Between the Lines: Voices of Women in Literary Works

Gianna Murabito | staff writer

The history of women’s writing is always changing to maintain its attention to contemporary matters. As women gain more sovereignty throughout history, their publications make the appropriate shifts. Because of the fight for autonomy, these shifts have only helped break the gender barriers within our culture. Centuries ago, women fought to achieve visibility in the literary world and despite the many limitations, progression was made. The determination of female writers forced publications to rightly incorporate women authors and their stories into public works. Today, women have achieved the luminous right to have their writings appear within the widespread community. Rightfully so, women continue to yearn for visibility in all aspects of the public sphere. Because writing is a powerful outlet used to unshackle inequality, the culture behind women’s publications has been shaped into a community that helps to fill the solitude and void within the male dominated community.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, female writers fought to survive in the largely male-dominated literary community. It was especially difficult because many women were not educated to the same caliber as men and only attended to their domestic duties. According to Kathryn Hughes’ article “Gender Roles in the 19th Century”, female independence was not valued and Victorians thought of the two sexes as ‘separate spheres’ only coming together at mealtimes. According to Professor Melani at CUNY, women were expected to fulfill the role of the “Angel of the House”. Miss Bingley, Mr. Charles Bingley’s snobby sister from “Pride and Prejudice” (Jane Austen, 1813) is an example of this archetype: the novel reads, “A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages… and besides all of this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking. The tone of her voice, her address and expressions.” Even though middle-class women were becoming more educated during the 19th century, they were still expected to grow evermore devoted and submissive to their husbands. Their education did not give them autonomy, but instead fostered powerlessness. This deference was evident in publications that lead to a huge underrepresentation of women in the literary world.

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

An illustration of this can be found in Lady’s Magazine. Lady’s is an early British women’s magazine that produced monthly issues from 1770 until 1847 and is known for its significance and longevity. Both the founder and publisher of the magazine were men, but the articles, written by both men and women, targeted female consumers.

Lady’s featured articles similar to those published in men’s magazines except they did not get to report on politics – because women’s opinions were not deemed worthy enough on such topics. Writers for Lady’s Magazine wrote about the flamboyant theatrical world, the latest and winsome fashion trends, advice on how to be feminine and much more. According to the August 1770 edition of Lady’s Magazine, their primary objective was to provide a regular periodical that contained material designed for the entertainment and improvement of women in a manner accessible to the “house-wife as well as the peeress.” The object was to define an “accomplished” woman of the time; one that fulfills the role of the “Angel of the House”. In this way, Lady’s helped preserve the housewife who only attended to her domestic, innocent, and irrelevant matters outside the home.

While the components of Lady’s Magazine seem archaic in relation to the progress made since then, it was astonishing for the time. The purpose was to educate and entertain females (of course for those privileged enough to know how to read). Lady’s Magazine helped engage women in literary discourse even if the sector of women was small.

Making progress, the Women’s Penny Paper was in circulation from 1888 until 1891. Its name changed to Woman’s Herald and finally to Woman’s Signal. The paper had its last edition in 1899. Unlike the Lady’s Magazine, this publication was founded by a woman. Editor and founder Henrietta B. Muller went by the penname Helena B. Temple.

The Penny Paper provided women with a place to tell their stories. Miss Amy E. Bell’s interview appears in the Dec. 22, 1888 edition of the paper. She explained her “unique position” in relation to men. She wrote, “I had always said I would be a stockbroker, and my friends used laughingly to say I was cut out for one, because I studied the markets so much.” Bell continued, speaking about her journey in a man’s world. The start of women appearing in publications gave women a platform for recognition and an outlet for their literary creativity.

After Muller launched her publication she reflected on her reasons and visions for starting the paper:

One of the things which always humiliated me very much was the way in which women’s interests and opinions were systematically excluded from the World’s Press. I was mortified too, that our cause should be represented by a little monthly leaflet, not worthy of the name of a newspaper called the Women’s Suffrage Journal. I realised of what vital importance it was that women should have a newspaper of their own through which to voice their thoughts, and I formed the daring resolve that if no one else better fitted for the work would come forward, I would try and do it myself…Our readers know that the aim of the paper is to further the emancipation of women in every direction and in every land. I hold that this aim was part of the Mission of Christ in spite of what is advanced to the contrary. The editing has been carried out under the name of Helena B Temple and Co. My chief reason for this was in order that my own individuality should not give a colouring to the paper, but that it should be as far as possible, impersonally conducted and therefore open to reflect the opinions of women on any and all subjects.

Muller, a literary warrior, articulated the disconnect between women and men in the literary world. According to “The Lady’s Magazine and the Emergence of Women of Active Participants in the Eighteenth Century Periodical Press,” the opportunity to engage in this intellectual community enabled women to enter the male-dominated world of print and, in turn, an even bigger community that was separate from their daily sphere of domesticity; a feminized space in an otherwise male-dominated genre had been created. Women were turning away from the Angel of the House archetype and into colleagues of men.

In current times, we see an ample amount of works written by, for and about women. Women in 2015 often express feelings of gratitude because they are now able to write freely. They will always reach for more autonomy through writing, and it is well deserved.

 

Gianna is a senior English Literature major with a minor in Political Science. She loves traveling, listening to music and eating anything red velvet flavored.

 

Check out more from December 2015 issue here.