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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Adding and Subtracting Simultaneously

The last few days have not been good for me, as Hubby’s health deteriorated at the same time that I had a major disagreement with my longtime New York publishing associate. I thought I was almost done with a project for her, but it turned out that we had differing expectations, and now I’m rewriting for peanuts in pay.

Part of this is the perennial problem I’ve had since my first book in 1986. Editors want me to add this topic and expand on that one and mention forty others -- and while you are at it, they say, please reduce the total word count because it’s too long. If LaGaceta practiced similar illogic, you wouldn’t be reading this. Patrick’s peanuts are tastier.

This project is an introduction or first chapter or long essay – all of those words have been used – for a book that will come out next year. New York women got full voting rights in 1917 and the Women’s National Book Association began the same year, so the book will be for both centennials. My fault was in forgetting how parochial people in the Northeast can be. So many seem to think that if it didn’t happen in New York (or perhaps Jersey or Connecticut), then it didn’t happen. I should have understood that they didn’t really want to be reminded of the fact that every western state except New Mexico granted the vote before any eastern state did.

Nor do they seem to want to hear much about the achievements of pioneer women in the book biz. I’ve noticed that anti-historical attitude, even among intellectuals, for a long time. Every generation wants to think that they invented everything, and today’s women seem convinced that their great-grandmothers couldn’t possibly have done anything important.

Not only do they assume that everything happened just recently, they also assume that upward movement is inevitable -- and so if women are reaching top positions now, they couldn’t have had them before. But ladders go down as well as up, and I’m sorry to say that the status of women in the book world today is not much better than it was back when.

It’s really English professors who are to blame, I guess. They have taught classes that ignore huge numbers of publishing precedents -- to the point that today’s women not only don’t know about their foremothers, but may not want to know about them because it diminishes their own self-images. The truth is, however, that no female newspaper publisher today compares with two of a generation ago, the Washington Post’s Katherine Graham and Newsday founder Alicia Patterson.

No book publisher compares with Blanche Knopf of the 1930s, and no magazine editor to Sarah Josepha Hale, who died in 1879. They want a section on librarians, but dare I point out that the American Library Association, which began in 1876, did not have a female executive director until 1989? How do I make heroes of these timid folks, while ignoring much more valid precedents set by other women?

I won’t invent happy history that did not happen. Yet, after some dismaying e-mails back and forth, I agreed to rewrite with a focus on the post-1917 period. Thus a lot of words about earlier eras are going to end up on the cutting room floor, and I’m asking you to pick up them up for this week’s column. I hope you’ll find these true pioneers as interesting as I do.

From the Beginning

A woman wrote America’s first secular book. Without telling her, Anne Bradstreet’s brother-in-law took her poems from Massachusetts to London and returned with copies of The Tenth Muse, Lately Sprung Up in America (1650). She was the busy mother of eight, yet made time to write poetry that still stands up well today. No matter what the field, women always have been there – and without women, history ends in a generation.

Moreover, until very recently in historical time, they did this without access to formal education. Harvard had been established when Anne Bradstreet wrote in 1650, but more than three centuries would pass before women were allowed there. In fact, almost two centuries would pass between Harvard’s 1636 founding and the admission of women to any college anywhere in the world. The first was Oberlin College in frontier Ohio in 1833, and even there, they had to follow a “Ladies Curriculum.” Yet despite this and other discrimination, women were active participants from the beginning of America’s book world.

They wrote of their own experiences, such as Mary Rowlandson’s A Narrative of the Capitivity…, which told of her life when she was taken by Rhode Island’s Wampoag tribe. Published in 1682, it was reissued in at least thirty editions. They published travelogues, such as Sarah Kemble Knight’s account of her business trip from Boston to New York, The Journal of Madam Knight (1705). Her cheerful story of overcoming obstacles on the horseback journey contained many economic and cultural observations.

Women especially published newspapers. Sarah Updike Goddard began Rhode Island’s Providence Gazette in 1762 and then moved on to Philadelphia, where she published the Pennsylvania Chronicle. Her daughter, Mary Katherine Goddard, later used the Maryland Journal to bravely issue the first copy of the Declaration of Independence that included the signers’ names.

Colonial women arguably had a higher status than would be the case later. Anne Catherine Hoff Green, for example, was named the official printer of the Maryland colony in 1767, and despite her fourteen children, also published The Maryland Gazette. Clementina Rind, a widow like Green, published the Virginia Gazette, and that colony’s House of Burgesses made her the official printer in 1774.

Nor did these women hesitate to express their political opinions in editorials. Most supported the American Revolution, but Margaret Draper Green advocated for the established government in her Boston News-Letter. Her conservative views were popular enough that she drove six competitors out of business before the British evacuated and she had to flee.

More Revolutionary Women

Mercy Otis Warren, who lived south of Boston, wrote plays that satirized the British enemy, and she later published a three-volume military record of the war. In Philadelphia, Esther DeBardt Reed argued in Sentiments of an American Woman for both the revolution and for women’s right to participate it. Her political leadership is particularly striking in view of the fact that she was a British native who had lived in America only briefly.

George Washington appreciated the activism of these natural democrats and wrote thank-your notes to many women. He also took time to formally accept poetry from Phyllis Wheatley, a young black woman born in Gambia. Her first book, Poems on Various Subjects, was published in London in 1773. Even earlier, though, Lucy Terry Prince probably was the first African American poet; she wrote an elegy for the victims of 1704 warfare.

George Washington guaranteed sales of the collected essays of Judith Sergeant Murray. A witty, erudite columnist, she was compared favorably to Noah Webster. Feminists also should know about Murray’s highly original essay “Equality of the Sexes,” which was published prior to Mary Woolstonecraft’s much more famous work in England.

The revolution ended in 1783, and in 1784, Elizabeth Hunter Holt became the official printer for the state of New York. In that same year, Hannah Adams issued An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects. It set a completely revolutionary standard for objectivity on the subject of religion and was reissued for decades. She probably was the first American woman to support herself solely by writing.

Susanna Haswell Rowson was America’s first bestseller. Her most famous novel, Charlotte Temple: A Tale of Truth was published in England in 1791. Reissued at least two hundred times, the distinctly feminist story never has gone out of print. Hannah Webster Foster was similarly successful with The Coquette (1797), which had similar themes of women’s lack of property rights, the bondage of marriage and motherhood, and society’s double standards. Catherine Sedgewick’s somewhat daring story, A New England Tale (1822), also was an immediate bestseller. When most novels still were set in Europe, it set a new ideal for historical fiction in America, and the era’s literati ranked her with James Fenimore Cooper.

New Ideas in a New Nation

In non-fiction, one example of early feminist publication is Deborah Pierce’s work, A Scriptural Vindication of Female Preaching (1817). The next year, Hannah Mather Crocker wrote Observations on the Real Rights of Women. Her “observations” were just that: the experiential writing of a woman with ten children, she asserted that girls and boys have similar natural abilities until societal training and legal barriers create inequality.

Hannah Farnham Lee demonstrated that the public would accept advice on money management from a woman. Her Three Experiments in Living (1837) presented economic scenarios of living under, within, or beyond one’s means, and the book went through more than 30 editions in the United States and Europe. Her publishers were delighted, and she soon had contracts for older manuscripts, which showed her amazing range of scholarship: She wrote on everything from French Huguenots to Haitian rebel Pierre Toussaint. Even such obscure subjects went through more than one edition.

Margaret Fuller, a genius who read Latin at age seven, began editing The Dial, the publication of American philosophers in 1840. Four years later, she became the nation’s first book reviewer when famed editor Horace Greeley recruited her for the New York Tribune. With its national circulation, she played a major role in determining what Americans read. Her Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845) provided thought on the status of women, and she went on to Italy, where she reported on its revolution. In the same era, Jane Storms Cazneau reported from Mexico City on that war with the US.

As scientific fields began to formalize in the early nineteenth century, women delved into that, too, with a remarkable number of published books by female botanists – none of whom had an opportunity for college credentials. Women began to enter medicine in the 1840s, and Dr. Lydia Folger Fowler – the second woman to graduate from a traditional medical school – set a sales record with Familiar Lessons on Physiology (1847).

Women continued to write best-selling fiction, too, as Maria Susanna Cummings first novel, The Lamplighter, (1854) sold 40,000 copies in a few weeks. A similar achiever was Susan Bogart Warner, whose 1851 story of an orphaned girl outsold Charles Dicken’s David Copperfield (1850), even in England. Yet have you ever heard of Cummings or Warner?

A comparable record of success continued in the next decade. Best-selling books by Charles Dickens in 1861 and Lewis Carroll in 1866 were sandwiched between Mrs. E.D.E.N Southworth and Mary Mapes Dodge. To believe that Southworth and Dodge merit their current obscurity is to believe that the reading public somehow totally lost its taste after A Tale of Two Cities and yet recovered it in time for Alice in Wonderland.

Think about it.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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