Never Say Never–or First

When people ask me what I’m working on, I generally say this: a historical novel set in 1807 that’s based on the life of a woman named Eliza Anderson, who was–as far as I’ve been able to determine–the first woman to edit a magazine in the United States. Sometimes, I’ll admit, I’ve omitted the “as far as I’ve been able to determine.” After scouring various secondary sources on the history of women journalists and editors, I hadn’t come across any earlier female editors. Most sources identify Mary Clarke Carr, who edited a women’s magazine from 1814 to 1816, as the first female editor, and she came seven years after Anderson. So I had begun to feel pretty confident that Anderson was the first.

But, just as one should never say “never,” one should probably never say “the first.” I’m currently reading a book called Learning to Stand and Speak, by Mary Kelley. It may sound like a manual for dog trainers, but it’s actually a history of women in the United States in the late 18th and early 19th century. The title refers to the explosion of women’s education during that period, and what women were able to do with that education in a society where many roads were closed to them. The answer, in a nutshell: do good works, teach, and/or write.

In discussing the last of these options, Kelley mentions an anonymous “Lady” who apparently edited a magazine called the Humming Bird in–wait for it–1798. That is, obviously, a full nine years before Eliza Anderson came along in 1807. So (in my own attempts to learn to stand and speak) I stand corrected, and admit that I misspoke.

Compared to Anderson’s magazine, the Observer, the Humming Bird appears to have been a fairly modest affair. Only two issues have survived, the inaugural issue in April 1798 and another issue from June of the same year. Undoubtedly there were other issues, at least between April and June, but it’s not clear how long the Humming Bird sang. And the issues that have survived are only four pages long, whereas the Observer ran to sixteen pages that appeared every week for an entire year.

More significantly, the Humming Bird presented itself as a publication specifically for women–or rather, “ladies”–whereas the Observer set out to appeal to a general audience. Initially Anderson tried to conceal her gender (even those who knew full well she was a woman began their letters to the editor with “Dear Sir”), but after a while, perhaps because the secret had gotten out, she came out of the closet. In an editorial titled “Speak of Me As I Am,” she acknowledged that “much curiosity has been excited to know, what manner of woman our female editor may be,” and proceeded to describe herself.

The anonymous editor of the Humming Bird, on the other hand, alluded to her sex in the very first issue, and presented her introductory “Address” to “those of her Sex who see fit to Patronize the work.” Like Anderson, the Humming Bird editor (or “compiler,” as she referred to herself) realized that there might be curiosity about such an unorthodox undertaking: “A Lady paper is a novelty in this part of the country [Connecticut], and many will predict that it cannot be supported.” But, she went on, “I find there is taste enough among the ladies to encourage a work of this kind, and hope there is spirit enough to keep such a work from sinking, if properly conducted.”

The Humming Bird‘s editor went to some pains to reassure her readers that her entry into what historians might label “the public sphere” wouldn’t interfere with her duties in the private one. “I know it will be agreed that it is a woman’s business to attend to her family concerns,” she wrote, “and that she has no business to be inquisitive about what is going forward in the world.” But she argued that it was possible for her, and her readers, to find time for the magazine without neglecting their domestic responsibilities: “I am not concerned, however, but that I shall have time both to clothe my family and to find entertainment which shall be satisfactory to you; and if you will divide the time properly, you will find time to do all your business, to read the Humming Bird, and to earn a small sum to pay the Printer for printing it.”

Anderson made no reference to whether or not she was neglecting her domestic duties. And to judge from at least one contemporary account, she wasn’t particularly zealous in that department. The architect Benjamin Latrobe, who wrote arts criticism for the earliest issues of the Observer, remarked in 1812 that Anderson’s house was “miserably out of sorts,” and that Anderson’s daughter was “not well attended to.” Anderson yearned for the life of the mind, for books–Latrobe reported that the house was full of them, and that she had 400 of her own, quite a collection for that era.

But while they may have had different priorities, both Anderson and the Humming Bird editor recognized that women, or at least elite women, were in a position to devote some of their energies to literary endeavors. The Humming Bird editor, seeking contributions, solicited “the aid of those ladies whose situation in life give them time and opportunities to write.” And Anderson argued that in a community where men were “almost entirely engrossed” by the demands of business, a woman like herself should have been applauded for trying to “promote the cause of taste, literature, and morals by undertaking the arduous employment of editor to a weekly paper.” (“But alas! luckless dame,” she continued, such was not the case.)

They had other things in common, too. An essay on “affectation” in the Humming Bird could almost have come from the pages of the Observer. “Can it be too much lamented,” asked the writer in the Humming Bird, “that the beauty and simplicity of nature should give way to the disgusting rules of studied art?” Nine years later, Anderson (writing under a pseudonym) complained of “this ridiculous rage for improving [women's] natural graces by the assistance of art.” Affectation was apparently quite a serious problem in the late 18th and early 19th century.

And Anderson, for all her implicit challenges to male authority, shared with the Humming Bird editor and most other women of the time a reluctance to follow her arguments to their logical conclusions. She may not have alluded to her domestic duties, but in other ways she subscribed to the traditional conception of the feminine role. While she published “political communications” (as long as they were “written well and with temper”), she protested that she herself had “never so much attended to the subject of politics as to entitle her to an opinion.” And she criticized the practice of public examinations at girls’ schools because it endangered “modesty, the sweetest ornament of the sex.” Public acknowledgment of young women’s merits might lead them to become “insolent, forward, and presuming,” she said. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to her that she was indignantly defending herself against those very same charges.

In the end, both the Humming Bird editor and Anderson illustrate, to different degrees, the dilemma faced by educated women in this period. They were, so to speak, all dressed up with nowhere to go: educated, but not employable–and perhaps afraid that if they challenged their assigned role too openly, they might lose the privileges and freedoms they’d managed to acquire in the preceding decades.

And in the end, it really doesn’t matter whether Anderson was “first” or not. She was close enough to first, and far away enough from us, that her accomplishment–like that of the anonymous editor of the Humming Bird–is impressive and worthy of note. And if neither of them is as modern as we might like in their opinions, we need to keep in mind what they were up against.

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