10 Women Who Would Have Ruled the Blogosphere

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.

Comments

  1. Love this!

    I’d like to add Glueckel of Hameln (1645 – 1724), who wrote a memoir (in Yiddish) that is one of the only preserved writings by a woman of the period, giving us a picture both of seventeenth-century German-Jewish society and of the inner world of a woman of her place and time.

    Learn more about her here: http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/glueckel-of-h

    • Great suggestion, Leah.

      I really enjoyed compiling this list, even while recognizing that the women on it are only a few entries in what would be a very long catalog – one that would certainly include Glueckel.

      • Quite the short list of very impressive women in the “blogosphere.” I’m lost for words as to how to describe the writings of women like Virginia Woolf, Anais Nin, Nelly Bly and Betty Friedan. Another of my favourite feminist writers….Gloria Steinem. I have to really read her words to understand where she’s coming from.

  2. I love how you included Sarah Winnemucca. People do not know nearly enough about her! I know it is very cliche, but I would also include Jane Austen. She had a very sharp wit and her finger on the pulse of English society. Too bad more of her letters to her sister Charlotte did not survive.

  3. Dina Willner says:

    I know that the list is limited but somehow I think Molly Ivins.

  4. This is a great list! As a lover of history, I find this so interesting!

  5. What a creative piece! I am unfamiliar with many of the women listed. I can’t wait to read more about them, especially the Mitford sisters. Thank you for bringing these interesting women to my attention! I can’t wait to read your next article.

    As my daughter says, “Girls Rule, Boys Drool!”

  6. Kristen, it is so much harder to write a pithy piece than to ramble on and on. You did an amazing job encapsulating so much history and inspiring us all to take a closer look at some of these remarkable women!

  7. Mary Daly – the philosopher who laid the underpinnings of the feminist movement! Tremendous creativity in the use and examination of language and it effect on the human mind. Has written several books.

  8. This is so interesting and I find myself eager to read more about these women. Did any of these women write about infertility or child bearing?

    • Jessica Mitford moved to the US and wrote the non-fiction classic The American Way of Birth (also The American Way of Death). She had two children (and lost another two children, sadly) herself.

      Anyway, her memoirs are great and the letters between the sisters are so interesting. (Nancy’s novels are also fab.)

    • Charlotte Forten Grimke’s diaries include entries about the death of her child. Betty Friedan wrote about child bearing in her memoir. Abigail Adams and Erma Bombeck both wrote at length about their experiences of child rearing. In both To the Lighthouse and Orlando, Virginia Woolf deals with childbirth.

  9. Don’t forget Christine de Pisan, 14th-century anti-misogynist, first of Venice, then of Paris.

  10. Catherine the Great of Russia. She wrote to everyone, notably Voltaire.

  11. “What is a blog, after all, if not a room of one’s own?” I think you have said the very thing. Women who came west in covered wagons made quilts out of the tattered scraps of their saved lives.

    Women today are making blogs of their family’s photo journeys. We have full houses now and want for no physical spaces to keep us warm from the cold winds, but still we search for creative places to tell our stories. Women give birth all our lives.

    I feel this intimacy about my blog. In my physical home I share every space, but my blog is my own. It is my home to invite in those of my choosing. I host people at my table, feed them the nourishment of my creative soul and cultivate the community that energizes me to continue giving. It is an eternal fountain; a birthplace of idea cultivation.

    (and now I feel sappy. Did women in covered wagons with their needles or Virginia Woolf want to hide from embarrassment too?)

    “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.”

  12. If only Bill Gates and Steve Jobs had been born a century earlier and worked with Bell, Edison and Marconi, the communications revolution would have occurred many generations ago, and sped up the winning of the vote considerably.

    Susan B. Anthony would have been constantly e-mailing Elizabeth Cady Stanton from the road about how her latest speaking tour was going, and immediately getting sage advice back on countering the opposition’s latest arguments. Alice Paul would have had the maximum of 5,000 Facebook Friends, a million “likes” on her “Public Figure” page, somehow accessed Twitter even in jail, and received 140 character tweets of support when she needed them most during her hunger strikes and force-feedings in 1909 and 1917. The National American Woman Suffrage Association’s website would have posted Carrie Chapman Catt’s best “Votes for Women” arguments, Anna Howard Shaw’s funniest quips, and published investigative stories in the “NAWSA Blog” exposing the liquor industry’s behind-the-scenes bankrolling of the anti-suffrage movement. Anthony Comstock and his army of erotophobes could never have been so successful at suppressing information about sexuality and birth control if it could have been instantly and clandestinely transmitted to anyone who needed it.

    True, there would have been a downside to early technology. Our great-grandfathers would have been bombarded with Rhinoceros Horn Aphrodisiac offers, while both men and women would have been solicited to buy their Snake Oil and Laudanum at a discount from Canadian pharmacies. Some would have been outraged by “improper sites” that featured brief clips from the more sexually suggestive burlesque and vaudeville acts. Many would have been fooled by e-mail hoaxes about winning hundreds of dollars in a lottery, or had their accounts hacked after clicking to get juicy details about an alleged scandal involving some celebrity like Buffalo Bill or Lillian Russell.

    But even with its inevitable problems, this imaginary technological leap would still have had more benefits than drawbacks if it could have occurred. For one thing, horses know better than to trot into trees or each other, so it wouldn’t have been dangerous to text while riding. And, of course, President Wilson wouldn’t have been able to leave the White House without an alert going out and a large group of National Woman’s Party pickets immediately gathering wherever he went until he finally endorsed, then lobbied Congress for the Susan B. Anthony (nationwide woman suffrage) Amendment. So, the battle for the vote would have been won long before August 26, 1920 !

  13. My favorite pre bloggist would be Anne Frank and Virginia Cary Hudson, a 10 year old essayist who’s first book, Oh Ye Jigs and Julips was written in 1904 and published and became a best seller in 1962. I find great wisdom, humor and strength in the writings of these two early bloggist that continues to inspire me to this day.

    I also think including the Mitford sisters is questionable. They were well known during the Second World War for their support of Hitler and the Nazi regime. They may haver sparkled in high society but with ethics like that they would have fit right in with the current breed of women’s rights hating far right bloggers.

    • While Diana and Unity Mitford were indeed supporters of Hitler’s fascist regime, Nancy was a moderate with socialist leanings and Jessica was a Communist who became active in the American Civil Rights movement.

  14. Don’t forget Eleanor Roosevelt! Her “My Day” columns would transfer well to the modern blog format.

  15. I have known of Nellie Bly and her amazing writing for sometime, but I just recently reread “Ten Days in a Mad-House,” published in The New York World newspaper in October of 1887. You hear that she did these amazing things and you can hardly imagine what she actually went through.

    Some of the scenes she writes about literally make me cringe. She recounts a statement given by a fellow patient that describes her experience. The women recalls of the Retreat, the worst place to go at the Blackwell Asylum,

    “while I was there a pretty young girl was brought in. She had been sick, and she fought against being put in that dirty place. One night the nurses took her and, after beating her, they held her naked in a cold bath, then they threw her on her bed. When morning came the girl was dead. The doctors said she died of convulsions, and that was all that was done about it.”

    I can only imagine if there was internet in 1887 and Bly had been blogging about her experience at this mad-house. The place would be shut down so much faster than it had been. I can only imagine how much she loved journalism and helping others to put herself through this for the sake of reporting the truth and opening peoples eyes to what is really happening.

    What surprises me the most about this story…aside from the fact that it is altogether unexpected, is that the nurses were the worst offenders. When I think of nurses I think of nice ladies or sweet old women, but they were beating and mercilessly teasing the patients. I don’t understand why the place got so bad, why did the nurses act like that? Why did they go into that field if it wasn’t to help people? Maybe there could have been a few bad eggs, but all the nurses were brutal, no one protested it of told anyone what was happening.

    If I were Bly it would be difficult for me to go back to the real world. It would be like getting out of a torture camp. I would be constantly paranoid and worried about going back there or getting beaten for nothing. Although she was a professional. She knew the only way to help the other women in the asylum would be to report what happened to her and the other women. She couldn’t never think about it again. She was most likely in courts supporting and fighting for her story and for justice. I wonder what happened to the mean old nurses.

    What I find astonishing about this story was that fact that Bly was 23 years old when she went to the asylum and wrote about her experience. I am 21 years old and I can’t imagine doing anything that ambitious, dangerous and risky. I truly admire her for this. She is one of my favorite female writers of all time. I always find a way to connect with her writing.

    No, I cannot relate to being in an insane asylum, but when reading about what happened I become so engrossed that I can feel her pain and the pain of the other patients. Bly does a very good job describing scenes where I am able to vividly picture what happened. In this particular story that is not a good thing, but in other stories by her, it’s a great thing!

    Nellie Bly was an amazing investigative reporter, especially for her day. After a traumatizing experience such as this she went on to be one of the most successful and influential writers to this day. She went on a trip around the world in 72 days. I studied abroad for four months and visited seven countries but I couldn’t begin to describe my experience in written form and have it be understandable to anyone but myself.

    The other women on this list are amazing writers as well. Bly I feel captured many instances that no other writer has attempted. She was ambitious and strong in a day when men ruled the newspapers, as well as many other things. I really enjoy reading her work, it makes me feel like an empowered women. I am excited to read more works by other writers on the list as well. Especially the ones I’m unfamiliar with such as the Mitford sisters.

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