Women in the Literary Landscape

Chapter One: Women, Literary Pursuits, and the Book World, by Doris Weatherford and Rosalind Reisner
Chapter Two | Chapter Three  

Editors, Publishers, and “Scribbling Women”

From Pages 22–25  


Many women (and men) multitasked as editors, authors, and

publishers at various points in their lives, as businesses then were much less specialized than today. Anne Newport Royall, for instance, traveled alone throughout the new United States and issued ten travelogues by 1831, when she settled in Washington, D.C., and published two newspapers that promoted Jacksonian democracy. Lydia Maria Child had a long tenure of mixed roles in publishing. She began America’s first magazine for children, Juvenile Miscellany, in 1826. It contained nursery rhymes we consider “anonymous” today—but the bimonthly magazine went bankrupt a decade later because her fellow Bostonians did not approve of Child’s books advocating the abolition of slavery. Her History of the Condition of Women in Various Ages and Nations (1835) predated Margaret Fuller’s book on that subject by ten years. Moreover, Child set a precedent for women by taking a job in a city other than where her husband resided. While her journalist husband lived in Washington, she spent time in New York where she edited the weekly National Anti-Slavery Standard and wrote a weekly column titled “Letters from New-York.” She was likely one of the first women to take her work on the road, a pioneer of commuter marriage. She also saw to the publication of a true case, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) by Harriet Jacobs, and personally paid for The Freedman’s Book (1865), a collection of short stories and poems written by former slaves and activists. Today, Child may be most remembered for the poem/song “Over the River and Through the Wood.”

In an era when there were few entertainment alternatives, the public welcomed female novelists, and publishers promoted their sales. For example, Maria Susanna Cummins’ first novel, The Lamplighter (1854), sold forty thousand copies in a few weeks. A similar achiever was Susan Bogert Warner, whose 1850 story of an orphaned girl, The Wide, Wide World, outsold Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield (1850), even in England. Indeed, there were so many female novelists so early in American history that Nathaniel Hawthorne complained, “America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success.” 

Hawthorne did not mention that his sister-in-law Elizabeth Peabody published his works and promoted them through her popular bookstore. She was another who combined roles: Although known as a pioneer educator and popular lecturer, she also wrote, published, and sold books. 

Professional Librarianship and Women

From Pages 39–40


More than any other factor, it was probably the New York State Library School that created the image of the female librarian, as, during its first three decades, 94 percent of its graduates were women. For decades into the future, though, most top jobs at large libraries nonetheless went to men, even when women had objectively better credentials of education and experience. Even in small towns where a woman headed the library, the library boards that employed them frequently viewed the job as a sort of charity for widows and spinsters.


Despite this, women were often the innovators in the library world. Bookmobile service was started by Mary Titcomb for the Washington County Free Public Library in Maryland in the early 1900s from a specially designed wagon. When automobiles became more widespread, librarians put cases of books in the back seats and went on the road. In Hibbing, Minnesota, the heart of iron ore country, a truck was built that could hold a thousand books with room for six people at a time to browse. Librarians in rural areas went out on horseback with books.


At the Los Angeles City Library in the 1890s, Tessa Kelso revolutionized library service by eliminating membership fees and opening up the bookstacks to the public. Before Kelso, the first female director of the Los Angeles library was eighteen-year-old Mary Foy, who was appointed by the City Council in 1880. Women had only recently—and reluctantly—been admitted to that library as patrons. In 1876 they were relegated to a “Ladies’ Room,” which had sofas and magazines, but no books. . . .


After the stock market crash of 1929 and the Depression that followed, all areas of society, including the world of books, were affected. Government programs, including the New Deal, aimed to help.

From Page 70

Library patrons still expected to see women at the reference and circulation desks in their local libraries, and women were often innovators of unusual programs throughout the 1920s—but the Depression had a significant impact on libraries and many librarians lost their jobs. Although funding was drastically reduced, library services were in greater demand because people had less income and needed to borrow, not buy. Libraries became community gathering places, hosting art exhibits, recitals, and special events.


Along these lines, the Oklahoma Library Commission reported in 1934: “Economic conditions throughout the state during the past two years caused thousands of citizens to turn to the library for inspiration, economic assistance and information…[I]n spite of the handicap caused by the great reduction in appropriations, which curtailed book collections and reduced the staffs, the large increase in circulation figures is testimony to the demand which taxed the ingenuity and strength of every library in order that all might be served.” In Oklahoma, as in many other states,

women’s clubs had been instrumental in establishing public libraries; they were often important in maintaining the libraries during the Depression by donating books and funds and providing volunteer staff.

. . .


The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) engineering project, authorized by the federal government in 1933, covered multiple states in Appalachia and was designed to harness the power of the rivers in the area for energy and economic development. There was a huge influx of workers and towns built to accommodate them; in addition to housing, the TVA wanted to provide for the intellectual needs of the workers and their families. A young librarian named Mary Utopia Rothrock was hired to coordinate library services to the towns where the TVA was active.


Rothrock devised a system whereby books could be checked out to workers when they picked up their toolboxes in the morning. She went on to work with the towns under TVA jurisdiction to provide library service in any way possible: She established deposit collections in post offices, general stores, and gas stations and sent out bookmobiles and librarians on pack horses. In 1938 Rothrock was awarded the first Joseph W. Lippincott Medal by the American Library Association for her innovative approach to library service.

Women’s Magazines in the 1800s

From Pages 29–32 


The most important of nineteenth-century periodicals aimed at women was Godey’s Lady’s Book, begun in the first half of the century. The magazine was named for its owner, Louis A. Godey, but it was edited by Sarah Josepha Hale. She began editing Ladies’ Magazine in 1828, when the concept of magazines was still new; it later was purchased by Louis Godey, moved from Boston to Philadelphia, and merged with Godey’s Lady’s Book. Hale edited the magazine for forty years; while at its helm she exerted a strong influence on fashion and domestic architecture. (She is also widely considered the founder of Thanksgiving.) Many important writers contributed to Godey’s, including Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Frances Hodgson Burnett, author of the much-loved children’s book The Secret Garden (1911). Until her death in 1879, Hale argued for employment and educational opportunity for women, but stopped short of advocating for legal rights. 


Peterson’s Magazine followed Godey’s model in 1842. Its editor, Ann S. Stephens, had an unusual marriage: Her husband provided most of the care for their children, while she traveled on lecture tours to increase subscriptions. In 1867, when Harper & Brothers began Harper’s Bazar (later Bazaar), it hired translator and author Mary Louise Booth as editor for the new magazine, a job she held until her death in 1889. 


Home Companion began in 1873 and would clarify its audience by changing its name to Woman’s Home Companion in 1886. Clearly there was a large audience of female readers, and publishers were astute enough  to hire women as top editors. Ladies’ Home Journal began in 1883, after Cyrus and Louisa Curtis noticed that the women’s supplement of their publication for farmers attracted more readers than the “main” magazine. Although little known today, the most recognized name in the publishing world of the late Victorian Age probably was “Leslie.” Miriam Folline Peacock Squier was the twice-divorced editor of Frank Leslie’s Lady’s Magazine when she married the publishing giant Frank Leslie. After his 1880 death she inherited his massive enterprise. To protect her rights to the Leslie holdings, Miriam legally changed her name to Frank Leslie. Discovering far more debt than anyone realized, she condensed the dozen Leslie publications with low circulation into two weeklies and four monthlies. Before long the company was turning a profit of $100,000. 

Women and the Growth of Children's Lit

From Pages 82–83


Women continued to be most likely to hold executive positions in the world of children’s books. Ursula Nordstrom and Margaret McElderry were in the second generation of children’s book editors, but their contributions were arguably even greater than their predecessors. Nordstrom followed Louise Raymond as head of the department of Books for Boys and Girls at Harper & Brothers in 1940 and remained in that position until 1973. Laura Ingalls Wilder and Margaret Wise Brown were among the authors she inherited and nurtured. Nordstrom believed that children needed the most creative, imaginative literature; she was a tireless crusader against the older moralizing children’s books. . . .


Margaret McElderry worked with Anne Carroll Moore at the New York Public Library in the 1930s. During World War II she worked in the Office of War Information, and in 1945 she became the editor of children’s books at Harcourt Brace, where she remained until 1971, when, amazingly, she was told her point of view was passé. She left for Atheneum, where she founded Margaret McElderry Books, the first imprint to bear an editor’s name. . . .  In 1952, her books won both the Newbery and the Caldecott Medals, a first for any children’s editor.


Inspired by the success of Nordstrom, McElderry, and their brilliant predecessors, as well as by the profits to be made, publishers hired more women to shepherd children’s books into the hands of young readers. Between 1940 and 1960 the number of children’s editors grew: Helen Hoke at Messner; Lillian J. Bragdon at Knopf; Alice Dalgliesh at Scribner’s; . . . Marie Jessup at Morrow; and Virginia Fowler at Holt were among them.

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