Women’s Citizenship in the “Republic of Letters” One-Hundred and Thirty Years Ago and Today

The 2013 VIDA count has again drawn attention to continuing gender inequities in the literary world. Over the past four years, since the count began, the numbers have been startling: women make up between 20-35% of the writers published and reviewed in many of the nation’s top literary venues (with important gains since 2009 at some of them). The New Republic, said in a statement, these numbers are “more what you would expect from 1964 than 2014.”

We can go back a lot further than fifty years, however, to find comparable numbers. Try one-hundred and thirty years. Yes, in the late 1800s women writers were about as well represented in high literary magazines as they are now.

Since the mid-1990s, I have been studying nineteenth-century women writers and the literary marketplace. Last year, when a student introduced me to VIDA and their count I was stunned—and dismayed—to learn that women writers haven’t made much headway since then. Two of the publications included in the VIDA count began in the nineteenth century and have been known since their inception as the nation’s premier literary magazines: Harper’s and the Atlantic. A comparison of those magazines’ bylinesi from 130 years ago with their most recent VIDA numbers shows barely any progress at all:


Men Women Unknownii
Atlantic Monthly1884 59.6% (99) 23.4% (39) 16.8% (28)
Atlantic2013 65% (113) 35% (61)
Harper’siii1884 68.6 % (127) 25.4% (47) 6% (11)
Harper’s2013 76.6% (82) 23.4% (25)


The 1884 numbers for these two magazines are fairly representative of what you will find in the nation’s literary venues throughout the last half of the nineteenth century, with women showing particularly strong numbers in the areas of fiction and poetry, roughly 50% and sometimes more. Then, as now, it was nonfiction in which men dominated overwhelmingly. I should also explain that I am speaking here of white women writers. Women writers of color were virtually non-existent. The first to publish in the Atlantic Monthly was the Native American Zitkala-Sa in 1900.

I do not know how women writers fared in the first half of the twentieth century, but my suspicion is that they were published even less frequently. For the late-1800s were a unique period of opportunity when it seemed as if women writers would be included in the high literary canon only then beginning to take shape. By the turn of the century, the anthologies and literary histories had virtually cut women out of our nation’s literary past and many were almost completely forgotten until feminist scholars began rediscovering them in the 1980s and 90s. But in the last half of the nineteenth century, women writers had been quite visible, particularly as writers of fiction and poetry. Nonetheless, they encountered many of the obstacles to serious recognition that women writers continue to encounter today. It is quite striking, in fact, to see that the similarities do not end with the percentage of publications.


The “Damned Mob”

The association of women writers with greater market appeal is considered one reason why male writers, as a whole, are still more likely to be taken seriously as literary artists. That tension first became apparent in the 1850s, when women first entered the literary marketplace in large numbers and published the nation’s first blockbusters, novels like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the less well-known Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World. Such unprecedented successes led Nathaniel Hawthorne to complain in 1855 that “America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash.”

Hawthorne’s testy comments were contained in a letter to his publisher, William D. Ticknor, of the firm Ticknor and Fields, the same firm that would only two years later begin to publish the Atlantic Monthly. This magazine, more than any other, was instrumental in shaping America’s all-male literary canon. Not surprisingly, the Atlantic Monthly was considered, in the words of the New York Evening Post, “our most masculine magazine.”

However, when the Atlantic Monthly made its debut in 1857, it featured women writers prominently, much to the chagrin of some of its stodgy male supporters. The publishers and editors of the magazine were determined to make the magazine profitable and knew they had to attract female readers as well as male. In fact, the publishers only agreed to start the magazine after learning that Stowe would be among the regular contributors. They knew that dry, scholarly essays would not be its bread-and-butter, but poetry and short stories, about half of which were contributed by women. As a result, writers like Stowe, Rose Terry Cooke, and Harriet Prescott Spofford were central to the magazine’s early success. Yet women continued to be treated as if they inhabited a separate sphere in literature much as they did in life.


Wining and Dining

Another of the main obstacles that women writers still confront today—the nearly all-male networks at the top magazines—was even more blatantly on display in the late-nineteenth century. The Atlantic Monthly grew out of the Saturday Club and its off-shoot, the Atlantic Club, which included Emerson, Hawthorne, and other men associated with Harvard and the elite intellectual circles of Boston and Cambridge. They often met over dinner to socialize and discuss the business of the magazine. Women were invited only once, in 1859. Stowe, Cooke, Spofford, and Julia Ward Howe (author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” published in the Atlantic) were asked to attend, but only Stowe and Spofford did. Stowe’s request that no wine be served apparently extinguished the men’s desire to attempt a repeat. The awkwardness men felt about imbibing in the presence of women was the standard excuse used to explain women’s exclusion from the dinners.

In 1877, such dinners became a more public affair when the Atlantic Monthly celebrated its twentieth anniversary and the seventieth birthday of one of its most famous contributors, the poet John Greenleaf Whittier. The widely reported dinner at the Hotel Brunswick in Boston was a grand affair with eight courses, ten kinds of wine, and numerous speeches (the most famous of which was Mark Twain’s notorious send-up of Emerson and other literary Brahmins). Fifty-seven of the magazine’s contributors were in attendance. Not one of them was a woman. In fact, none had been invited.


The “Republic of Letters”

Much like the rumpus caused over Wikipedia’s removal of women writers from their list of “American Novelists” in 2013, there were protests about women’s absence from the 1877 dinner. It was much more than an entertaining affair—it was also a highly publicized step toward canonizing the Atlantic’s (male) contributors (Emerson, Whittier, Longfellow, Twain, and William Dean Howells, among others). The future suffragist Frances E. Willard insisted in the Boston Daily Advertiser, “In the republic of letters, if nowhere else, woman is a citizen,” recalling the fact that although women did not have the full rights of citizenship, they had gained prominence as writers and deserved “the chivalry of justice,” particularly among the “liberal” Atlantic men, who opposed slavery but would not have ladies “sit down beside them at the convivial board.”

A more biting, anonymous protest hit closer to home and reminded the Atlantic’s publisher, Henry Houghton, why he should not alienate his female contributors. Published in a Western paper, and reprinted in the New York Times in 1900, it includes a series of satirical, mock letters from Stowe, Spofford, Gail Hamilton, Helen Hunt Jackson, and Rebecca Harding Davis, each sending her regrets. “Thank you for sending no invitation,” one writes. “It would have embarrassed me greatly.” But, more to the point, each one indicates that an all-female dinner, and perhaps even an all-female magazine, are in the works. “Merciful heavens!” the author imagines Houghton declaring. “I have actually been applying the paper-cutter to my own nose.”

It is surely not a coincidence that two years later, Houghton, who had insisted he was simply “too bashful” to include the magazine’s female contributors, invited them to the seventieth birthday dinner of Oliver Wendell Holmes (another of the magazine’s Old Guard). And in 1882, Stowe became the first (and only) woman to receive the honor of an Atlantic seventieth birthday celebration—a luncheon, at which no wine was served.


Women’s Fiction”

By the 1890s, women writers began to appear less regularly in the high literary magazines, and they were shut out from the literary canon these magazines helped to form. The fact that the editors of the early literary anthologies and histories were nearly all white men, many of them associated with Harvard and the Atlantic, had something to do with it. So did the fact that Howells, who edited the Atlantic in the 1870s and wrote “The Editor’s Study” for Harper’s in the 1880s, became increasingly vocal in his calls for masculine realism and a professionalization of authorship that relegated women’s writings to the categories of “local color” or regionalism. “Local color” was the nineteenth-century equivalent of today’s “women’s fiction” or “chick lit,” relegated to the “second shelf,” as Meg Wolitzer has famously dubbed it.

As a result, the women writers who had gained serious reputations in the pages of the Atlantic, Harper’s, and elsewhere were very soon forgotten. More recently, they have been recovered by academics, who have edited new anthologies that include their works and teach them in their classes (although they are still often relegated to a “second shelf”). But the names of these writers are rarely heard outside the classroom or seen outside the pages of academic journals.

In addition to those already mentioned, names like Sarah Orne Jewett (an Atlantic author) and Constance Fenimore Woolson (a Harper’s author) should be well-known today. These were the two most widely respected female authors of the 1880s and 90s, precursors to Edith Wharton and Willa Cather, who all but ignored their female predecessors. It is worth remembering that Jewett and Woolson were in the top tier of the Atlantic’s and Harper’s contributors and that they wrote as compellingly as their contemporaries William Dean Howells and Henry James did about women’s lives. Howells and James were, in a sense, the Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides of their day—male writers who gained serious recognition for writing about marriage, domesticity, and women. Of course, Howells and (especially) James are much more well-known today than their female peers.

While VIDA and a host of others are trying to make sure this history is not repeated in the present, we should also remember to cast a look backwards to the women writers who fought for and deserved inclusion when the canon was first taking shape. We should not assume that just because women writers were erased from our literary past that they weren’t there in the first place. Knowing that they were, and in numbers comparable to those today, should make us even more vigilant in our pursuit of equality in the literary world. The glass ceiling of 25-30% was set much earlier than 1964—sometime around 1884. It’s finally time to break through it.

However, once publishing (and reviewing) parity has been achieved, the work of ensuring women’s full citizenship in the “republic letters” will not be complete. The past tells us that however significant the gains women writers make (and they were tremendous between 1850 and the 1880s), such gains are easily reversible and do not by themselves ensure serious recognition or lasting reputations for women writers. They did not then and may not again today. So the work of VIDA and its supporters, it would appear, has only just begun.

i I have conducted a byline count similar to that conducted by VIDA, which means that no book reviews, artwork, editorials, or letters to the editor have been included, just fiction, poetry, and essays.

ii The large numbers of unknown are due to the fact that it was common for authors to use initials for their first names. In many cases I have been able to identify these authors’ gender through other sources, but in many I have not.

iii These numbers are from December 1883-November 1884. Harper’s first began in December 1850, so it’s volumes ran December-May and June-November.



Anne Boyd Rioux is Professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of New Orleans. She is the author of the book Writing for Immortality: Women and the Emergence of High Literary Culture in America and the essay “‘What! Has she got into the “Atlantic”?’: Women Writers, the Atlantic Monthly, and the Formation of the American Canon,” from which portions of this essay were adapted. She is also the editor of the anthology Wielding the Pen: Writings on Authorship by American Women of the Nineteenth Century and is completing work on a biography of the writer Constance Fenimore Woolson, to be published by W. W. Norton. She writes about her current book project at anneboydrioux.wordpress.com and tweets at @AnneBoydRioux.