Writing by women has traditionally been ignored for two reasons.
When a woman writes the kind of piece that is celebrated by male critics as "serious literature," she is told it is the kind of writing to which women are least suited and that she should avoid it at all costs, and her writing is dismissed on the grounds that it cannot possibly be as good as what a man might write.
When a woman writes about the home and domesticity, she is told her subject matter is frivolous and unimportant and unworthy of any kind of serious consideration, and her writing is dismissed because it cannot possibly be worth the time required to read it.
Men write literary fiction; women write women’s fiction. And women’s fiction is disposable.
This was the reasoning Nathaniel Hawthorne used in 1855 when he famously complained to his publisher:
America is now wholly given over to a d[amne]d mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public is occupied with their trash.… Generally, women write like emasculated men, and are only to be distinguished from male authors by greater feebleness and folly.
It is also the reasoning Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul used when he told an interviewer in 2011 that women’s writing was "unequal" to his own, because of the "sentimentality, the narrow view of the world." It is the reasoning the editors of the Atlantic Monthly used when they quietly dropped their women writers in the late 19th century, and the reasoning Wikipedia editors used in 2013 when they began to quietly move women off the "American Novelists" page to the "American Women Novelists" page. (They were returned to "American Novelists" after a general outcry.)
But not all hope is lost. In honor of Women’s History Month (celebrated annually in March), here are four organizations that celebrate the work of forgotten women writers.
Persephone Books is a UK-based publisher that reprints forgotten and neglected books, mostly from the mid-20th century and mostly by women writers. You might know it as the place that rediscovered Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, later adapted into a movie starring Amy Adams, or perhaps The Making of a Marchioness, which was adapted into the 2012 ITV film The Making of a Lady. (Okay, yes, it is certainly worth wishing that ITV had chosen one of Persephone’s less racist offerings to reimagine for the small screen.)
Persephone’s catalog comprises cookbooks and novels, short stories and diaries. Its roster of authors includes the likes of Dorothy Whipple, who was wildly successful in the early 20th century and later roundly despised for writing domestic novels about women and their careers and love lives. And Frances Towers, who was briefly considered the Jane Austen of the 1940s, died in obscurity and was rapidly forgotten.
The books are beautiful to look at, bound identically in gray with glossy, lavishly printed endpapers. What is perhaps most distinctive about Persephone is the specificity of its titles' voice: intelligent, precise, and unabashedly feminine. If one of these books sounds unappealing to you, you will probably not like any of them — but if even one of them piques your interest, you will probably find yourself yearning to read all of them.
The Bluestocking Bulletin
The Bluestocking Bulletin is a newsletter by literary critic Anne Boyd Rioux; each month, Rioux profiles "a lesser known woman writer of the past who deserves to be better known." Intellectual women were called "bluestockings" in the 18th and 19th centuries, after the Blue Stockings Society, an 18th-century London literary club that was campaigned to further the education of women. (Some historians think that they wore informal blue stockings instead of formal black silk.)
The author of Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist, Rioux specializes in 19th-century American women writers. The two editions of the Bluestocking Bulletin that she's sent out so far profile Catharine Maria Sedgwick, part of the first generation of successful American writers, and Sarah Josepha Buell, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book and the author of "Mary Had a Little Lamb." (Who ever thought "Mary Had a Little Lamb" was written by someone? Didn’t it just appear out of thin air in a nursery a thousand years ago?)
But my favorite part of the Bluestocking Bulletin is the snippets of Bluestocking writing that Rioux resurrects: "Is not the love, which purifies the heart and makes the sanctity of the home, stronger even than the ‘red right arm of war’? Why should women wish to be or to do or to write like men?" and "Hang it! It is too absurd to be afraid of a woman, just because she happens to be a mannish writer of reviews." How has the literary canon been deprived of these gems for so long?
Uncovered Classics reviews books by 20th-century women writers and redesigns their book covers. (Everyone who has sighed at the blah-looking prairie on their copy of My Ántonia just started clicking madly.) The goal is to increase the visibility of writing by women who can be hard to find even when "everyone" thinks they’re great writers. "Why didn’t I find out about Dorothy Parker until college?" writes founder Amy Collier. "I could have used her a lot earlier, guys." The reviews are smart, incisive, and funny, and the covers are witty and provocative.
And Uncovered Classics does not just focus on the books you can find on the syllabus of Women’s Studies 101. Part of its mission is to find and promote more books by women of color and queer women. So it covers your Daphne du Maurier and your Zora Neale Hurston, your Kate Chopin and your Edith Wharton — but also Sui Sin Far and Jessie Fauset, or Hisaye Yamamoto and Carolina Maria de Jesus. Uncovered Classics is committed to representing "as many female views of the 20th century as possible through literature," and its catalog showcases a wide diversity of political opinions, races, and sexualities.
Named after Hawthorne’s famous line, Scribbling Women adapts the writing of 19th-century American women into radio plays, available for free on their site. They celebrate women who write "as if the devil was in her," which is, Hawthorne grudgingly allowed, "the only condition under which a woman ever writes anything worth reading."
Hawthorne may have found few women who met his criteria, but Scribbling Women's archives are full of women who wrote devilishly enough for anyone but whom history has largely forgotten. "One of the most important missions of this work," the Scribbling Women write, "is correcting the still widespread historical misconception that in previous centuries, women neither possessed nor wanted voices with which to portray and improve the society they lived in."