"Women in Literature." Independent, 7 May 1891, pp. 1-2.

Dublin Core


"Women in Literature." Independent, 7 May 1891, pp. 1-2.


women and art; gender


“Women in Literature.” Independent, 7 May 1891, pp. 1-2.

There can surely be little doubt that women will occupy a much wider space in American literature during the next thirty years than they have done hitherto. Chatauqan circles[1], University Extension[2] lectures, the innumerable literary, scientific, religious and charitable classes and clubs which young women are forming from Murray Hill[3] to Montana ranches, are all doing a quickening work. They are, if one might say it, manuring the brain soil of the country. Some kind of crop must soon follow, and it will be a large one.

It is but reasonable to expect that all the avenues now open to women who can hold a pen will then be crowded by them. Increase of population will compel more of my sex to earn their own living, and literature (or journalism) will always be, as now, an easy, respectable way of doing it. It is a profession with many castes, but fewer Pariahs[4] in it than any other. It is a path in which you can, if you choose, find the best of good company. Besides, there is always at the end of the path the possible crown to be won; a chance of gratification for that desire for personal notoriety with which the American soul, both male and female, seems of late to be so fatally tainted.

A few women, as men, will write for other reasons than these, simply because there is in them a message to be given, and they cannot die until they have spoken it. But these reasons are powerful and good enough to fill the ranks of literature during the next generation with a multitude of women who cannot only write with ease but with sincerity and noble purpose, and who will help themselves and world by so writing.

The question, What new fields in literature will be opened and tilled by this coming generation of women? is not easy to answer.

May I venture just here to hope that none of these coming women or men will ever try to give to us that much longer-for monstrosity—the Great American Novel. Imagine the huge canvas on which should be sketched all the phases of our national life, from the New Yorker in Wall Street to the Navajo Indian; the Virginian, rich only in forefathers and good breeding; the lepers in Acadia[5]; the nihilist, the already dominant Jew, the Catholic, the German anarchist, each biding his time; the educated Negro still under the ban; the red man; the Mafian[6] and Molly Maguire[7] brethren; and the Chicago millionaire! Who could paint the silent struggle between these people and a thousand other human types in one sketch? Who would wish it painted?

Genre pictures of individual characters in our national drama, each with his own scene and framing, we must have; and, indeed, we already have many of them, drawn with power and delicacy. It is a significant fact that so many of these distinctively American portraits and landscapes are the work of woman. A woman’s quick perception of detail, her keen sympathy with the individual man or woman rather than with the masses, fit her, if she have any power of dramatic representation to catch the likeness of these isolated phases of our varied life.

Marion Harland[8] preserved for us the old Virginia plantation with its men and women. Miss Murfree[9] has made the mountaineer of Tennessee as immortal as his mountains. Mary Dean[10] painted pictures of rural New York with a touch as fine and strong as Meissonier’s[11] own. Mrs. Catherwood[12] and Mary Halleck Foote[13] have sketched picturesque poses of the Western man. Miss Woolson[14] on her larger canvas inserts marvelous portraits of gentle, lazy, shrewd Southern women, and while Elizabeth Phelps[15] draws the educated Puritan woman from the life, Sara Jewett[16] and Miss Wilkins[17] give us pictures of the race in its decadence, the New England villager, hungry in soul and body, with a fidelity equal to any other photographs of dying men.

Other women novelists have omitted local peculiarities in their work, and there are still others, who in the last year or two have shown that they had the power to paint as masterly portraits as theses, if they had not preferred instead to preach some pet dogma of belief, or unbelief.

Does not the fact, however, that so many American women have been successful in this kind of work hint that they will probably preserve it hereafter?

There is another field reaped with brilliant success by French writers, which is almost unknown in English or American literature. It is the Memoir, the Journal and the Autobiography. How the dead bones of French history put on flesh and blood in those scrappy, delicious if scandalous “Recollections” and “Histories of my Time!”

There are, as yet, very few such books to illustrate our own history. Even the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, with their infinite phases of individual tragedy and comedy, did not bring them out. Our people had not had time to keep journals, and our history is so short that we do not even yet understand how invaluable its details will be to our descendants. A few slight, powerful sketches by Mrs. Fremont[18], show what vitality such painting can give to an historic event.

With every year the class of educated, influential gentlewomen increases in this country; women who are en rapport[19] with the literary, political and social movements of their time; who have keen sight as well as sympathies, and whose sympathies, fancy and wit, seldom find their way into print.

I have a hope that this body of women who have the habit of broad and accurate thought will not always be content to expend their force in society, or even in charitable work. They will be stirred by the ambition to leave something more permanent behind them than Reports of Sanitary or Archeological clubs, and will paint as they only can do, for the next generation, the inner life and history of their time with a power which shall make that time alive for future ages.

I do not mean to underrate the intellectual power of women when I prophesy that we will be more likely to succeed as painters of historical or domestic portraits than as theologians or scientific lecturers. I only can surmise what we shall do by the knowledge of what we have done.






[1] Chautauqua refers to an American educational phenomenon popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in which speakers, teachers, preachers, and various performers traveled to rural communities to share their expertise or entertainment skills.

[2] Adult education offered through higher learning institutions.

[3] A Manhattan neighborhood in New York City.

[4] A Pariah in common usage is a term which refers to a person who is rejected, avoided, or ostracized by their community. The term originates from 17th century use against a demographic within India’s caste system, a system of rigidly stratified social classes, which was relegated to a marginalized status within it and rejected by the larger community.

[5] Acadia refers to the region in northeastern North America formerly colonized by France, including present-day Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and parts of Maine. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the region was known to be the site of rampant cases of leprosy, which was sometimes even called “Acadian disease” due to the regional association.

[6] The Mafia emerged in American cities in the late 19th century in conjunction with an influx of Italian immigrants.

[7] The Molly Maguires were a 19th century secret society originating in Ireland but present also in Pennsylvania as an activist group among Irish-American coal miners.

[8] Marion Harland was the penname of Mary Virginia Terhune (1830-1922), an American author who wrote both fiction and nonfiction bestsellers, many catering to an audience of women and classified as “plantation fiction” due to their Southern setting and subject matter. 

[9] Mary Noailles Murfree (1850-1922) was an American author considered at the forefront of women writers of Appalachian literature and whose work frequently featured settings in Tennessee, where she lived throughout her life.

[10] Mary Dean was an American artist.

[11] Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891) was a French painter and sculptor, known for intricate detailing and craftsmanship in his military depictions of Napoleon.

[12] Mary Hartwell Catherwood (1847-1902) was an American author known for her fictional representations of the Midwest.

[13] Mary Hallock Foote (1847-1938) was an American writer and artist known for her illustrated fiction which depicted the American West.

[14] Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840-1894) was an American author known for her fictional representations of the regions of the Great Lakes and the American South.

[15] Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward (1844-1911) was an American author and feminist, who challenged social norms regarding gender and Christianity.

[16] Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909) was an American author known as one of the foremost authors of American regionalism, with her work featuring the coastal regions of Maine.

[17] Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930) was an American author who wrote of life in New England in the nineteenth century.

[18] Jessie Benton Fremont (1824-1902) was an American writer and wife of American politician, John C. Fremont. Her work reflected their experiences in the American West.

[19] A French phrase, meaning to have a close or harmonious relationship.


Jency Wilson


Updated 11/21/2022


Alicia Mischa Renfroe



Jency Wilson, “"Women in Literature." Independent, 7 May 1891, pp. 1-2.,” Rebecca Harding Davis: Complete Works, accessed September 29, 2023, https://rebeccahardingdaviscompleteworks.com/items/show/229.

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