19th Century Women Authors
Some of the most influential women authors of all time lived in the 19th century. These women expressed their inner most thoughts and ideas through their writings. They helped to change society, perhaps without knowing it, through poetry, novels, and articles. Emily Dickinson, Harriet Jacobs, Kate Chopin, Louisa May Alcott, and Elizabeth Oakes Smith are the best-known controversial and expressive women authors of their time.
On December 10, 1830 a poet was born. When Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, no one knew that she was to become the most well known woman poet of all time. She loved her family deeply. Her father was a man of great reverence in Amherst and her mother was an invalid all of Emilys life. Dickinson had great admiration for her brother Austin. He married a woman named Susan.

Susan and Emily became very close. So close, in fact, that it was rumored that they were lovers. She wrote love letters and poems to Susan. Some scholars believe that there is an indication of homosexuality found in many of Dickinsons poems. Emily never married, which did not help diminish the rumors. Another rumor affecting Emily related to her sanity. It is said that in her later years Dickinson refused to leave her house. When company would come to the door she would run upstairs to avoid them. She only totally secluded herself from adults. She made gingerbread for the neighborhood children and played games with them occasionally.
No matter what rumors circulated there is no doubt that Emily Dickinson is a wonderful poet.
There is another sky,
Ever serene and fair,
And there is another sunshine,
Though it be darkness there.
She expressed her feelings for the loss of her mother, father, and close friends in her poetry. She refused to believe that Heaven was a better place than Earth and she showed her love of nature in some of her poems. She found nature superior to society and preferred it. None of Dickinsons poems had titles. Many thought this was because she did not want them published. Many of her poems are dark and mysterious but all are true works of art.
Emily Dickinson died peacefully on May 15, 1886. Only ten of Emilys poems were published in her lifetime.After her death over 1700 of her poems were discovered. She had bound them into several booklets. In 1890 and 1891 some of her poems were published. They received a great response but no more were published until 1955.
A sepal, petal, and a thorn–
Upon a common summers morn–
A flask of dew– A bee or two–
A breeze– a caper in the trees–
And I am a rose!
Dickinsons poems are timeless and will always leave one bewildered and amazed.

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Harriet Jacobs was born in North Carolina in the early 1800s. Jacobs never realized she was a slave until her mother died when she was six. Jacobs then moved in with her grandmother and her white mistress. The mistress died when Jacobs was eleven, and she was then sent to Dr. James Norcom. Jacobs suffered physical and sexual abuse from Dr. Norcom for numerous years, and she became involved with a white neighbor, Samuel Sawyer, simply so she could stay away from Norcom. They had two children together, Joseph and Louisa. Joseph was born when Jacobs was only sixteen years old.
In 1835, Jacobs escaped from Norcom and went into hiding for seven years. In an attempt to get Norcom to sell her children, Jacobs wrote numerous letters to him, mentioning that she had escaped to the North. She thought Norcom would sell her children if he thought she wasn’t coming back, but that never happened. In 1842, Jacobs made her escape to the North and managed to have her daughter, Louisa, sent to Brooklyn to be with her. They then moved to Rochester to escape Norcom, who was looking for her, and joined a circle of abolitionists that worked for Fredrick Douglass’s newspaper, The North Star.
In 1853, her employer bought her from Norcom’s family, thus releasing her from being a fugitive. In 1863, Jacobs moved to Alexandria, Virginia with her daughter. There they organized medical care for the Civil War victims and provided emergency relief supplies. In Alexandria, Jacobs made perhaps her greatest contribution by establishing The Jacobs Free School. This was an institution that provided black teachers for the refugees. In 1865, they relocated to Savannah, Georgia, where they continued their relief work. After two short stops in Cambridge and England, they made their final move to Washington, D.C., in 1877.

Jacobs wrote her only book in 1861, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. She used the name Linda Brent, and the book was published under a false name. The book ended with the freedom of Jacobs and her daughter. Besides her novel, Jacobs made great strides for the black community. Jacobs helped organize the National Association of Colored Women in Washington DC, established The Jacobs Free School, and helped many black refugees. She truly inspired many slaves and gave them the faith they needed. Jacobs died on March 7, 1897 at the age of 84.

Elizabeth Oakes Prince was born in North Yarmouth, Maine on August 12 1806. She was self-educated and wanted to pursue a career in teaching. But to please her mother, at the age of sixteen she married Seba Smith, an editor and writer from Portland.

In the Panic of 1837, the family went bankrupt and moved to New York. Here, both spouses pursued writing careers. Elizabeth contributed regularly to Godey’s Lady’s Book, Graham’s Magazine, and the Southern Literary Messenger. Many, including Edgar Allan Poe, praised her first book, The Sinless Child, and other Poems. She also published juvenile literature and wrote plays. The cause of women’s rights also occupied much of her time. A series of her writings on this subject in the New York Tribune was published as Woman and Her Needs in 1851.
1The recent movements of Women in our Country in the shape of Conventions, the one in Ohio, and the other in Massachusetts, have called forth from the Press one grand jubilee of ridicule “from Dan even unto Bathsheba,” as if it were the funniest thing in the world for human beings to feel the evils oppressing themselves or others, and to look round for redress.
There is a large class of our sex so well cared for, “whom the winds of heaven are not allowed to visit too roughly,” that they can form no estimate of the suffering of their less fortunate sisters. Perhaps I do wrong to say less fortunate, for suffering to a Woman occupies the place of labor to a man, giving a breadth, depth and fullness not otherwise attained. Therefore let her who is called to suffer beware how she despises the cross, which it implies; rather let her
1 Woman and her Needs, editorial by Elizabeth Oakes Smith
glory that she is accounted worthy to receive the testimony to the capabilities of her soul. But there is, as I have said, a class unconscious of this bearing; delicate, amiable, lovely even, but limited and superficial. These follow the bent of their masculine friends and admirers, and lisp pretty ridicule about the folly of “Woman Rights” and “Woman Movements.” These see no need of reform or change of any kind; indeed they are denied that comprehensiveness of thought by which they could hold the several parts of a subject in mind and see its bearings. Society is a sort of grown up mystery which they pretend not to comprehend, supposing it to have gradually grown to its present rise size and shape from Adam and Eve, by natural gradation like Church BishopsI wish to show that while she has been created as one part of human intelligence, she has not only a right to be heard and felt in human affairs, not by tolerance merely, but as a welcome and needed element of human thought; and that when she is thus recognized, the world will be the better for it, and go onward with new power in the progress of disenthrallment. There is a woman view, which women must learn to take–as yet they have made no demonstration that looks like a defined, appropriate perception. The keynote has been struck by the other sex, and women have responded; this response has been strong and significant, but it will evolve nothing because it indicates no urgent need. It has done well in one respect–it has raised the cry of contempt, the scoffings of ridicule, and this antagonism is needed to make us look deeper into the soul of things. We shall learn to search and see whether we are capable of bringing anything to the stock of human thought worthy of acceptance. If we can, bring it–if not, hold our peace.

1 Woman and her Needs, editorial by Elizabeth Oakes Smith
In the 1860’s, she published several popular novels. After her husbands death in 1868, she retired and moved to Hollywood, North Carolina. She died on November 15, 1893.

Katherine Chopin was born February 8, 1851 to a wealthy Irish Catholic family in St. Louis, Missouri. Her father, Thomas OFlaherty, an Irish immigrant, was an established and successful merchant who participated in many different business adventures. He was a founder of the Pacific Railroad, and unfortunately, was aboard the train on its inaugural trip in 1855 when it plunged into the Gasconade River after a bridge collapsed. Kate was very young at the time of his death, and never had many clear memories of him. Only a few years later, in 1863, Kates older brother George was captured by Union forces during the Civil War and died from typhoid fever while a prisoner of war.
The loss of the two main male role models in Kates early life forged the way for the powerful female relationships she had with her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. Eliza Faris OFlaherty, Kates mother, was a member of the prominent French-Creole community and an active participant in a very exclusive social circle. After her husbands death, Eliza became more religious and even closer to her daughter. It was during this time that Kate also developed strong ties to her great-grandmother who taught her how to speak French and play the piano.

Kate met Louisiana native Oscar Chopin, a cotton factor, in the late 1880s, and after a yearlong courtship married him on June 9, 1870. After a long honeymoon in Europe, the couple returned to the United States and established their new life in New Orleans. Although Oscars Creole father owned plantations in northern Louisiana, Oscar had suffered abuse at the hands of his cruel father and decided not to join his business. Instead, Oscar handled the sales, finances and supplies for other plantation owners. When Oscars factoring business failed in 1879, he decided to move north to his familys plantations in Natchitoches Parish, anyway, and it was there that Kate Chopin became acquainted with the Creole community that was to become such an important focus of her writing. Oscar never fully adjusted to his new life and in 1882 contracted swamp fever. He died from complications of the disease in January of 1883, but not before leaving Kate with six young children.

Kate and Oscar had six children- five boys and a girl. Jean Chopin was born on May 22, 1871, Oscar in 1873, George in 1874, Frederick in 1876, Felix in 1878 and Lelia in 1879. After Oscars death, Kate took her family to St. Louis and moved in with her mother in 1884. A year later, Kates mother also died and Kate, emotionally reeling from the parade of losses in her life, sought comfort from a family physician, Frederick Kolbenheyer. It was he who suggested that she start writing as a way of expressing her frustration and disappointment with life.

Kates writing career started when she published her first poem, “If It Might Be,” in a Chicago periodical, America, in early 1889. Critics argue about the meaning behind the poem, but several agree that the theme of the poem revolves around Kates desire to join her husband in heaven. She also published her first two short stories that year, “Wiser than a God” and “A Point at Issue.” “A Point at Issue” first appeared in the St.-Louis Post-Dispatch on October 27, 1889. In 1890, Kate published her first novel, At Fault. The book was published privately, and paid for by Chopin.

Kates greatest literary achievement, The Awakening, was published in 1899. The response to the novel was overwhelmingly negative; some critics said that it was pure pornography and that Chopin was immoral. Willa Cather attacked the novel and said that Kate wasted herself “on a trite and sordid theme”. Because of the terrible reviews, Kate was even denied membership in a local arts club, and many believe it caused her to give up writing (although she wrote several stories the following year). The Awakening originally went out of print, but was revived in the 1950s, and is now hailed by feminist literary critics.
The Awakening is a realist novel that examines the subordinate role of women through the protagonist, Edna Ponteiller. While on a summer vacation without her husband at Grand Isle, Edna meets and falls in love with “another,” younger man named Robert Lebrun. When the twenty-eight year old mother and wife returns to her life in New Orleans at the end of the summer, she quickly realizes that she is no longer happy in her social and domestic roles. Chopin next produced a twenty-one story collection, A Night in Acadie, published in 1897, which shows her growing interest in passion, sexuality and marriage. It also shows her “increased concern for the plight of women in Victorian-era America”.

During the time that Kate was writing she wrote only one or two days a week, reserving most of her time for raising her children. After a fifteen year literary career marked by success, failure and scorn, two novels and over one hundred short stories, Kate Chopin died on August 22, 1904 following a cerebral hemorrhage. Earlier that week Kate became fascinated by the Worlds Fair in St. Louis. Although in poor health, and warned by her doctor to avoid stressful situations, Kate spent a long, hot day at the fair. Later that evening she collapsed, and died two days later. She was only fifty-three at the time of her death.


Louisa May Alcott, the second of four daughters, was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, and raised in Boston and Concord, Massachusetts. Her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, was a noted New England Transcendentalist philosopher and educator who worked only sporadically throughout Louisa May’s life. Her mother, Abigail May Alcott, was descended from the witch-burning Judge Samuel Sewall and the noted abolitionist Colonel Joseph May. Although severely impoverished, Alcott’s childhood was apparently happy. Taught by her father, Alcott was deeply influenced by his transcendentalist thought and experimental educational philosophies. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s personal library of classics and philosophy was available for use to the young Alcott, and Henry David Thoreau taught her botany. Margaret Fuller, James Russell Lowell, and Julia Ward were only a few of Alcott’s intellectually influential neighbors and friends. Women’s rights and educational reform–important social reform issues of nineteenth-century America–were two of Alcott’s pet causes that often appear as themes in her novels.

Bronson Alcott founded several schools, but all of them failed, forcing Abigail and her daughters to undertake the financial support of the family. Later, Alcott often remarked that her entire career was inspired by her desire to compensate for her family’s early discomfort. Alcott taught school, took in sewing, and worked briefly as a domestic servant. At age sixteen she began writing, convinced that she could eventually earn enough money to alleviate the family’s poverty. In 1851, her first poem was published in Peterson’s Magazine under the pseudonym Flora Fairfield, bringing Alcott little money but a great deal of confidence. It was during the ensuing years that Alcott published, as A. M. Barnard, a number of sensational serial stories, which were both popular and lucrative.

In 1862, Alcott went to Washington, D.C. to serve as a nurse to soldiers wounded in the American Civil War. It was a short-lived experience, however, for she contracted typhoid within a month, from which she nearly died. Her good health, undermined by the long illness and by mercury poisoning from her medication, was never fully recovered. Alcott later recounted her experiences as a nurse in her popular Hospital Sketches (1863), which was originally published in the periodical Commonwealth. Her first novel, Moods (1864), pronounced immoral by critics, sold well nonetheless, and its success encouraged Alcott to continue writing. In 1865, Alcott traveled through Europe as a companion to a wealthy invalid and wrote for periodicals. While abroad, she was offered the editorship of Merry’s Museum, an American journal featuring juvenile literature. She accepted the position and became the journal’s chief contributor.

The turning point of Alcott’s career came with the publication of Little Women; also known as Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy (1868-69). An autobiographical account of nineteenth-century family life, the novel traces the development of Alcott, depicted as Jo March, and her three sisters. The work was an immediate success and established Alcott as a major author. She published four sequels to Little Women entitled Good Wives (volume two of Little Women), Little Men: Life at Plumfield with Jo’s Boys (1871), Aunt Jo’s Scrap Bag (1872-82), and Jo’s Boys and How They Turned Out (1886). Alcott was regarded as a celebrity and was easily able to support her family with her earnings.

Louisa May Alcott died on March 6, 1888, in Boston, Massachusetts. She was buried at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts. Alcott remains an enduring figure in American literature. Although some regard her portrayals of nineteenth-century domestic life as dated, she is remembered for her sympathetic and realistic portrayals of the maturing adolescent. Her most popular work, Little Women, was instrumental in changing the focus of juvenile literature to include sensitive works for young adults.

Nineteenth century women authors were some of the mo9st influential writers in the past several hundred years. Emily Dickinson expresses her love of nature through her poetry, and Harriet Jacobs shares a piece of herself and exposes the slavery of African American women. Kate Chopin invites people into her world of valuable life lessons that she had to learn the hard way. Louisa May Alcott gave us timeless fiction that captures our imaginations and our hearts. Elizabeth Oakes Smith wrote about womens suffrage and sparked new ideas for a new, equal society. These women are just a handful of the great and controversial writers of the 19th century that have had a great impact in todays society. Without these women and their tremendous talent for writing, we would not truly know what great literature is.

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