A pithy history lesson
History books (and the internet) would have you believe that America’s first feminists were women in the 1800s. Women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott.
I beg to differ.
My vote goes to Anne Bradstreet (March 20, 1612 – September 16, 1672.)
A brief bio.
Anne Dudley grew up in Northampton, England, in a well-to-do family where she was tutored in history, several languages, and literature.
With her father’s encouragement, she read Vergil, Plutarch, Livy, Pliny, Suetonius, Homer, Hesiod, Ovid, Seneca, and Thucydides as well as Spenser, Sidney, Milton, Raleigh, Hobbes, Joshua Sylvester’s 1605 translation of Guillaume du Bartas’s Divine Weeks and Workes, and the Geneva version of the Bible.
In 1630, Anne emigrated to the colonies with her parents and her husband, Simon Bradstreet. As a Puritan wife, she knew her position–tend to her spiritual life, her husband, and her children, and most of all–remain hidden.
But, Anne wanted to write, not just rear children. So, even after birthing seven children and even though she struggled with illness, she wrote. Surprisingly, with her father’s and husband’s blessing.(Both men were instrumental in the founding of Harvard in 1636.)
Accomplished New World Poet
In 1650, her brother-in-law, Rev. John Woodbridge, secreted away her poetry manuscript to London. The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America composed by “A Gentlewoman from Those Parts” was published making Anne the first female poet ever published in both England and the New World.
From Wiki: The purpose of the publication appears to have been an attempt by devout Puritan men (i.e. Thomas Dudley, Simon Bradstreet, John Woodbridge) to show that a godly and educated woman could elevate her position as a wife and mother, without necessarily placing her in competition with men. Very few men of that time agreed with that belief. Mistress Bradstreet endured and ignored much gender bias during her life in the New World.
Anne refused to retire her pen. Instead, she rebelled against the gender mores of her day to became a literary warrior.
And yet, Annie B. felt insecure about publishing her poetry. It was risky to publish, both as a woman and as a Puritan. Also, she felt that the manuscript wasn’t ready for public review. During her moment of panic, she penned a self-deprecating humorous poem to her book.
The first time I read this poem, I laughed–panic is a universal emotion.
“The Author to her Book” by Anne Bradstreet
Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth did’st by my side remain,
Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad, exposed to public view,
Made thee in rags, halting to th’ press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call.
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
Thy visage was so irksome in my sight;
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could:
I washed thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot still made a flaw.
I stretched thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run’st more hobbling than is meet;
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save homespun cloth, i’ th’ house I find.
In this array ‘mongst Vulgars may’st thou roam.
In critic’s hands beware thou dost not come,
And take thy way where yet thou art not known;
If for thy Father asked, say thou hadst none;
And for thy Mother, she alas is poor,
Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.
You relate, too, right? I guess we all think of the words we string together as “our children.”
I love that first line: “Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain.” That’s how I feel about everything I write. Including this blog post.
When Bradstreet died in 1672, she was fittingly buried in an unknown grave in an area of the Merrimack Valley described as “The Valley of the Poets.”
Perfect ending for our first American feminist literary warrior.
(Note to my family: I want to buried in “The Valley of the Poets” some day.)