Female Authorship

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American women were highly visible as professional writers in the nineteenth century. In fact, male writers often expressed dismay about the popularity of literature by women, particularly at mid-century, when many best-selling novels were authored by women. Nathaniel Hawthorne's often-quoted lament about the "d——d mob of scribbling women," written in a letter to the publisher William D. Ticknor in 1855, captures the frustration that some felt at the prominence of women in the literary marketplace. A look at some statistics about women novelists substantiates the perception that women were prominent in the literary marketplace. Before 1830 about one-third of those who published fiction were women. During antebellum years about 40 percent of novels reviewed were written by women. In the 1850s almost 50 percent of the best-sellers were written by women, including Susan B. Warner's (Elizabeth Wetherall) The Wide, Wide World (1851), which quickly sold more than 100,000 copies, and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), which sold more than 300,000 copies in its first year alone. In addition to writing novels, women also wrote for newspapers and magazines and were represented in the ranks of poets and nonfiction writers.

The women who earned livings as authors between 1820 and 1870 came from strikingly similar backgrounds. They were primarily, though not exclusively, white, Protestant, middle-class women. They were frequently from New England in the early years and had access to the education and opportunities necessary to develop their literary talents. Economic necessity, family difficulties, and limited options for earning money first led many of them to begin writing for income. Writing for magazines and newspapers provided many with a better income than they could earn by sewing or teaching. As the century passed, the characteristics of female authors slowly came to reflect the changing ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds of a nation that had freed its slaves and was moving westward. Nevertheless, the majority of female authors before 1870 continued to be from white, middle-class backgrounds. As wage earners, these women differed from other members of their gender, race, and class. Unlike their female friends and neighbors who lived primarily as wives and mothers, female authors supported or contributed to the support of their families by their incomes.

Though they were writers, they were not free from many of the duties expected of traditional middle-class women. Like other women, female authors were expected to be responsible for doing the housework and caring for children and other family members. Even when there were domestic servants in the household, women often worked beside them. Female authors were also involved in the rounds of visits and social activities that characterized their class. While some women managed all of this on their own, others were fortunate to have family members—husbands, siblings, or other relatives—who helped them out. For example, Augusta Dodge, sister of the writer Mary Abigail Dodge (Gail Hamilton, 1833–1896), took over most of their household tasks. Friendships that developed between female authors were also important for sustaining their efforts.


Female writers in the nineteenth century lived and worked within an ambiguous cultural context of ideas and attitudes related to their gender and their occupation. These attitudes shaped their experiences as writers and their understanding of themselves as writers. For example, no matter what their own beliefs about womanhood were, female authors could not avoid being judged by others and by themselves in relation to the gender expectations of their day. They had to come to terms with the popular, conservative belief in True Womanhood with its expectations that middle-class women ought to focus their lives solely on religious, moral, and domestic matters, leaving business and other worldly affairs to men. Women and men were supposed to have separate spheres of activity and influence. True Women were expected to create a satisfying and uplifting home life for husband and children and to lead their families by Christian example; they were not expected to pursue a career. In response, some writers, like Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte (E. D. E. N.) Southworth (1819–1899), one of the most popular writers of the mid-nineteenth century, defended their literary activity by claiming that they were true women as well as authors. Other female authors, like Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896), adopted the more liberal rationale of women's rights advocates and educators that women should bring their special qualities of purity, morality, and nurturance into the world through writing as well as through volunteer work and teaching. Depending on their own personality and circumstances, female authors defended their literary activity by claiming they were True Women despite their profession or by justifying what they were doing as an extension of their woman's role into the world.

Given the success of women, it is clear that attitudes toward gender roles did not stop all women from writing, though those attitudes did shape female authors's thinking about and defense of their careers. The nineteenth-century views of womanhood also shaped the ways in which authors and their works were judged. Literary critics almost always critiqued a woman's literary work by commenting on the gender of the author and the appropriateness of content and style for a female author. Women were most often praised for conforming to established expectations for womanhood. Thus the reviews of the poet Louise Chandler Moulton (1835–1908), for example, included comments on her truthfulness, innocence, and dependence. Women were expected to write like women, yet they were also criticized for doing so. Harriet Prescott Spofford (1835–1921), for example, was criticized for being wordy, even though wordiness was expected of women. The negative reception that Sara Payson Willis Parton (Fanny Fern, 1811–1872) and her story Ruth Hall (1855) received from critics is a good example of the harsh criticism women and their literary works could face when they did not conform to gender expectations. She created a scandal by her "unfeminine" portrayal of relatives who opposed her independent behavior and her literary career.

Despite criticism of their womanhood, female authors persisted in their profession, justified intellectually perhaps by similarities in the concepts of womanhood and authorship. Between 1820 and 1870 the concept of authorship was evolving from that of the "genteel amateur" to the professional writer. The concept of author as genteel amateur without commercial aims, writing only when the spirit moved "him," was compatible with the nineteenth-century ideal of womanhood, safe from and superior to commercial demands. In this vein female authors such as Catharine Maria Sedgwick (1789–1867) insisted that their writing was simply a pastime, not a profession. Like a male author, woman too could write from her home for the pleasure of a respectable audience. Furthermore, she could claim she was especially well suited to provide for her readers the moral and social lessons expected from all authors. Apparently many agreed that authorship and womanhood were similar; male writers were sometimes characterized as "feminine" in their attitudes and work. Nevertheless, the identification of womanhood with authorship was never complete; a female author was always distinguished from the male norm by being labeled "lady author" or "authoress."

Nineteenth-century views of authorship and audience expectations also helped open the profession to women. As an emerging middle-class profession, authorship seemed to express the anxieties of an increasingly industrial and class-conscious society. Thus for many writers authorship was viewed in comparison to manual labor—often as separate from and superior to manual labor. At the same time middle-class women's role in the home was considered separate from and superior to the harsh realities of industrial work. In this regard being an author and a middle-class woman were not too far apart conceptually. Furthermore, as authorship became a profession, all writers were conscious of the mid-nineteenth-century audience for successful work—an audience with expectations that literary works, especially fiction, would reflect middle-class moral and family values. These understandings of authorship and of audience encouraged women to find their voices as authors along with, and often more successfully than, men.

When Mary Abigail Dodge (Gail Hamilton) discovered that her gentleman publisher, James T. Fields, was not compensating her as well as some other authors, she first tried to settle the dispute through discussion. When that did not satisfy her, she pressed for arbitration. She wrote a thinly veiled account of the dispute in A Battle of the Books (1870). In her conclusion, Dodge argues that both male and female authors must put aside their idealistic views of authorship and gender as well as their expectations of generous, fair treatment from the Gentlemen Publishers.

It is the same with women as with men, for in literature as in the gospel, there is neither male nor female. When a woman does any work for which she receives money, she becomes so far a man, and passes immediately and inevitably under the yoke of trade. She has no right to demand a favorable judgment of her work because she is a woman, nor has she the least right to require that chivalry shall come in to help fix or secure her compensation. . . . Under this law there is no sex, no chivalry, no deference, no mercy. There is nothing but supply and demand. Nothing but buy and sell. To him who understands it, and guides himself by it, it is a chariot of state bearing him on to fame and fortune. To him who does not comprehend it and flings himself against it, it is a car of Juggernaut, crushing him beneath its wheels, without passion, but without pity.

Hamilton, A Battle of the Books, pp. 287–288.

In addition to some compatibility of values between the concepts of womanhood and authorship, female writers also found some familiar values in the literary marketplace of the mid-nineteenth century. In this time period many publishers and editors tried to present themselves in the image of the Gentleman Publisher. Well-known publishers who represented themselves as Gentlemen Publishers included such men as George P. Putnam, Charles Scribner, and James T. Fields. Editors who reflected similar values included Henry Mills Alden, William Dean Howells, and James Russell Lowell. According to the ideal, Gentlemen Publishers were expected to have personal relationships with their authors, expressing paternalism, affection, loyalty, and trust; they were also expected to value good literature above commercial aims, even though they were in business; and finally, they were expected to be moral guardians, protecting their readers from anything offensive and helping to instill good values. Of course, many publishers did not live up to this ideal, and all gentlemen publishers who stayed in business did make money or they would not have survived. What is significant is that the expressed values of the literary marketplace were compatible with many women's own focus on family relationships, noncommercialism, and moral guardianship. Furthermore, the relationship of the Gentleman Publisher to any writer was expected to be like a provider to a family member—a familiar environment for women. In fact, it was this similarity to domestic male-female relationships that Mary Abigail Dodge (Gail Hamilton) so accurately criticized in A Battle of the Books (1870) as creating inequitable circumstances for dependent writers (wives) in relationship to their dominant publishers (husbands).

There are scholarly disagreements about how emotionally and intellectually comfortable women were as writers in the mid-nineteenth century, given the ambiguous context of expectations about womanhood and authorship. Some scholars have argued that there was great anxiety expressed by women in their literature and personal writings about the role, opportunities, and fate of the female writer or artist. Thus, despite their successes, writers like Sarah Josepha Hale (1788–1879) and Sara Jane Clarke Lippincott (Grace Greenwood, 1823–1904) could describe themselves as timid, dependent, and domestic, not to be considered as competitors with men in the literary marketplace. Other female authors seemed to try to hide from the public. Catharine Maria Sedgwick and Maria Susanna Cummins (1827–1866) began their careers by writing anonymously, and others, like Mary Virginia Terhune (Marion Harland, 1830–1922), used pseudonyms throughout their careers; both strategies are seen by some scholars as ways in which women expressed ambivalence about their careers and protected their private lives from public scrutiny. These behaviors seem to suggest unease with the public visibility they had (or potentially could have) as writers.

Other scholars have suggested that any "anxiety of authorship" women might have expressed should not be exaggerated. They argue that anxiety did not deter many authors from pursuing their careers with a good deal of self-confidence and pride. By focusing on female authors' successes and the skills that made success possible, such scholars conclude that women were comfortable as writers, even when they protested otherwise and even when they were criticized for what they did. Many, like Rose Terry Cooke (1827–1892) and Mary Abigail Dodge, demonstrated self-esteem by poking fun at themselves and their work. Others demonstrated confidence in the successful strategies they developed as they pursued their writing careers.


Studies of female authors show that they were serious about their own literary skills. The most successful writers worked to develop their own distinctive literary styles in content and technique. Authors like Mary Abigail Dodge sought advice from other writers early in their careers so that they could learn to write well. During their careers, many authors like E. D. E. N. Southworth, expressed pride in their particular style and defended their own work in comparison to the works of others. Because they were confident about their skills, many women expected to be able to write about what they themselves chose and in a manner that they themselves chose, even when they knew they had to conform to some expectations of length and style. Much correspondence of female authors with their publishers shows they could be angered by editorial changes in their work. Furthermore, Harriet Beecher Stowe and authors like her were confident enough in their own skills to offer encouragement and advice to other writers. Many authors also freely expressed opinions about other people's work to their peers, to editors, and to publishers. In these and other ways, female authors demonstrated pride in their work.

Authorship was a profession built on literary abilities and business skills. When women became writers to earn an income, they entered a world of business relationships that necessitated submitting and revising manuscripts, negotiating fair prices for their efforts, hoping that their work would be presented well to the public, and maintaining connections with publishers for their future work. Correspondence between female authors and their publishers in which the former offer advice about the printing of their work or the marketing and distribution that could lead to greater sales demonstrates women's understanding of the marketplace. Over the course of their careers female authors made judgments about the services of various publishers and editors, changed publishers and editors when they were dissatisfied, and let others know their opinions about those services.

Depending on their personalities and personal experiences, female authors used various interpersonal strategies to conduct the business of their careers. As professionals most of them understood the context of the Gentleman Publisher's marketplace and used it when they could to their own advantage in conducting their business. Many took advantage of the opportunities provided by the emphasis on personal relationships. E. D. E. N. Southworth, for example, used a posture of dependence with her gentleman editor, Robert Bonner, to negotiate continuing and increasing salaries for her work. Harriet Beecher Stowe used a more assertive domestic feminism to negotiate with her gentleman publisher, James T. Fields. Most were savvy enough not to be fooled too often by publishers's protests of economic self-sacrifice. Most knew how to use the ideal of moral guardianship to defend and promote their own work.

It is unclear whether or not the economics of the literary marketplace disadvantaged female authors more than male authors. Both men and women were always at the mercy of publishers's and editors's decisions about the value of their literary work. Early in the century authors were more likely to be asked to share the costs of publishing, which would have been a greater hardship on women who had fewer resources than men. By mid-century, however, when the industry was more stable and lucrative, a percentage of profits was usually given to authors, and the most popular women seem to have received the same percentages as their male counterparts. It is difficult to compare royalties offered because contracts were not consistently used until after the Civil War. In other words, since arrangements were handled individually through correspondence, and records are sparse, it is unclear if female authors were more likely to be paid less than their male counterparts. Women seem to have complained as often as men about poor pay. For both sexes the Gentleman Publisher's practice of trade courtesy discouraged authors from seeking competing offers for their work or from knowing accurately what they should be paid.

Whether or not one measures their successes in comparative economic terms, the most popular female authors were committed to their careers and worked hard, often telling others how hard they worked. Even if they did not begin their careers because of a deep commitment to writing, most of them developed that commitment over time. Thus, even when family circumstances no longer necessitated pursuing a career or when family circumstances made it incredibly difficult to continue, the most successful authors did not give up their careers. In fact, there are many stories of female authors who broke down in exhaustion, dramatically demonstrating their commitment to continuing their careers despite the many difficulties of doing so.

Female authorship became a recognized profession for middle-class women in the nineteenth century. It was a profession based on literary talents and business skills that many women were able to develop. The literary marketplace of the Gentleman Publisher brought women's writings to a broad audience. Nevertheless, despite their successes as authors in this period, they were never free of their society's judgments about them as women. They were always "female" authors.

See alsoDomestic Fiction; Editors; Feminism; Literary Criticism; Literary Marketplace; Publishers


Primary Works

Fanny Fern. Ruth Hall: A Domestic Tale of the Present Time. New York: Mason Brothers, 1855. Republished as Ruth Hall and Other Writings, edited by Joyce W. Warren. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1986.

Hamilton, Gail. A Battle of the Books. Cambridge, Mass.: Riverside Press, 1870. Republished in Gail Hamilton: Selected Writings, edited by Susan Coultrap-McQuin. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992.

Wetherall, Elizabeth [Susan Warner]. The Wide, Wide World. Putnam, 1851.

Secondary Works

Baym, Nina. Novels, Readers, and Reviewers: Responses toFiction in Antebellum America. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984.

Baym, Nina. Woman's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820–1870. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978.

Buell, Lawrence. New England Literary Culture: FromRevolution through Renaissance. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Charvat, William. The Profession of Authorship in America,1800–1870: The Papers of William Charvat. Edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. Columbus: Ohio State University, 1968.

Coultrap-McQuin, Susan. Doing Literary Business: AmericanWomen Writers in the Nineteenth Century. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

Fetterley, Judith, ed. Provisions: A Reader from 19th-CenturyAmerican Women. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.

Kelley, Mary. Private Woman, Public Stage: LiteraryDomesticity in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Newbury, Michael. Figuring Authorship in AntebellumAmerica. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997.

Railton, Stephen. Authorship and Audience: LiteraryPerformance in the American Renaissance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Susan Coultrap-McQuin

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