In a class I am teaching this semester–“Mad Geniuses and Scribblers: Portrayals of the Author in Nineteenth-Century America”–we read some samples of the criticism that was directed at women who ventured into print in the 1850s, beginning with Hawthorne’s famous diatribe against the “damned mob of scribbling women.” I noticed that many of the female students seemed to be squirming in their seats and grimacing. When one swore, after I read one particularly virulent quote, I stopped and asked how they were feeling about all of these negative comments. What ensued was a fascinating discussion about how such prejudices linger today and many women writers still feel like second-class citizens in the literary world.
One student brought up Vida: Women in Literary Arts, an organization founded in 2009 “to address the need for female writers of literature to engage in conversations regarding the critical reception of women’s creative writing in our current culture.” Vida is known for “The Count,” which documents the disparity between the numbers of male- and female-authored literature published in the leading magazines and journals.
Many years ago, I published an article on how women writers were treated at the Atlantic Monthly in the 19th century. It’s interesting—and, of course, infuriating—how little has changed. In the article, I documented how women were fundamental to the formation of the magazine (because of their popularity) and instrumental to its success. Yet, when the magazine celebrated its 20th anniversary, no women were invited to the dinner. The Atlantic was staffed almost entirely by men and viewed essentially as a “masculine magazine.” I basically document how it helped to form a nearly entirely male canon of American literature at the end of the 19th century.
After our heated class discussion, one of my students came to my office to talk about how it seemed many of the women writers (largely white and middle class) had such conflicted feelings about being authors and tried to hide themselves from public view. The debate about women’s authorship in the 1850s was a nasty one. It’s no wonder they hid from view as much as possible. Here is a sampling of what they were up against, from the belittling to the vituperative:
A. W. Abbot decried “the entrance of the Amazonian mania into literature,” fearing that “we are to be overtaken, and branded, and cruelly mauled . . . [by] this clapper-clawing from fair, but not gentle hands.”—North American Review, 1851
“It is the fault of our literary women that they are commonly careless and superficial, . . . they are for the most part feeble copyists, without individuality, and without naturalness.”—The International Magazine of Literature, Art, and Science, 1851
“A GALLANT EDITOR, out of patience with some lady poetess, who wishes to grace his columns, in his notice to correspondents says to her, ‘darn your stockings, and darn your poetry too!’”—The National Era, 1847
“[T]he books of almost all lady authors are readable, just as the conversation of all women is entertaining; the errors, volubility and misconceptions, which we will not tolerate in men, become amusing and entertaining in the case of a lady, or a child.”—Putnam’s, 1854
“[A] good pair of stockings, or a well-made petticoat, is a much better thing than a feeble attempt at literature”—Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1852
Hawthorne wrote many unsavory things about women writers in his letters. To his wife in 1856, he thanked God “thou hast never—forgive me the bare idea!—never prostituted thyself to the public, as [author Grace Greenwod] has, and as a thousand others do.” To his publisher, he wrote of Julia Ward Howe, “she has no genius or talent, except for making public what she ought to keep to herself—viz. her passions, emotions, and womanly weaknesses. ‘Passion Flowers’ were delightful, but she ought to have been soundly whipped for publishing them.” He also wrote to his publisher, in 1855, that he preferred to stay in England because “America is now wholly given over to a d___d mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash—and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed.”
These were some of the views of women writers with which Woolson grew up. Her teens, during the 1850s, were a time when women had to prove themselves worthy of education and authorship. No wonder she didn’t publish until she was 30 and public opinion had cooled on the subject. But she always carried with her the memory of the prejudices with which she had grown up. For she knew they hadn’t entirely disappeared, only gone underground.