Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, women read and wrote in every conceivable literary form despite prevailing laws and customs. Most Americans believed that only men could be active citizens, a role that included participating in political discourse in newspapers, pamphlets, or other such forums. Women were denied participation in political forums such as town meetings and could not hold political office. However, they seized opportunities available to them to write for a wide audience.
The American Revolution helped bring women into the world of published literature. When the first crises between the American colonies and Great Britain arose in the 1760s, women wrote about their political opinions and in some cases sent these opinions to newspapers. In their writings women often apologized for violating gender customs. They justified their publications by arguing that they were defending their honor from insult or argued that specific female roles, such as manufacturing and mending of clothing, gave them the right to write in the midst of a crisis that rendered these roles political.
Women were acutely aware of gender boundaries. Mercy Otis Warren (1728–1814), in a published poem titled "Primitive Simplicity," averred that if she exceeded what she called the "narrow bounds" of womanhood, she would put her pen down and gladly fit herself into her proper place as wife and mother. Warren was not alone. Most women who wrote for public consumption conformed to the social standards of the time with the exception of their published writing.
American women have a long relationship with poetry. Anne Bradstreet began publishing her poetry in the mid-seventeenth century, paving the way for later female poets. In the early American nation, one of the most renowned poets was Phillis Wheatley (1753?–1784). In her lifetime she published at least forty-six poems and was the author of many more that have since been published. The poem that brought her recognition was one she published in 1770, the subject being the death of George White-field, the famous itinerant preacher who captivated audiences in England and America during the religious revival known as the Great Awakening. A volume of her work, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published in London in 1773. Wheatley's accomplishments are particularly remarkable as she was born in West Africa and stolen into slavery in 1761. She was taken into the Massachusetts household of John Wheatley where, by all accounts, she was treated kindly and taught to read and write. Although much of her poetry is conventional, it was highly praised at the time.
At the onset of the American Revolution, poetry was used for propaganda purposes, with writers on both sides arguing their case. Although Mercy Otis Warren is less well known today for her poetry than for her incendiary plays and her history of the American Revolution, poetry was one of the forms she used to help wage the ideological war against the British. Following the Boston Tea Party in December 1773, John Adams encouraged her to write a poem commemorating the bravery of the participants. Adams sent her an outline of the poem, which Warren used as a starting place. With Adams's help the poem, "The Squabble of the Sea Nymphs," was published in a Boston newspaper, intensifying anti-British feeling. Warren, encouraged by prominent men, became a mouthpiece for the American cause.
In the period after the American Revolution, women's poetry focused less on politics and more on morality and sentiment as these characteristics were increasingly seen as inherently female. The most successful of the early-nineteenth-century American poets was Lydia Howard Sigourney (1791–1865), who published her first work, Moral Pieces in Prose and Verse, in 1815. She followed this first work with almost seventy more books and more than a thousand articles. Her poetry and prose embraced gender conventions, focusing on moral and religious issues and women's roles in society.
Like poetry, plays were used as propaganda pieces in the cause of the American Revolution. Mercy Otis Warren was one of the United States' first playwrights, playing a key role in the development of the genre. Her three political plays, The Adulateur (1772), The Defeat (1773), and The Group (1775) worked to rouse Americans in opposition to British policy. Published in newspapers and pamphlets, they were not written to be performed but to be read out loud. All three focused on the evils of the Tory government in Massachusetts, particularly the actions of Governor Thomas Hutchinson. Placing the action in fictional Servia, Warren thinly disguised the leading Massachusetts political figures. Hutchinson became the conniving Rapatio, contrasted in the play with the characters who stood in for virtuous Whig colonists. Although not of high literary value, the plays served their purpose, winning support for the American cause.
In 1794 the first dramatic works by women were performed on the American stage. The libretto for the opera Tammany; or The Indian Chief, performed in New York, was written by a Welshwoman, Ann Julia Hatton (1764–1838). Slaves of Algiers; or, A Struggle for Freedom, written by Susanna Rowson (1762–1864), was performed in Philadelphia. Its setting was the North African Barbary Coast, where the United States Navy was running into trouble with pirates. Although specifically focused on a white slave trade that involved selling girls and women into prostitution, the play was broadly anti-slavery. Rowson's play engaged in the ongoing debate of the new American nation on the nature of freedom, particularly the ideals of the Revolution as opposed to the institution of chattel slavery.
The most controversial literary form in the early American nation was the novel. Americans worried about its allure, fearing that fiction might pull readers into false worlds, detaching them from necessary involvement in the New Republic. Doctors proclaimed that reading too many novels could cause madness and cautioned parents to steer their children toward history and other works of nonfiction. In 1807 Dr. Thomas Trotter wrote that men were, in part, guarded from the risk of madness induced by novels as they had natural outlets in their work life. Women, in the opinion of Trotter and other doctors, were far more vulnerable to the supposed dangers of novel reading. Women in the new American nation were warned repeatedly against reading novels because novels could lead them to put passion before reason and to neglect their womanly household duties. Immersed for hours in stories of love and romance, women might lose touch with reality, causing them to commit moral indiscretions. Because being a good American woman had become tied to morality, some believed that this failure on women's part would do nothing less than bring the new American nation to ruin.
Nevertheless, the novel took off in the new United States. The first American novel, The Power of Sympathy, or the Triumph of Nature Founded in Truth (1789) was written by a man, William Hill Brown (1765–1793); but because it was published anonymously, many believed it had been written by a woman. The Power of Sympathy and other early American novels largely detail stories of the seduction and ruin of young women. Running beneath the theme of seduction were broader themes that reflected authors' and readers' anxieties about the new nation. Who would speak for the people? Who had power? Had democracy gone too far? Americans were far from united in the period following the Revolution; the novel grappled with the problems and highlighted the dangers and upheavals of the new nation.
Novels were an accessible form and could be read by people who had little formal education. In addition, novels focused on the everyday life of female characters, allowing women readers to place themselves within the action of the stories. Early American novels all emphasized better education for young women as a way to empower them to make decisions that would lead them away from damnation and toward morality. The plot lines emphasized that if women received adequate education they would be able to guard themselves against rakes and flatterers. These early American novels showed the restrictions of women's lives but entered into a debate about women's status and rights, particularly as it concerned female education.
Susanna Rowson's Charlotte Temple (1794) was the best-selling American novel until Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin surpassed it in 1852. Not only did American readers buy more than fifty thousand copies by 1812, but they identified so completely with Charlotte that they flocked to the Trinity Church graveyard in New York City to visit a grave that was allegedly hers.
Rowson's heroine is a young, innocent English-woman who has been seduced by Montraville, an army officer, brought to the United States, and then left with her shame as well as with decreasing support from her lover. When finally her morality and goodness seem lost forever, and her monetary support is cut off owing to the connivance of Montraville's friend, Belcour, Charlotte dies in childbirth, destroyed as much by her emotional state as by the poverty and hunger that surrounded her because of the abandonment by her seducer.
Although Rowson's heroine is passive, except in her initial choice to run away, the message of the novel spoke against female passivity. The story warned young women not to follow Charlotte's path. As in most American seduction novels, the author's message was that Charlotte's path could be avoided only if women received a good, solid education. Charlotte's downfall was ignorance and dependence.
The Coquette; or, The History of Eliza Wharton, by Hannah Webster Foster (1758–1840), ran second to Charlotte Temple in sales. In the novel Eliza Wharton is troubled over the choice between coquetry and married life. The story is based on the story of Elizabeth Whitman (1752–1788), an educated woman from a prominent family who died at the Bell Tavern in Danvers, Massachusetts, where she had checked in under a false name. She had delivered a stillborn baby out of wedlock, and her story became widely circulated in New England as a cautionary tale. Whitman became a symbol of what too much of the wrong kind of reading could do to a woman.
The fictional Eliza Wharton worried about the constraints married life would put on her. She would lose her women friends, and her life would focus entirely on her husband and children. What other choice did she have? In the end she chose the path of the coquette, becoming involved with a married man. Like other American novels, The Coquette raised important questions about the nature of the new United States. What role did women play in the new nation? Were their freedoms to be constricted? The dilemmas faced by Eliza Wharton were compelling enough that the book went through thirteen editions before the end of the nineteenth century.
Several trends in the new American nation affected the development of women's literature. In the eighteenth century, print culture expanded rapidly. The revolution in printing made mass production of literary works possible, and the production of a mass market allowed books to be passed along established commercial networks. White women had increased access to education, particularly in the North, which gave them the skills they needed to read and write. The Revolution and the nation-making that followed opened up further avenues for women as women participated in the debates over the shape of the new nation and women's role within it. Women of the middling sort had more leisure time as consumer goods became more available and as servants took over some of the household work. In addition, ladies' magazines furthered women's opportunities to become published writers. By the early nineteenth century, women were fully participating in writing for publication, although no American woman or man was able to make a living from writing until the 1820s.
Davidson, Cathy N. Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America. Expanded edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Harris, Sharon M., ed. American Women Writers to 1800. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Kilcup, Karen L., ed. Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers: A Critical Reader. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1998.
Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Zagarri, Rosemarie. A Woman's Dilemma: Mercy Otis Warren and the American Revolution. Wheeling, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, 1995.