Lisa Logan
University of Central Florida

Early American Women’s Words

Course Description

In 1630, the newly married Anne Bradstreet sailed with her husband aboard the Arbella and became one of the first settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Bradstreet, who grew up in the Earl of Lincoln’s household, wrote of her experience in the wilderness, "I found here a new world and new manners, at which my heart rose." In 1650, never wavering from her duties as governor’s wife, mother of eight children, and devout Christian, Bradstreet became the first published poet in New England. Despite her prominence and reputation as a Puritan "goodwife," Bradstreet’s book, The Tenth Muse, Lately Sprung Up in America was prefaced by 12 pages of testimonials by men, who spoke to her intellectual and moral credibility.

The example of Anne Bradstreet suggests the complex position of early American women writers: while our first poet was a woman, women were necessarily wives and mothers first, readers and writers second; moreover, women wrote in a culture that was ambivalent toward and suspicious of their public speech. In 1645, Governor John Winthrop pointed out that women’s writing could lead to madness:

[Mrs. Hopkins], (a godly young woman and of special parts,)

. . .was fallen into a sad infirmity, the loss of her understanding and reason, which had been growing upon her diverse years,by occasion of her giving herself wholly to reading and writing, and had written many books. But women continued to write—poems, letters, epitaphs, sampler verses, journals, diaries, household manuals, and, as time went on, travelogues, captivity and slave narratives, and even novels.

This course explores the questions, What did early American women write about? What traditions of writing did women—who were denied legal, political, and economic rights, and whose identities and destinies rested in their bodies’ reproductive capacities—put in place? What pretexts did they use to enter literary discourse, and how and why were they successful? How did they negotiate the boundaries between authorship and public spectacle? To what extent did women from diverse socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds negotiate these boundaries similarly or differently? To what degree does the diversity of women writers complicate claims of a unified women’s tradition?

To answer these questions, we will explore women’s writings between 1630 (the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony) and the mid-19th century, a period when women writers, many now long forgotten, enjoyed enormous popularity and success. We’ll examine a wide variety of literary genres in their historical contexts as we study the relationship between women’s place and works in early America.

Required Texts

William Andrews, ed. Journeys in New Worlds (Michigan)
Fanny Fern (Sara Payson Willis), Ruth Hall (Rutgers)
Hannah Webster Foster, The Coquette (Oxford)
Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Hope Leslie (Rutgers)
E.D.E.N. Southworth, The Hidden Hand (Rutgers)
Harriet E. Wilson, Our Nig (Vintage)
*Additional critical and primary readings on reserve


Two 5-7 pp. essays

Presentation on the reception, work, and milieu of a single author

Two responses to critical texts

Class participation

Reading quizzes

Tentative Schedule of Events

Week 1 "she was faithful in her place": Women in 17th-Century New England: Anne Bradstreet, Mary Rowlandson

Week 2 A Wider Net: 17th and 18th-Century Captivity Narratives: Elizabeth Hanson, Hannah Dustan, Mary Lewis Kinnan

Week 3 Enlightenment Voices: Judith Sargent Murray, Abigail Adams, Phillis Wheatley

Week 4 Women on the Road: Sarah Kemble Knight, The Journal of Madam Knight and The Travel Diary of Elizabeth House Trist

Week 5 Spiritual Identity:Some Account of the Fore Part of the life of Elizabeth Ashbridge

Week 6 The Seduction of the American Fair: Hannah Webster Foster, The Coquette

Week 7 Revising Puritans and Native Americans: Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Hope Leslie

Week 8 Domesticity and its Discontents: Fanny Fern, Ruth Hall

Week 9 Ain’t I a Woman? Slavery, Racism, and Domesticity: Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Week 10 Harriet E. Wilson, Our Nig

Week 11 Philosophy: Margaret Fuller, from Woman in the 19th Century

Week 12 Captivity and Domesticity—or, Captivity Capsized Harriet Prescott Spofford, "Circumstance" and "The Amber Gods"

Week 13 E.D.E.N. Southworth, The Hidden Hand

Week 14 Laughter as Resistance: Rose Terry Cooke, "Miss Lucinda" Caroline Kirkland, from A New Home—Who’ll Follow?

Week 15 Where Have We Been? Where are We Going?  Students’ and teacher’ selections from women writers today