Written by Julia Schoos
Fanny Fern wrote as if the Devil was in her—or so spoke Nathaniel Hawthorne. Born 1811 as Sarah Willis, Fanny Fern was the first female newspaper columnist in the United States, and by 1855, the highest-paid columnist of the 19th century. However, while her contemporaries Thoreau, Whitman, and Emerson are considered household names, Fern’s name is almost shrouded in obscurity. Her works, now lauded as dynamic and potent, are most often encountered in collegiate classes with an eye on feminist literature—a bizarre turn of events, considering that she outsold all of her male contemporaries during her lifetime. Is it really such a bizarre turn of events?
The world of writers was (and to a large degree, still is) dominated by men. In 2015, a VIDA study found that publications—on both sides of the Atlantic—continue to focus on significantly more criticism by men about male-centred literature: the London Review of Books for example featured 527 male authors and critics in 2014, while only including 151 women. Fern’s work, scorned as “too sentimental” by male critics of her time, was revolutionary in its honesty, illustrating the struggles of a working class woman paving her own way, and found a more than receptive audience in the readership of the New York Ledger, comprised of roughly 60% of women. Despite the unfavorable reviews and comments from her male peers, Fern herself went on to become a mentor and champion of Walt Whitman, and published Ruth Hall, a novel fictionalizing many of the events of her life: her first husband’s death, the destitution that followed, and the incidents thereafter. It became her most celebrated novel, and her columns were even more well-received.
So one could say that the publishing world wasn’t entirely bleak for women back then, and it certainly isn’t now, even if there is much to be done. Fern fought for women to have the right to vote: now we’re looking for the right to our voices. And the ongoing VIDA studies show we are being heard more and more. In 2015, the results continue to indicate an upward trend: women are more recognized and more active in literary circles than ever before. In 2015, 15 of the 26 publications in the 2015 Larger Literary Landscape VIDA Count published either equally as many bylines by women writers as men, or more.
As with many issues of intersectionality, the most accurate thing to be said is that we, collectively, are working on it. Today, October 10th, 2017, is Fanny Fern’s 145th anniversary of death—and just as we are again learning to recognize her, we’re learning to recognize the importance of women in literature. What VIDA’s co-founder, Erin Belieu told The Guardian in an interview, sums up this idea perfectly:
“Absolutely there is still this gender bias inherent in literary magazines. We are talking about people who have done things a certain way for many years and literary magazines tend to be places where one vision gets put forward and even commissioning editors can get trapped in this culture. But generationally I think it is a problem that is going to be taking care of itself more and more.”