Take a look at your bookshelf. (Go on; we’ll wait.) Look at all the familiar spines: the scores of paperbacks; the creased and well-loved classic; the shiny new hardback, ready to be cracked open. Imagine what your bookshelf would look like if we erased all contributions ever made by women. There goes Frankenstein and, with it, all science- and speculative-fiction. No more Pride and Prejudice, or The Bluest Eye. Gone are the Brontes, all three of them, same as Woolf and Kingsolver and hooks and Angelou. Oh, and no more Tolstoy, since his wife typed his manuscript. (For that matter, no more T.S. Eliot, and Great Gatsby is out, and Nabokov, too. #ThanksforTyping.) Pretty sad, huh?
This Women’s History Month at UPK, we’re kicking off a week of celebration of the indelible marks women have made on our industry. Today on the blog, we’d like to highlight a few of the many barrier-breaking women, those who were the first in their fields of writing and publishing.
The First of the Firsts
The first published writer of record in what is now known as the United States of America, regardless of gender, was Anne Bradstreet, a white, Puritan 17th-century poet. Her first and only volume of poetry, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, was published in London in 1650, making her the first woman to be published in England, as well. Due to the strict gender roles of the time and of her religion, Bradstreet and her writing were met with extreme criticism. Still, she wrote until her death in 1672, at the age of 60. Read more about Bradstreet in some of our scholarly books of criticism, concerning her work, available here.
More than a hundred years after Bradstreet’s death, the publication of Phillis Wheatley’s book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773 inaugurated her as the first Black poet in North America, and by association, the first published Black female poet. Wheatley was a slave, bought by Nathaniel Wheatley as a gift to his wife, but was given an unprecedented amount of education, for a slave and for a woman of any race at the time. In 1773, shortly after her first book was published, the Wheatleys emancipated her, which ushered her into a life of poverty unfitting of the acclaim, from the likes of George Washington and Thomas Paine, her book had garnished. In 1784, Wheatley died a scullery maid; her second book of poetry is still lost to us. Read more about her work in Authority and Female Authorship in Colonial America, by William J. Scheick, which also features criticism of Bradstreet’s poetry, available here.
In 1918, the first Pulitzer Prize for Poetry was awarded to Sara Teasdale, for her fourth book, Love Songs, and so she became the first woman to receive the prize. She would go on to write four more books of poetry before her suicide in 1933.
In 1920, two years after Teasdale’s win, Edith Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel The Age of Innocence. This was her twelfth novel, among a staggering collection of short fiction, non-fiction, and stage plays, all containing criticism of the ninteenth century society she grew up in, and of the literary scene she operated within. The 1920 Pulitzer for Fiction inaugurated her as the first woman to win the prize in that category. (More on Wharton’s influence in Modernism here.)
Mona Van Duyn (pictured) in 1992 became the first female U.S. Poet Laureate after an award-winning career, where she snapped up accolades like the National Book Award for her collection To See, To Take, the Bollingen Prize, and the Pulitzer Prize for her collection Near Changes.
Librarians are the keepers of the literary world in many senses, and the Library of Congress doubly so. Dr. Carla Hayden, appointed in 2016, is the first black woman, the first woman, and the first Black person to hold the office of Librarian of Congress. She is also the first professional librarian to be appointed in more than sixty years. Dr. Hayden’s current mission is to modernize the institution by digitizing access to preserved collections. (Did you know we have a book by a former Librarian of Congress? Now you do!)
Jan Morris, a transgender woman from Wales, is a renowned non-fiction, travel, and essay writer, and author of acclaimed novel Last Letters from Hav. Last Letters from Hav, published in 1985, was also shortlisted for a Booker prize in the same year, making Morris the first transgender writer to do so. At 90, she is still writing, and is due to have a book of history out in the coming year.
And, of course, we would be remiss to forget Leila Salisbury, current director of the University Press of Kentucky. Beginning her directorship in 2016, Salisbury is the first female director of UPK. She follows in the footsteps of Carro Clark, the first American woman to be founder, owner and manager of a book publishing firm, the C.M. Clark Company, est. 1900.
We hope this list got you excited for a week of celebrations. However, by no means is this an exhaustive list of the many wonderful women who have shaped our literary world. We’d love to hear about your favorite lady literary heroes! Feel free to follow along using #UPKWeekofWomenWriters, and be sure to stay tuned!