On women and the essay: An anthology from the seventeenth century to the present

Date of Completion

January 2004


Literature, Comparative|Women's Studies|Literature, American|Literature, English




This dissertation seeks to establish a working canon of British and American women essayists from the seventeenth century to the present. The majority of work behind this project was recovery, a literary search-and-rescue mission designed to track down women who wrote and write essays. Historically, women essayists have remained outside the crucial “orbit of attention,” to borrow Barbara Hernnstein Smith's phrase, necessary for exposing and validating their work. This dissertation aims to rectify that situation, featuring in full sixty representative essays, from Margaret Cavendish's “Of Painting,” published in 1655, through Elizabeth Hardwick's “Melville in Love,” published in 2000. It begins with a foreword, which outlines the scholarly bias and unexamined assumptions that provoked this study, as well as my research program and principles of selection. Next is a lengthy introduction that aims to map a tradition of women essay writers, a tradition to be read alongside and within the tradition of essay writers in general, heretofore defined primarily by male writers of the genre. In an attempt to prove that women have participated fully in the tradition of the essay since its modern beginnings in the late sixteenth century, it examines women's participation in the genre during each major shift of the form, from the early attempts of Michel de Montaigne's editor Marie de Goumay, arguably the first modern women essayist, and of Cavendish, the first women essayist writing in English. From there, it examines periodical essayists of the eighteenth century such as Eliza Haywood and Judith Sargent Murray; familiar essayists and newspaper columnists of the nineteenth century such as Frances Power Cobbe and Fanny Fern; genteel essayists at the turn of the twentieth century such as Alice Meynell and Agnes Repplier; early modern essayists such as Rebecca West and Virginia Woolf; and contemporary essayists in our own time, such as Angela Carter, Joan Didion, Anne Fadiman, and Cynthia Ozick. Following the introduction are the selected essays, arranged chronologically by date of publication. Preceding each essay is a brief biographical head note for its author. Finally, an appendix indexes over one hundred sixty additional American and British women essayists, arranged alphabetically. ^