Friday, July 2, 2010

In Honor of the Fourth of July: Great American Women Writers in Our Nation's History

I considered writing lofty prose in honor of my country's birthday this weekend, but instead, I've decided to list a few great American women in our country's history of publishing. This is by far not an exhaustive list.

1.  Mary Katherine Goddard, the first woman publisher in America. She and her widowed mother became publishers of the Providence Gazette newspaper and the annual West's Almanack. In 1775, Goddard became the first woman postmaster in the country (in Baltimore), and in 1777 she became the first printer to offer copies of the Declaration of Independence that included the signers' names. In 1789 Goddard opened a Baltimore bookstore, probably the first woman in America to do so.

2. Anne Catherine Hoof Green who took over her late husband's printing and newspaper business, becoming the first American woman to run a print shop. The following year she was named the official printer for the colony of Maryland.

3. Mary White Rowlandson, who was captured by Native Americans and glorified God even in captivity, wrote a fascinating memoir that impacted this continent and Great Britain. Her overcoming spirit still inspires us to serve God no matter our circumstances. A reminder that when we are gone, our words still live.

4. Phillis Wheatley, America's first African American woman poet. She was published when American women were not commonly published. It was  especially uncommon for children of slaves to be educated. Her life is a reminder that God will publish whom He will, regardless of who we are or where we come from. We simply need to be faithful to the call.

5. Mercy Otis Warren, a patriot writer who wrote plays, essays and poems supporting independence for America. My favorite title of one of her plays? 
The Blockheads, a three-act play, published  in 1776, shortly after the British withdrew from Boston. (It makes me giggle to imagine a refined colonial woman calling someone a blockhead.)

6. Susanna Rowson, America's first female best-selling novelist. Charlotte. A Tale of Truth (1791), is about a British soldier who goes off to fight in the American Revolution and persuades the fifteen-year-old Charlotte to elope with him to America. 

7.  Lydia Maria Child. I don't agree with her Unitarian beliefs, but there is no doubt she is one of the leaders in civil rights for people of color and women in our nation. She also penned the famous poem, "Over the River and Through the Woods." I'd like to think I would have used my writing gifts as she did at this time in history. Would I? And am I doing all I can now to speak up in the face of tyranny and inequality?

8.  Catharine Maria Sedgwick. The most famous and successful American woman fiction writer in the first half of the nineteenth century. During her lifetime, literary critics and historians routinely recognized her as a primary founder of a distinctly American literature, along with Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Sedgwick’s close friend, William Cullen Bryant. 

9. Emily Dickinson. My favorite poet of all time. I couldn't get enough of her in high school and carried a volume of Emily Dickinson poems with me everywhere I went. (Yes, I was, and am, a nerd.) I was so well-known as a Dickinson freak that people gave me volumes of her poetry on my birthdays. I still treasure all of them. I also memorized a copy of the biographical play, The Belle of Amherst. I wish I could perform it. Maybe someday - or am I too old?

10. Rebecca Harding Davis. Another activist writer who was the first to include American realism in fiction. I love when women authors get feisty and prompt societal change through their writing.

11. Louisa May Alcott. Another favorite. I can read Little Women, Jo's Boys, and Little Men over and over and never tire of these stories. These delicious tales were staple read-alouds for my children when they were small. I always wanted a big rambling house like Jo's in which to homeschool and raise naughty boys. (I got the boys -- four of them -- just not the large house!)

12. Gene Stratton Porter. A nature lover and environmentalist ahead of her time. She was green long before anyone thought of the term. I grew up on the arid Kansas plains and reading about Indiana swamps, moths and forests filled my starving imagination. (I'd never seen a forest!) I still read these aloud to my children and students. The fact that she was born and lived near to where I live now makes me feel like a true kindred Hoosier. I still get goose bumps when I walk into Manchester Public Library and see her actual nature photographs on the wall.

These are a only a smattering of great women in publishing. Due to lack of space, the timeline ends in the mid-1800s. As we travel into the future, more great women come into focus that I've grown fond of in my lifetime: Catherine Marshall, Francine Rivers, Colleen Coble and more.

Who are your favorite authors in history? What have you read of their work that has stuck with you? How has it influenced what you write now? I'd love to know!



  1. Karla, this is fabulous! It's so full of great research (unless you have all that information stored in your brilliant mind!). I'm partial to Louisa May Alcott, and loved it that I worked in Concord, MA, for nearly five years. I passed by Louisa's childhood home nearly every day, and it somehow seemed fitting for this writer. Just bought "The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott" by Kelly O'Connor McNees and am looking forward to digging into it.

    Thank you for the time you put into this post, and keep them coming! JoAnn D.

  2. This is awesome, Karla.

    Probably Harper Lee struck a chord in me at an early age (13,) but I would love to see more of this kind of thing. We seldom hear of the women in our early days of America.

    As I was growing up, being a Hoosier girl and living not far from Limberlost, I adored Gene Stratton Porter. I'm probably most like her because I, too, love the outdoor spaces of Indiana and prefer to read and write about that.

  3. Like I commented on FB -- this is SURE a printer-outer and keeper! Thanks again heaps for this great info! :-)