Though Anne Bradstreet is known as the first woman to have had a book published in the United States, it’s most likely there were others before her, but none recognized as written by women.
English -born Anne was the daughter of Thomas Dudley, steward to the earl of Lincoln, and she grew up in the cultured surroundings of Tattershall Castle. Though theirs was a strictly religious household, her father, a Nonconformist, educated her himself, as well as having her tutored in history, several languages and literature–highly unusual for a female. More fortunate than other girls, Anne had access to the castle library. Anne married when she was sixteen. Yikes! We can hardly conceive of it, but it was common practice. Simon Bradstreet’s father had been a Puritan minister, and Simon remained in the care of the Dudleys after his father’s death.
Two years later in 1630, the entire family made the arduous journey to New England in hopes of setting up plantation colonies. With a husband and father of status in the new colonies, Anne held a visible position of status. What with climate, lack of food and primitive conditions, life was far more difficult than in jolly old England. A second bout of smallpox left Anne with paralyzed joints, though she raised eight children and ran a household. Simon often traveled to other colonies, leaving her to read, educate her children, and write poetry.
Anne’s brother-in-law, John Woodbridge, secretly copied her work and took it to England where he had “The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, By a Gentlewoman of Those Parts” published. It was a tribute to her childhood and what she’d left behind. Her mature work was never published until after her death.
Cultural bias toward women was common in her time–a woman’s place was in the home. Period. Women were intellectual inferiors. Critics thought Anne stole her ideas from men, and her writing was criticized because of her gender. The public had a harsh reaction to her role as a female writer. When the book was released, the idea that she was a virtuous women had to be stressed. Her brother-in-law even wrote: “By a Gentle Women in Those Parts” on the title page to assure readers that Anne didn’t neglect her duties as a Puritan woman in order to write. He saw the need to clarify that she found time for her poetry by sacrificing sleep and using what little leisure time she had. I’m probably not the only wife/mother/author who can identify with that! We can see the anger that Bradstreet felt toward criticism in the following lines:
I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
Who says my hand a needle better fits;
A poet’s pen all scorn I should thus wrong,
For such despite they cast on female wits.
If what I do prove well, it won’t advance;
They’ll say it’s stol’n, or else it was by chance.
There were other women writers during the early years in the colonies, those who wrote poems and essays that have been preserved as part of American culture, but Anne is known as the first American female poet. It’s likely that other women’s work was published anonymously or with a male pseudonym. It’s estimated that one third of all the American novels written up to 1820 were by women authors.
It’s interesting to realize that Anne wrote in a time and a culture when a woman seeking knowledge was considered against God’s will. Her writing reveals her faith, her devotion to God, and to her husband and family, but it also shows that she was a freethinker and probably one of the first feminists. Recurring themes in her poems were love for her husband and pleas with God to watch over her children and husband. Anne developed tuberculosis and died at the age of sixty.
In looking for paintings or drawings of Anne, these two recurred. One is actually labeled as a painting of Anne Bradstreet, the other, which is often used with her biography is a Rembrandt, titled, “A Woman With A Pink.” I couldn’t find information to substantiate that this was indeed a portrait of Anne Bradstreet, though both she and the famous painter were alive during this time period. It’s certainly possible. If anyone knows, I’d love to hear.
We may have come a long way, baby, but women’s writing still gets less respect than that of our male counterparts. We are the relationship storytellers who keep love and romance alive, and it’s what makes the world go ‘round. Though our genre holds the biggest piece of the publishing pie, many still turn up their nose at fiction written by women for women. Only a few years ago, women suspense writers wrote under male pseudonyms to be published. At least we’re reviewed on the merit of our work, and not because we’re women!
Hats off to Anne Bradstreet, a forward thinking woman who paved the way for women writers! If Anne were here today, what would you like to ask her?
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