In the context of our modern society, a woman delivering public readings of famous poetry and prose may not seem revolutionary, but in 19th century America, it was. Mowatt carefully orchestrated her readings so that she could be the breadwinner for her household after her husband James fell ill, maintain her dignity and her social status, and, all the while, challenge gender norms. (Macki)
Mowatt first started her career as a public reader at the Masonic Temple in Boston (pictured on the left). This temple was known to be a congregation space for men. When entering this space, Mowatt made sure to portray herself as a simple, pure women who embodied the feminine ideal of the time in order to maintain her reputation. Ironically, she was occupying a central role in a public space where women did not belong at the time. Women of the 19th century were typically teachers or sewers, not public speakers. (Macki)
Speaking in front of a crowd of wealthy men was not easy for Mowatt, however, despite her interest in self expression. In her autobiography, Mowatt comments the following about the start of her career as a public orator:
"I had often read before large assemblages of friends—that required not a little courage. With a high object in view, I should gain enough additional courage to read before strangers" (139)
Men who attended the Masonic Temple tended to laud Mowatt for her entertaining readings. Mowatt commented in her autobiography,
"A spirit of chivalry towards a countrywoman evidently existed among the gentlemen." (151)
This sense of chivalry is shown by the quote in large text at the top of the page. Because Mowatt presented herself as a simple, elegant "True woman," most men appreciated her presentations at the temple. (Macki) Mowatt did receive some backlash for her actions, however. A magazine called The Ladies Companion criticized Mowatt for "debasing herself" in front of an audience and tempting other women to follow in her footsteps. (Macki) Despite these negative sentiments, Mowatt courageously moved further into the public sphere, into the realm of theater arts.
"There is not a man in this temple that wouldn't fight for you."
- A man at one of Anna Cora Mowatt's public readings at the Masonic Temple in Boston