First Women in American Literature


Suffragists parade down Fifth Avenue, 1917. Advocates march in October 1917, displaying placards containing the signatures of more than one million New York women demanding the vote. The New York Times Photo Archives

If you’re anything like me (and lucky for you if you’re not) then you’ve spent most of the last week wallowing your way from one shot glass to another and brushing your teeth with the cuff of your old college sweatshirt. It’s pretty gross, if you let yourself think about it, but I try not to. Instead I’ve been making a list of American women literary pioneers who wrote, fought, and rallied their way into print, and changed American history and culture.

Three hundred and seventy-six years ago Anne Bradstreet became the first poet published in the American colonies. She wrote through smallpox, the births of eight children, and the destruction of her house in a fire. Here she writes about loss and renewal:

All things within this fading world hath end,
Adversity doth still our joys attend;
No ties so strong, no friends so dear and sweet,
But with death’s parting blow is sure to meet.

— “Before the Birth of One of Her Children,” 1666

Two hundred and fifty-three years ago Ann Franklin became the first female newspaper editor in America. Among many other authors, she also published the writings of her brother-in-law, Benjamin Franklin. That guy.

Two hundred and thirty-one years ago Hannah Adams became the first American woman to be a professional writer. She was largely self-taught and self-made she earned money and respect by writing historical and religious books.

One hundred and eighty-seven years ago Sarah Hale became the first American woman to edit a major magazine, Ladies Magazine. She is also the author of Mary Had a Little Lamb, in 1855 she published a non-fiction book highlighting notable women in history.

One hundred and seven years ago Julia Ward Howe was the first woman admitted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She was a pioneer in literature and an advocate for women’s rights, but she is best known for writing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” whose fourth stanza reads:

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before his judgment-seat:
Oh! be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.

— “The Battle Hymn of The Republic,”1861

Ninety-four years ago Edith Wharton became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with her book, The Age of Innocence. The central theme of that book is the reconciling of a new culture with the old.

Seventy-seven years ago Pearl S. Buck became the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. She was also an advocate for the rights of women and minority groups, but was best known for her book The Good Earth, which explores the lives of poor laborers.

And, finally, this year Carla Hayden became the first female Librarian of Congress. For over two hundred years, nearly since the founding of the US, the Library of Congress has been dominated by men… until this year, 2016.

If you’re anything like me then you’ve been having a hell of a time this week. It might be help the both of us to remember some of the great and radical women who have made their voices heard throughout American history. These women have been advocates, have been writers, and have changed history. I suspect that there are still radical women are all around us, and they’re getting things done.

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