6 Early American Women Writers We Should Know More About

Charlotte Temple by Susanna Rowson

In the American colonies or early days of the Republic, for a woman to dare enter public discourse was a radical act of rebellion. To write and be published at a time when women had few legal or economic rights was just short of miraculous. Here’s an introduction to six of the most prominent early American women writers, all of whom deserve to be rediscovered and read.

In 1650, The Tenth Muse, Lately Sprung Up in America, a collection of poems by Anne Bradstreet, was the first publication in the colonies. From then on, women who wrote were criticized for being unwomanly and going against God’s teachings. To avoid censure, some occasionally wrote under pseudonyms, but sometimes used their own names, the consequences be damned!

More women writers than we might think took up the pen in the early days of the American nations. The following early American women writers, all born in the 1700s (with that exception of Anne Bradstreet, born in the early 1600s) wrote prolifically and passionately despite the risks to their reputations.

Anne Bradstreet

Anne Bradstreet (1612 – 1672) was one of the most prominent early American poets and the first writer in the American colonies to be published. Being from a wealthy family and getting a good education from her father was to her advantage. She produced a copious body of poetry at a time when it wasn’t acceptable for women to write. Anne encountered a great deal of criticism but didn’t accept the notion of women’s inferiority.

Anne wrote of her love for her family, but also expressed her struggles as a woman and as a mother in her work. She was fortunate to have had a supportive spouse, demonstrated in “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” one of her best-known poems. Read it in full among five poems by Anne Bradstreet. And read more about Anne Bradstreet.

Judith Sargent Murray

Judith Sargent Murray (1751 – 1820) was quite possibly America’s first feminist essayist. “On the Equality of the Sexes” (1791), perhaps her best-known essay, was published a year before A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft, and yet, the former is rarely discussed. Murray was far ahead of her time, as an advocate of equal rights for women, including controlling their own earnings, and having access to education.

She lived a full literary life and made a living by her pen, something quite rare for a woman of her time. Occasionally she adopted male pen names, as she did for her column in Massachusetts Magazine. Writing as”The Gleaner,” she was read by prominent political figures of her era, including George Washington and John Adams. Also a playwright, she wrote The Medium (1795), arguably the first play staged in the young American nation. Read more about Judith Sargent Murray.

Susanna Rowson, author of Charlotte Temple

Susanna Rowson (ca. 1762 – 1824) was an American-British author and actress, best known for Charlotte Temple (1790), America’s first bestselling novel. In fact, it was the bestselling American novel until Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) replaced it with that distinction. With the classic theme of seduction and remorse, Charlotte Temple sparked a great deal of controversy in its time. Despite its heavy-handed moralizing and overwrought characterizations, it has endured as an example of early American literature.

An incredibly prolific writer, she produced numerous novels, plays, operas, and volumes of poetry. She also worked as a stage actress, opened a school for girls in Boston, and was an editor of a Boston-based periodical. Read more about Susanna Rowson.

Catharine Maria Sedgwick

Catharine Maria Sedgwick (1789 – 1867) wrote prolifically and was most active from the 1820s to the 1850s. She made a handsome living writing short stories for popular periodicals and helped popularize what we now call domestic literature. Sedgwick was a well known and highly respected New England literary figure in her time. She wrote six novels, eight works for children, several novellas, two biographies, and more than one hundred works of short prose.

Her work is recognized as part of a distinctive American literature in a league with Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and William Cullen Bryant. However, while these men are still read and studied, Sedgwick is all but forgotten. Perhaps it’s time to start reviving her reputation. Read more about Catharine Maria Sedgwick.

Mercy Otis Warren

Mercy Otis Warren (1728 – 1814) was a poet, satirist, and playwright active during the Revolutionary War period. In an era when women’s political views didn’t count, she raised her pen and voice — often and loudly. Her pre-Revolutionary War plays were highly political and satirical, critiquing British rule.

Warren was considered one of the leading intellectuals of the time, and one of America’s first historians. She documented the Revolutionary period and published History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution in 1805. It was one of the first nonfiction books by an American woman.  She kept her focus on politics for most of her career, and even when she produced plays and poems through the Revolutionary and post-Revolution era, it was with an eye toward commentary. Read more about Mercy Otis Warren.

Phillis Wheatley, first African-American poet

Phillis Wheatley (ca 1753 – 1784) was America’s first African-American poet and one of the first women to be published in colonial America. Kidnapped from Senegal/Gambia as part of the slave trade, she was bought by John Wheatley as a house slave for his wife. Phillis quickly mastered reading and writing, usually forbidden to slaves, and was recognized as a prodigy. Phillis began writing verse as she mastered the English language, and when she was between 13 and 14 years old, her first poem was published in The Newport Mercury. Further publication of her poems spread the word of her talent in the colonies. Her work was admired by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

At age 19, her first book of poetry was published. Titled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, by Phillis Wheatley, Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley of Boston, in New England, an edition was printed in Boston not long after its initial publication in London in 1773. Read more about Phillis Wheatley.

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