Friday, September 2, 2016

The Forgotten Women of American Literature (Classic Remarks)

This post has been in my drafts for months. A couple of semesters ago, I wrote a paper for my American Literature class about women finding their place in the public sphere through the printed word, particularly in magazines and journals and I knew I wanted to make a post about these awesome, but sadly overlooked, women writers. When I stumbled across the Classic Remarks questions, I knew this was just the kick I needed to get this post done.

I'm stretching this question a little bit to fit my needs, but today's question to answer is:
Recommend a diverse classic.  Or you can argue that a diverse book should be a classic or should be included in the canon. 

Now the canon is so hard for a lot of people that don't spend their lives studying literature to understand because it's a pretty abstract concept. The canon is basically the collection of literary works and authors that are considered worthy, readable, and important. Women and people of color have been excluded from the canon for the majority of its existence and many important literary scholars are still fighting to get more diverse works into the canon. Today, I'm highlighting a few of the forgotten women authors and literary pioneers of nineteenth century America. Although these women have made undeniable contributions to the literary world and paved the way for later women authors, they are often left out of the canon. A good way to think about the canon is to think about what you read in high school or college as required reading. Those assigned books are safely in the canon and almost exclusively by white men.

Judith Sargent Muarry
Murray wrote her essay "On the Equality of the Sexes" in 1790, which is basically the American version to Wollstonecraft's "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman." She also wrote for a number of editorials under a pen-name of Constantinia or her fictional persona of "The Gleaner." In her articles written by The Gleaner, she talked about such topics as women's rights, women's education, and societal vice. The articles were very popular, but Murray was slow to claim them as her own writing. Murray was one of the first women to have a very large role in the pubic sphere through the medium of journals and magazines and many women would follow in her footsteps and use the printed word as a means to participate in the public sphere in a way that was traditionally denied to women in that time. 

Sarah Margaret Fuller
Fuller was a leader of the Transcendentalist movement along with the better known Thoreau and Emerson. She was the editor of Dial, the magazine that made Thoreau and Emerson well-known, as well as a writer for the magazine. Fuller did the editorial job with no pay, and was also a well respected literary critic. The Dial was a place where liberal thoughts were expressed and Fuller was also passionate about educational reform. She spent two years as a teacher before she started her "Conversations" for women, which were basically salons for women intellectuals. Fuller wrote many feminist pieces including her novel Woman in the Nineteenth Century

Fanny Fern 
Real name Sara Willis Parton, Fern was a very well-known journalist in her time and was quite the celebrity. Fern was the first woman in the United States to write a regular opinion column and, at the height of her career, negotiated a contract with the New York Ledger to be paid one hundred dollars a week to write a weekly column, a very large weekly income for the time and particularly for a woman. Fern supported herself financially and even ordered her second husband to sign a prenuptial agreement. Her column commented on social issues with a focus on women. What's unique about Fern is although she wrote under a pen-name, her pen-name is undeniably feminine. Interestingly, Fern faced a lot of criticism and speculation for the way she looked.
Male critics continually wondered about the appearance of Fern and implied that she must look masculine or ugly. This of course if because they, and society as a whole, were uncomfortable with her public influence and voice, which is something a lot of women still face today. 

The influence of these women are further proved by the very sexist attempts of popular male authors of the time to compliment the women on their talents. 

Edgar Allan Poe says of Sarah Margret Fuller:

Woman in the Nineteenth Century is a book which few women in the country could have written, and no woman in the country would have published, with the exception of Miss Fuller.”

And the ever bitter Nathonial Hawthorne will forever be dragged by literary scholars and lovers for his statements regarding women writers and Fanny Fern in particular. 

“The woman writes as if the Devil was in her; and that is the only condition under which a woman ever writes anything worth reading. Generally women write like emasculated men, and are only to be distinguished from male authors by greater feebleness and folly…

"America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash-and I should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed." (In reference to the success of Susanna Maria Cummins' novel The Lamplighter which I reviewed here.)

I highly recommend checking out the works of these women and learning more about their lives as they are really fascinating literary pioneers!

You can see the rest of my posts about women's lit for the Classics Club Women's Lit event here!


  1. So many great suggestions! And a very amusing quote from Hawthorne, there. ;) Thanks for participating! -Krysta