By Gayle Converse and Pat Miller
The documentation of history is impossible without the written word. With the stroke of a pen or tap of a key, American women, through centuries of prose and poetry, have been wordsmithing our past, present and future.
Although these chronicles involve many diverse occupations and countless prolific authors, this month’s column will celebrate National Poetry Month and National Library Week, which ran from April 3 to 9, by offering a sampling from four categories: journalists, novelists, librarians and poets.
Women journalists appeared before the American Revolution. About 16 of the colonies’ 78 weekly newspapers in the 1700s were run by wives, mothers, daughters and sisters using their skills – and inkstained hands – to publish, write, typeset and engrave. Most ascended to publication management only after the death of a male relative.
Facing discrimination from both sexes, female publishers were among the first to record incidents preceding the Revolutionary War. The colonies of Virginia and neighboring Maryland produced numerous women journalists.
Upon her husband’s death in 1773, Virginia’s Clementina Bird Rind inherited leadership of Williamsburg’s Virginia Gazette and promptly printed Thomas Jefferson’s “Ideas on American Freedom.” 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 of the First Continental Congress.
In May 1775, Maryland’s Mary Katharine Goddard inserted “Published by M.K. Goddard” on 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 her full name to publish the first copy of the Declaration of Independence to include the identities of the signers. At the bottom of the document, she added, “Baltimore, in Maryland: Printed by Mary Katharine Goddard.”
Launched in 1784, Gentlemen and Ladies’ Country Magazine contained sections for women and invited women to write on these topics, although articles were confined to topics such as fashion.
Discrimination in print continued into the 19th century when female publishers often were paid one-third the wages of their male counterparts. Trade unions were formed, and African American women commanded numerous publications.
The women’s suffrage movement in the U.S. issued its own newspapers, including the Woman’s Journal and Suffrage News published by the National American Woman Suffrage Association. The Suffragist was the weekly newspaper of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage.
Contemporary women publishers include Katharine Graham, elected president of the Washington Post in 1963. Graham was at the helm during the paper’s coverage of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers.
Locally, Denise Dunbar serves as executive editor and publisher of the Alexandria Times. Meanwhile, reporter Olivia Anderson has written expertly reported investigative stories since joining the paper in 2021. Five out of six full-time staff members at the Times are women.
Editor Mary Ann Barton and publisher Beth Lawton spearhead Alexandria Living Magazine, and Katie Bianco serves as editor of Northern Virginia Magazine.
Alexandria has been home to countless women writers. Among them is former Mayor Allison Silberberg, who has authored two books and whose writing has appeared in the Washington Post, the Dallas Morning News and on PBS.org.
Women have been writing under male pen names since before the Victorian age and have broken barriers to make their voices heard.
Louisa May Alcott, famously known for her novel “Little Women,” published many other stories, which was considered “unladylike,” under the pen name A.M. Barnard.
Abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe rose to fame in 1851 with the publication of her best-selling book, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Legend has it that upon meeting Stowe, President Abraham Lincoln said, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”
Harriet Jacobs, an African American aid worker who assisted in Alexandria during the American Civil War, published a narrative of her experience while enslaved, the acclaimed “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” under the pseudonym Linda Brent in 1861.
Carla Hayden was sworn in as the 14th Librarian of Congress on Sept. 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 Alexandria Library.
Born in Africa, Phillis Wheatley was captured and sold into slavery to a Boston family in 1761. After being taught to read and write, Wheatley began penning poetry at age 14. In 1773, she became the first African American and second American woman to publish a book of poems.
The current U.S. poet laureate is Joy Harjo, the first Native American to hold the position.
Virginia has appointed a poet laureate since 1936. Rita Dove was the first African American poet laureate of Virginia and of the United States. The Commonwealth’s current 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 pick up a newspaper, magazine, book or poem, consider the women who must still fight for equal pay, opportunity and recognition, yet who document and make accessible our stories.
The writers are founders of Alexandria Celebrates Women, a nonprofit that highlights influential women throughout the city’s history. Contact them at [email protected].