Remembering the Ladies

“I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.” –Abigail Adams to her husband John on March 31, 1776

Alas. For women authors in much of the 19th century, the last thing they wanted to remember was that they were female. Because at that time, it was almost impossible to get published if you were a woman.

Not that there weren’t women who published as themselves–witness Ann Radcliffe, queen of the gothic. There were also Hannah Moore, a poet and writer on religion and Maria Edgeworth, a poet and children’s writer. They published under their own names, but most women writers born after them–these were all born in the middle of the 18th century–did not. Jane Austen, first published in 1811 (Sense and Sensibility) and Mary Shelley (her Frankenstein came out in 1818) chose to publish anonymously or semi-anonymously. The intellectually freer 18th century had given way to a more close-minded 19th; despite a woman being on the throne, female authors were looked upon with condescension, if not contempt.

Which is why in 1847 three literary-minded sisters living in Yorkshire decided that if they were going to find publishers for the novels they’d been working on, they needed to find names that weren’t quite as feminine sounding as Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. Instead, the authors of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey put the androgynous names Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell on their masterpieces. As Charlotte later wrote, “Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because—without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called ‘feminine’ — we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery, which is not true praise.”

Nor were the Brontes the last to understand the limitations under which they operated. One of the greatest of 19th century novelists, male or female, was Mary Ann Evans…more commonly known as George Eliot.

All of this is to give you a little background for a truly wonderful piece of video…enjoy, and remember the ladies!




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