"For Myself, For My Children, For Money":
Early American Women Writers at the British Library
The British Library contains a rich selection of writings by American women in the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Each of the women listed in the bibliography above had their first work published as a single volume, under their name alone, by 1850.
CONSTANTIA, pseud. [i.e. Judith Sargent Murray], The Gleaner, a Miscellaneous Production. 3 vols. Boston: I. Thomas & E.T. Andrews, 1798. (12704.b.26).
Copyright © The British Library
The works include novels, collections of poetry, historical monographs, biographies, textbooks, and children's literature. Also included are several memoirs which, although edited by someone else, consist exclusively of work by the woman concerned. Not included in the bibliography are women whose work had appeared only in edited volumes, magazines or newspapers by this date.. The second document above presents the biographies of a selection of these women.
It is perhaps not surprising that the majority of the women featured here came from families which, although not necessarily wealthy, valued education and were highly literate. Some of the women were taught at home by their parents and elder siblings, others attended their local school, and quite a few were pupils at the newly established female seminaries. It is interesting to note that among these women there are at least six pairings of sisters and two pairings of mothers and daughters.
Most of the women launched their literary career by submitting poems or short stories, often anonymously or under a pseudonym, to a local newspaper or magazine. They often had little expectation that their work would be published and even less intention of making a living from their writing. However, having seen their work in print they were emboldened to continue and some, including Elizabeth Chandler and E.D.E.N. Southworth, were urged to do so by their editors.
Yet the thrill of seeing their work in print was probably the least important impetus driving these women. Most of them wrote because it was a route to economic stability. Some of them were young adults who had lost a parent (Anne Lynch Botta, Phoebe and Alice Cary), others were either widows with children to support (Elizabeth Cheves, Sarah Josepha Hale) or wives whose husbands were ill or bankrupt (Anna Cora Mowatt, Harriet Beecher Stowe), while some were unmarried women who had to support themselves (Catharine Sedgwick).
To ensure a steady income, many of the women also taught or even ran their own schools for at least part of their lives; indeed teaching was the only truly respectable position open to women at this time. However, a not insignificant number also became magazine editors, including Ann Stephens (The Portland Magazine), Sarah Josepha Hale (Godey's Lady's Book), Harriet Farley (Lowell Offering), Margaret Fuller (The Dial), and Rebecca S. Nichols (The Guest).
Having established themselves as authors, several women, including Ann Botta, Alice and Phoebe Cary and Estelle Anna Lewis, were able to establish successful literary salons in New York. Others used their position to support causes such as women's healthcare (Mary Grove Nichols), prison reform (Elizabeth Oakes Smith), women's education and property rights (Sarah Josepha Hale), domestic economy and household management (Catharine Beecher), and the abolition of slavery (Lydia Maria Child). All of the women, without exception, stepped outside of the roles traditionally prescribed to women at this time.
When using the bibliography, please note that in most cases only the early (rather than modern) editions of these volumes are included. Where the British Library has both an original and a microfilm copy of a work, only the original is listed. For some works, for example Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, it has not been possible to list all editions - readers should consult Explore the British Library directly. Every effort has been made to ensure this list is as accurate as possible. However, mistakes are inevitable and I welcome corrections!
1 Like all rules, however, this one is made to be broken, and a couple of women have slipped in under the wire.
2 Including Lucretia Davidson and Estelle Anna Lewis, who attended Emma Willard's seminary in Troy, NY, Harriet Beecher Stowe who attended her sister Catharine Beecher's seminary in in Utica, NY.