I have been reading a lot about how women writers continue to face doubts about their legitimacy, from without and within. (The latest a lengthy interview with a group of women writers.) And I have been reading about how today’s women writers would like to be known simply as writers, despite knowing how unlikely it (still) is that critics and readers will simply ignore their gender.
As someone who has studied nineteenth-century women writers for twenty years, writing at length about the obstacles they were up against as they stormed the gates of the patriarchal literary world, it has been a rather sad awakening to read recent comments by Meg Wolitzer about the segregation that still exists in the literary world, or by Eleanor Catton or Claire Messud about interviewers’ sexism. What they are up against, I realize, it not that different from what their 19th-century counterparts were experiencing.
The rumpus caused over wikipedia’s removal of women writers from their list of “American Novelists” was particularly eerie to read about. It reminded me of the protests by some vocal women over the Atlantic Monthly’s decision in 1877 to exclude female contributors from its twentieth birthday celebration. “In the republic of letters, if nowhere else, woman is a citizen,” insisted the future suffragist Frances E. Willard. Another writer anonymously penned letters from the neglected female contributors to the publisher, Henry Houghton, announcing their intention to host their own dinner and start their own magazine. “Merciful heavens!” she imagines him declaring. “I have actually been applying the paper-cutter to my own nose”–because he knows the Atlantic will not survive without Harriet Beecher Stowe, Constance Fenimore Woolson, Gail Hamilton, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Prescott Spofford, and others. [The full essays can be found in the collection Wielding the Pen.]
The fact that most of those names are almost entirely unknown today (despite their absolute centrality to the field of American literature in the 1870s) says a lot about the masculinization of American literature that successfully excluded women not only from the dinner table at the Atlantic’s 20th birthday party but also from the literary canon the magazine helped to form at the turn of the twentieth century.
When I was in college in the late 1980s, a revolution was taking place, as issues of literary merit, sexism, and racism were redrawing the boundaries of the American literary canon, as well as the playing field for many emerging writers. That was when I first became interested in the question: how and when did women writers first claim the right to be recognized as artists (as they seemed to be doing then en masse)?
That question led me away from contemporary writers, and I innocently assumed that the progress then fomenting had continued even while I immersed myself in the post-Civil War generation (about which I wrote a book, Writing for Immortality). Of the four writers I examined most closely, Constance Fenimore Woolson always stood out as the most committed and successful artist of the bunch. She wanted very much to be taken seriously as a writer, not a woman writer. And she was to a great degree.
To her delight, she was often compared to the most prominent male writers of her day. The New York Tribune compared her first collection of stories, Castle Nowhere (1877), to the work of James and Thomas Bailey Aldrich, writing, “in the quality of freshness in the use of unhackneyed scenery and incident, she has stolen a march on them both.” Appleton’s argued that her second collection, Rodman the Keeper (1880), “must be separated from nearly all our recent literature on account of its masterly methods.” Again, the reviewer compared her only to male writers, this time Aldrich, William Dean Howells, and Bret Harte.
Yet, when she met James in 1880, she discovered that he thought of her as “an authoress,” not an “author.” After years of struggling to gain the acceptance of male literary critics, it was a quite a blow. Over time she would prove to him she was his peer, but it wasn’t easy and her victory was never absolute.
It is disheartening to hear how much women still have to prove themselves to a literary world that continues to be dominated by male critics. (See the Vida Literary Project’s Count for the depressing numbers.)
But it could be inspiring for today’s women writers to hear the voices of their predecessors, who faced similar hurdles and overcame them, to some extent, in spite of even greater odds. Yet who among them has heard of, let alone read, Woolson, or others of her era (besides Emily Dickinson)? How many of them even know about these women’s great successes at the Atlantic and elsewhere and their struggles to overcome their era’s prejudices?
I like to think today’s women writers might enjoy hearing the voice of Woolson, such as when she wrote to the poet and critic Edmund Clarence Stedman, when she was 36, “I have played the part of ‘listener’ all my life. . . . at this late hour I have gotten hold of the pen, and now people must listen to me, occasionally.” I’m sure many of them have felt the same sort of triumph.