Women and 19th Century Literature

If a person knows how to write, they will write something. A shopping list, letter, journal, recipe, book, novel, thesis paper. Through the centuries, women had written, but they didn’t always receive much attention or much help from publishers. In mid-19th Century America, a change started to occur in attitudes toward women, writing, and publishing. Against this backdrop, fictional character Susan Rose Arnold scribbles poetry, wonders if someday it could be published, and meets a woman who regularly writes for publications.

“Miss Shermann,” I said as I guided her up to her room after the evening meal, “what do you write? If you don’t mind my question.” She had perfect manners and the most fascinating way of controlling the conversation at the table, without seeming to be in charge.

“It depends,” she replied, smiling. “Sometimes short stories. Sometimes information about travel or the impracticality of these beautiful ladies’ fashions. Anything I can sell to a newspaper or magazine.” (Lighthouse Loyalty, Chapter 18)

Today, we’ll highlight some mid-19th Century female authors and the changing world of publishing. 

Did A Lady Write?

Yes, of course. Did she write to be published? Yes, but not everyone in 19th Century America thought that was a good idea. Was it too forward for a woman to have her name published as the author? Should a woman be writing to earn money? Questions like these presented challenges and social changes.

Girls were taught penmanship and composition at school and finishing schools. Writing for publication was a way to make a little money for women who enjoyed and had time to pursue the art or were trying to support themselves. In an era where wage-earning options were limited for ladies of certain social classes, writing opened an opportunity. Some of the most popular novelists of the era (and even several decades) before were women. Yes, ladies wrote for publication, and their options expanded as American literature and publications changed.

Social Reformers & Ladies’ Magazines

Prior to the Civil War and continuing afterward, a wave of social reform swept through America. Groups advocating for temperance, prison or hospital reform, abolition and other causes usually included women, and these ladies found practical use for their pens. The Grimke Sisters, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Susan B. Anthony, and others wrote their views for publication.

However rattling society and writing for reform wasn’t the only way a lady could write for publication. Ladies’ magazines gained popularity, featuring information about fashions, handiwork, short stories, and poetry. Children’s magazine were also outlets for short stories, moral tales, and poetry.

Not Always Her Name

It’s possible women wrote more articles in the magazines and newspapers of the era than we realize. She might have been able to sell her piece for publication but that didn’t guarantee the publisher would credit her as the author. It’s not uncommon to find books, articles, or poetry by “A Lady” – continuing a centuries old tradition of women writing and not receiving named credit.

Before getting upset about this, it’s important to remember that some women preferred to remain anonymous for a variety of reasons. And by contrast, many male authors were only credit with their initials or a pseudonym when they were published in papers or magazines.

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Famous American Authoresses

Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) a historical novel that fanned the flames of abolition and sectionalism prior to the Civil War.

Emily Dickinson wrote over a thousand poems during her short, reclusive life. Though only about a dozen were published during her lifetime, the rest were published in the 1890’s.

Louisa May Alcott wrote for newspapers and magazines, though she is best remembered for her children’s novel Little Women (1868).

Catharine Sedgwick penned stories for periodicals and was one of the most popular American female novelists of the 19th Century.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was an African American women known for her work in the abolition movement and famous for her poetry collections.

What About Susan?

The fictional girl in Lighthouse Loyalty who played with words and didn’t want to think about loneliness, reflected some truths about women and 19th Century Literature. Many found writing a way to share what was on their minds and hearts without stepping to speaker’s podium. They penned articles, poems, stories, and novels – each writer with an individual motive and goal with her writing.

Susan Rose Arnold might have grown up to pursue a quiet career of writing for publication, but (without giving too many spoilers!) she eventually grew up, married, and wrote to amuse herself and her family. As she wrote the story of her life as a lighthouse keeper’s daughter, she probably didn’t write it for publication. Like so many real manuscripts, letters, and journals, her fictional diaries and story were probably tucked away, either for a lost fate or to be discovered decades later.

Still, in 1867 that little girl, holding her notebook, faced an opening world of opportunity for women writing.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Do you have a favorite 19th Century Authoress?news

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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