Centuries before Al Gore “invented the Internet” and we began blogging in droves, women were recording the details of their lives in journals, letters, memoirs and newspaper columns. From complaining about their husbands and lamenting their infertility to speaking out for social justice and building community where little existed, these proto-bloggers told it like it was.
Here’s a look at ten historical women whose authentic and intimate writing styles would have made them surefire stars of the blogosphere:
1. Sei Shōnagon (966 -1017) In her Pillow Book, court lady Shōnagon jotted down witty observations, complaints and opinions about the Japanese imperial court at the turn of the first millennium. A realist who acknowledged the sexual liaisons going on among the emperor’s courtiers, some of her sharpest writing was her advice for lovers on how to pen “morning-after letters.”
2. Abigail Adams (1744-1818) This first lady wrote hundreds of letters to her husband, John, that provide an exhaustive and personal look at the life of an early American woman. Never formally schooled, Adams had a creative approach to spelling that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Twitter feed. But that didn’t detract from the urgency of her reminders to her powerful husband to “remember the ladies”: “If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.”
3. Charlotte Forten Grimké (1837-1914) Grimke’s extensive journals offer one of the few existing accounts of a free black woman in the antebellum North. The African American activist, poet and teacher recorded the life and death of her infant daughter, her work as a nurse and educator during the Civil War and her travels on behalf of the abolitionist cause. The only non-white student in her grammar school and the first African American teacher in the Civil War’s Sea Islands mission, Grimké made history, then wrote it down.
4. Sarah Winnemucca (1844-1891) In the first known copyrighted book by a Native American woman, Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims, Winnemucca documented her Paiute people’s initial encounters with white explorers. The settlers, she wrote, “came like a lion, yes, like a roaring lion, and have continued so ever since.” One of the first Paiutes to learn English, she spent her life as an interlocutor, lecturer, activist for Native rights, school organizer and author, working to protect and advance the causes of her people while promoting understanding between them and the white newcomers.
5. Nellie Bly (1864-1922) An outraged letter in response to a sexist newspaper column launched the journalism career of Elizabeth Jane Cochran. Under the pen name Nellie Bly, she became famous for her undercover exposé of the broken mental-health-care system, for which she feigned madness and was committed to an asylum. Her report on her time there–“What,” she asked, “excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?”–prompted a grand jury investigation and a dramatic increase in state mental-health-care funding. She later earned further renown for a then-record-breaking 72 day trip around the world.
6. Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) The great modernist novelist also penned memoirs, essays, letters and diaries that provide rich emotional descriptions of her subjects and the author herself. Over the years, her public writing became increasingly feminist, anti-war and anti-imperialist. In her famous treatise on the obstacles faced by women writers, “A Room of One’s Own,” she wrote, “I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”
7. Anaïs Nin (1903-1977) A lifelong diarist, Nin offered a woman’s-eye-view of a world of prominent men. In both her famous journals and her groundbreaking erotica, Nin shared revealing insights into both her life and her sexual exploits. Her writing continues to be celebrated by women who identify with her account of self-discovery: “There came a time when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
8. The Mitford Sisters (1900s to present) In the years leading up to the Second World War, these six political British sisters–with stances ranging from communist to fascist–wrote hundreds of letters that detailed their daily lives and serve as a kind of cliffs notes to the conflicting ideologies of 1930s Europe. One can only imagine the dinner-table conversations.
9. Betty Friedan (1921-2006) Before writing The Feminine Mystique and founding the National Organization for Women, Friedan spent years as a journalist, interviewing women and reporting on “the problem that has no name.” Her writings offer unrivaled snapshots of the lives of many mid-20th century American women and a call to arms for women to discover their own voices: “The only way for a woman…to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own. There is no other way.”
10. Erma Bombeck (1927-1996) Best known for her countless columns and books on the not-so-glamorous life of a suburban mother, Bombeck strove to bring women who worked at home into the feminist fold, eventually launching a national speaking tour in support of the (still unpassed) Equal Rights Amendment.
These are just ten of the innumerable women who have used writing to build community and make their voices heard, whether to an audience of one or of thousands. Personal, immediate and honest, their writings connect them not only to other women of their time, but also to the contemporary world of blogging, which continues to democratize the marketplace of ideas in a way that empowers women.
What is a blog, after all, if not a room of one’s own?
All photos from Wikimedia Commons.