only loss he faces is probably money and status. This shows that men have much more choices and freedom compared to women.

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1 – How will the ending look like if this event occurred today?

2 – Besides social status, are there any other factors that depict gender/sexuality in early America?

3 – Eliza meets her ending because she continues to be with Sanford even after she was abandoned by Boyer. It is also clear that Sanford doesn’t want to marry her. How will things be different if she becomes the ideal woman after Mayor left her?

4 – Women doesn’t have much freedom at that time, however, what might happen if Eliza remains clean throughout her life?