How does one review a ~1400 page anthology of women’s writing? I’ll be glad to get this brick off my table, but this is only half of the anthology, volume 2 awaits. To be honest, I’m absolutely allergic to anthologies– the bric-a-brac of literature shoved into one volume (or two) and meant to languish on your shelf for a rainy day when you can take it down and read some forgotten piece by Louisa May Alcott or Harriet Beecher Stowe. But this collection caught my eye at the anarchist bookstore, and after reading a few bits in the preface where a prominent scholar of American literature was confused by a PhD candidate’s interest in American women writers (“But there aren’t any… except Emily Dickinson.”) The editors do an admirable job attempting to bring different voices into the collection, ensuring there are minority voices among the many white. As I was reading through, I was particularly struck by the realization that the women’s act of writing (and reading) was a rebellion in itself, education of ladies not being encouraged or even possible. (A great tool of oppression is to withhold education.) So I was interested in seeing a common thread among the background of the ladies who did write– usually from “civilized” areas of New York, Amherst, Boston, Cincinnati, places where their families could make money and provide comforts to their sisters and daughters. But there are also extraordinary tales from former slaves, including an instructional note about Sojourner Truth that she was well-educated and that the “Ain’t I a Woman” speech was likely written down with a tinge of racism where Truth most likely said “Aren’t I a Woman.”
Volume 1 begins with Anne Hutchinson’s trial of 1638 and is included because her words were captured and preserved by the court proceedings, otherwise we would not have her voice. Many entries are packed between that and the next one that caught my interest–the Lowell Offering–a journal produced by the mill girls between 1840-1845 detailing life in a mill; beyond work, there were lectures, reading, and discussions that gave these women a much deeper life than they could have had elsewhere. Sarah GrimkÃ©’s 1837 essay on the dress of women (“it appears beneath the dignity of woman to bedeck herself in gewgaws and trinkets, in ribbons and laces, to gratify the eye of man.”) along with Mary Walker’s 1871 piece on Dress Reform (“everything that makes woman in any degree independent of man, and, as a consequence, independent of marriage for support, is frowned down by a certain class of individuals”), reminded me that women could actually be arrested for wearing pants back in the day. It was an actual requirement to wear those organ-deforming corsets and hoop skirts and heavy long dresses. No wonder women were keeling over in fainting fits every other page in old novels.
I seem to have dogeared every page of Lydia Maria Francis Child’s section of the anthology, mostly due to her wisdom around books: “I think a real love of reading is the greatest blessing education bestows, particularly upon a woman. It cheers so many hours of illness and seclusion; it gives the mind something to interest itself about…; it enlarges the heart…” She goes on to rail against trifling novels read for recreation, “They are a sort of literary confectionary; and, though they may be very perfect and beautiful, if eaten too plentifully, they do tend to destroy our appetite for more solid and nourishing food.” Later she lambastes a woman who vociferously bragged about her own reading, “… she had no real love of knowledge. Nature and truth have never learned to blow the trumpet… books [should be] loved as a resource, as a means of usefulness, not as affording opportunities for display.” Her conclusion is a warning to me that I must include in full:
To conclude, I would suggest that it is better to have a few good books than many middling ones. It is not well for young people to have a great variety. If there are but few books in the house, and those are interesting, they will be read over and over again, and well remembered. A perpetual succession of new works induces a habit of reading hastily and carelessly; and, of course, their contents are either forgotten, or jumbled up in the memory in an indistinct and useless form.
Franklin said wisely, ‘Any book that is worth reading once, is worth reading twice;’ and there is much good sense in the Roman maxim, ‘Read much, but do not read many books.’
The collection tipped me to Fanny Fern, whose longer work I’ve ordered up from the library; also about the existence of the Semi-Colon Club in Cincinnati (Harriet Beecher Stowe & Elizabeth Blackwell among the members). Customs long forgotten but that are resurfacing in modern life are revealed, such as the idea to shop on commission (Ella Rodman Church’s 1882 Money Making for Ladies article). It’s as if Instacart and TaskRabbit pillaged the old issues of Harper’s magazine to come up with their “new” business models:
Shopping on commission is, for those who succeed in it, highly profitable, and affords a pleasant excitement in receiving letters and selecting pretty things. There is a positive charm in spending money, even if it is other people’s, and the shopper by proxy enjoys this to its fullest extent. People living in the city, as well as those living in the country, are sometimes glad to have their shopping done for them, as it spares them much labor and perplexity… The commission charged to purchasers is five percent and merchants usually allow a discount of from six to ten percent to shoppers on commission. This makes a very handsome return to those who have a satisfactory amount of orders.
I also discovered more complexity about Louisa May Alcott, and have a laundry list of book recommendations of ladies I’d never heard of (Charlotte Mary Younge, Ouisa, Elizabeth Wetherell, Jane Porter, etc.). Helen Campbell has a delightful snippet in here about shop girls (from Prisoners of Poverty). Many many more treasures inside, but no room to recount.