Painting by Santa Duran

As a female writer who grew up in the South, I found myself immediately drawn to Catherine Kerrison’s Claiming the Pen: Women and Intellectual Life in the Early American South. The first chapter of the book focuses on context: What time period are we focusing on? What challenges or constraints did these women face during this time? What did these women write/read?

In the early 1800’s, women were able to choose what they wanted to read. Women were no longer restricted when it came to reading; they were able to choose books based on their interests. Kerrison uses Lady Jean Skipwith as an example. Her library showed her interest in travel, history, geography, and gardening. Women were beginning to have greater access to knowledge — something that had, in the past, been a rarity.

Although women’s access to literature was improving, there was still much to be desired in terms of education. There was no ‘organized’ education for women, and this affected everyday life in the early American South. Men focused on reading about medicine or law while women were expected to read religious texts or what Kerrison calls ‘advice literature’.

‘Advice literature’ can be compared to the advice columns we see in magazines or newspapers today. This might seem trivial, but for women back in the 1800’s, it was their way of sharing and creating information. Some of the first writings from women during that time period can be traced back to advice literature.

Despite the increased level of power that men had in comparison to women at that time, it is clear that spaces for women (and created by women) were beginning to emerge. Many women were longing for knowledge so they could better understand themselves, their families, and the world around them. They fought for intellectual equality, moving toward independence instead of relying on their parents or husbands.

Looking at southern women’s writings in the American South can be complicated. There are multiple factors — such as race and wealth — that I fail to mention in this post, but they are still vital parts of not only print culture, but the rise of female authors.

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