By Gayle Converse and Pat Miller
The documentation of history is impossible without the written word. With the stroke of a pen or the stroke of a key, American women, through centuries of prose and poetry, have shaped our past, our present, and our future.
While these columns involve many diverse professions and countless prolific authors, this month’s column will celebrate National Poetry Month and National Library Week, which ran from April 3-9, by offering a sampling of four categories: journalists, novelists, librarians and poets.
Women journalists appeared before the American Revolution. About 16 of the 78 weekly newspapers in the colonies in the 1700s were run by wives, mothers, daughters and sisters using their skills – and their ink-stained hands – to publish, write, compose and print. Most only moved into publications management after the death of a male relative.
Faced with gender discrimination, women editors were among the first to record incidents prior to the War of Independence. The colonies of Virginia and neighboring Maryland produced many female journalists.
Upon her husband’s death in 1773, Clementina Bird Rind of Virginia inherited the editorship of the Virginia Gazette in Williamsburg and soon published Thomas Jefferson’s “Ideas on American Liberty.” The House of Burgesses acclaimed Rind as Virginia’s official public printer in 1774. The same year—after the Crown’s harsh response to the Boston Tea Party—Rind’s Gazette published Jefferson’s pamphlet “A Summary View of the Rights of British America targeting delegates from the First Continental Congress.
In May 1775, Mary Katharine Goddard of Maryland inserted “Published by MK Goddard” into the masthead of the Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser, the only newspaper published in Baltimore during the American Revolution. In January 1777, Goddard bravely used his full name to publish the first copy of the Declaration of Independence to include the identity of the signatories. At the bottom of the document, she added: “Baltimore, MD: Printed by Mary Katharine Goddard.”
Launched in 1784, Gentlemen and Ladies’ Country Magazine contained sections for women and invited women to write about these topics, although articles were limited to topics such as fashion.
Discrimination in print continued into the 19th century, when female editors often received a third of the salary of their male counterparts. Unions were formed and African American women commissioned many publications.
The women’s suffrage movement in the United States published its own journals, including the Woman’s Journal and the Suffrage News published by the National American Woman Suffrage Association. The Suffragist was the weekly newspaper of the Congressional Union for Women’s Suffrage.
Contemporary female editors include Katharine Graham, elected president of the Washington Post in 1963. Graham was at the helm during the newspaper’s coverage of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers.
Locally, Denise Dunbar is editor and publisher of the Alexandria Times. Meanwhile, journalist Olivia Anderson has expertly written investigative reporting since joining the paper in 2021. Five of the Times’ six full-time staff members are women.
Editor Mary Ann Barton and publisher Beth Lawton run Alexandria Living Magazine, and Katie Bianco is editor of Northern Virginia Magazine.
Alexandria has been home to countless women writers. Among them is former mayor Allison Silberberg, who has written two books and whose writings have appeared in the Washington Post, the Dallas Morning News and on PBS.org.
Women have been writing under male pseudonyms since before the Victorian era and have broken down barriers to make their voices heard.
Louisa May Alcott, famous for her novel “Little Women”, published many other stories, considered “unwomanly”, under the pen name AM Barnard.
Abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe shot to fame in 1851 with the publication of her bestselling book, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Legend has it that upon meeting Stowe, President Abraham Lincoln said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”
Harriet Jacobs, an African-American aid worker who helped in Alexandria during the American Civil War, published an account of her experience while enslaved, the famous “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl”, under the pseudonym of Linda Brent in 1861.
Carla Hayden was sworn in as the 14th Librarian of Congress on September 14, 2016. Hayden is the first woman and the first African American to lead the National Library.
Locally, Rose Dawson is the first African-American woman to serve as director in the 85-year history of the Library of Alexandria.
Born in Africa, Phillis Wheatley was captured and sold into slavery to a Boston family in 1761. After learning to read and write, Wheatley began writing poetry at the age of 14. In 1773, she became the first African American and second American to publish a book of poetry.
The current American Poet Laureate is Joy Harjo, the first Native American to hold the position.
Virginia has named a Poet Laureate since 1936. Rita Dove was Virginia’s and the United States’ first African-American Poet Laureate. The current Commonwealth Poet Laureate is Luisa Igloria.
This month, Alexandria welcomes Zeina Azzam as the city’s new Poet Laureate. Past Poet Laureates include Mary McElveen, Amy Young, Tori Lane Kovarik, Ryan Wojanowski, Wendi Kaplan and KaNikki Jakarta.
The next time you read a newspaper, magazine, book or poem, think of the women who have yet to fight for equal pay, opportunity and recognition, but who document and make our stories accessible.
The writers are the founders of Alexandria Celebrates Women, a nonprofit organization that shines a light on influential women throughout the city’s history. Contact them at [email protected].