International Women’s Day: Our Writer Mothers

The famous table where Jane Austen edited and wrote her novels.

For we think back through our mothers if we are women.

Virginia Woolf

I picked several women writers for today largely based upon what’s already been published on the blog. The Eftsoons Writer had a decidedly British bend to its literary endeavors so most of the writers on here are of British origin. You will also notice there is a great cluster of women around the 1700s.

Telling, isn’t it?

Most of these writers are women you may have never heard of. This is intentional. Jane Austen, of course, is world famous but as she was a major influence on establishing and continuing the blog, it wouldn’t do to leave her off.

Phillis Wheatley is the sole American writer on here. This too is intentional. I’ll allow you to draw your own conclusions as to why.

The list below is by no means exhaustive, so don’t think I deliberately leave anyone off it!

Catherine of Siena (1300s):

Catherine of Sienna could neither read no write. Catherine was extraordinary in several ways. She was highly influential, despite not being of noble birth. The papacy at the time was still in Avignon in France and had deserted Rome entirely. Catherine was the one who convinced the pope to return. She also mediated several conflicts in Italy–not always successfully or with great acclaim but the fact both sides were willing to listen was something in itself.

Margery Kempe (1400s):

Like her predecessor, Catherine, Margery could neither read nor write. She had trouble finding a scribe so she could write her book and was mocked most of her life for her mystical devotion. She suffered horrible sickness during her first pregnancy and the lack of maternity care in those days essentially meant that she had to suffer with her physical and mental afflictions for the rest of her life. Her husband at least was loving towards her and even defended her a few times when everyone else was telling him she was mad.


Aemelia Lanyer (nee Bassano) (1500s):

Contemporaries with Queen Elizabeth I, Shakespeare, Johnson, and others. Lanyer was a poet of some note and is even rumored to have been Shakespeare’s “dark lady.” She’s the first female poet we hear of in the English language. What she’s most noted for is a book of poetry called Salve Deus Rex Judæorum. There is a very famous passage in the Salve Deus where Pontius Pilate’s wife talks for some length about how his actions in the trial of Jesus would basically mean that men will have committed a greater sin than Eve. It’s worth reading over several times. She’s often overlooked because of the other great (male) writers of the time.

Mary Wollstonecraft (1700s):

Wollstonecraft was likened to a shrew for most of her life because of her vehement advocacy of women’s rights. Her book, Maria was based on real-life events one her cousins suffered. She is often considered the mother of modern feminism for her Vindication of the Rights of Woman which is, if you have not read it, a must-read for anyone who wishes to understand the why of International Women’s Day.

Phillis Wheatley (1700s):

There are only two published women poets prior to the 1800s: Anne Bradstreet and Phillis Wheatley. Wheatley was sold into slavery when she was seven. Within a few months of her arrival in the Wheatley family, she was educated in Greek and Latin (a rarity for any girl in those days) and developed a gift for poetry. Shortly after her first book was published (giving her a source of income), she was given her freedom. She was a household name in the colonies across the divide of politics and everything else.

She’s often forgotten now, supplanted by the likes of Sojourner Truth and Maya Angelou. But she’s an important link in the story of women writers and she deserves to be better remembered.

Ann Radcliffe (1700s):

The first female Gothic writer and novelist. Radcliffe’s husband was highly supportive of her efforts and reportedly was very proud she was such a popular author. Her books went on to inspire Jane Austen, Sir Walter Scott, and others throughout the 19th century. She remained childless, however and was highly reclusive because women writing novels was still socially unacceptable.

Jane Austen (1700s-1800s):

Probably the most successful woman writer of her time–and the most beloved. She wrote her books as a way to support both herself and her sister, Cassandra, but largely had to rely on the support of her brothers. While both women remained unmarried, Jane especially was apparently popular with all of her nieces and nephews. So much so that after her death, her nephew commissioned a stained glass window in Winchester Cathedral–the window closes to where her grave lies. The figure in the window is that of St. Augustine of Canterbury. While this may not sound very significant, the name Augustine was often abbreviated to Austin–or Austen. Beneath the window is a plaque with verses from Proverbs 31–the passage which is often used to expound on what an ideal godly woman should be. The irony? Women writing novels was still considered by some to be immoral.

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