19th Century Chick Lit

Capitola Black from The Hidden Hand

“The men are all dead! If any ever really lived!”

Susan B. Anthony from the speech, “A Declaration of Rights for Women”

“Woman has not been a heedless spectator of the events of this century, nor a dull listener to the grand arguments for the equal rights of humanity. From the earliest history of our country woman has shown equal devotion with man to the cause of freedom, and has stood firmly by his side in its defense.”


In the late 1850s, Sara Willis Parton (Fanny Fern) became the highest paid newspaper columnist (male or female) of her day when editor Robert Bonner agreed to pay her $100/column for her pieces in the New York Ledger. Considering many local papers still only pay about $100/column to stringers, it’s far from shabby.



This timeline chronicles women kicking some ass—through wit or revolution—in antebellum America (alright, I couldn’t resist throwing a few Brit references in there). I’m working on expanding it, but for now, it stops at the Civil War. Luckily, us gals have never stopped kicking ass.

1813 Jane Austen introduces the world to her spunky, independent-minded heroine, Elizabeth Bennett, in Pride & Prejudice. Later, Helen Fielding will re-imagine her as the ever-slightly-less-graceful Bridget Jones.

1834 American Ladies Magazine debuts, with Sarah Josepha Hale as its editor; it eventually folds, and she becomes editor of the pre-eminent women’s magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book, (imagine a combination of Vogue and The Atlantic Monthly) where she remains until 1877.

1837 Queen Victorian ascends to the throne in England, and the Victorian era begins. Sex is officially the last thing in the world you are supposed to talk about, ensuring it’s the first thing on everyone’s minds. In America, women begin to get organized in their fight against slavery, and the first female anti-slavery convention is held in New York City.

1838 Sarah and Angelina Grimke, two fiery South Carolina sisters, were told it was improper for women to lecture in public. They responded by organizing a lecture about abolition and women’s rights in Boston, which attracted thousands.

1840 The World Anti-Slavery Convention takes place in London, which Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott attend, but are refused admission—they return, pissed off, and determined to secure equal rights for women.

1845 Having been accepted into transcendentalist circles the previous decade, Margaret Fuller publishes her landmark intellectual treatise Woman in the Nineteenth Century.

1847 The gothic is going strong in England and brooding men are all the rage. Charlotte Bronte publishes Jane Eyre and Emily Bronte publishes Wuthering Heights.

1848 Major Girl Power Moment! First Women’s Rights Convention is held in July in Seneca Falls, New York. Earlier that year, the New York Married Women’s Property Act passes—a major milestone in married women’s fight to maintain and acquire property.

1849 Elizabeth Blackwell breaks the barriers of medicine to become the first practicing medical doctor in the U.S. Harriet Tubman breaks barriers of a different kind: After her own daring escape from slavery, she becomes a major player in the underground railroad, returning to the south to help enslaved men and women escape.

1850 It’s mid-century, and the country is at a major crossroads. Population of the United States reaches 23.1 million. The Fugitive Slave Law is passed, requiring Northerners to turn over escaped slaves to their Southern masters. At this point, there are almost 2,000 abolitionist societies, with over 200,000 members. The same year, The Wide, Wide World, by Susan Warner, is published; it shakes up the publishing world and becomes an immediate sensation.

1851 Abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe writes Uncle Tom’s Cabin in reaction to the Fugitive Slave Law; it’s published in book form, and becomes the first book to sell more than one million copies. This same year, fashionista and hell-raiser Amelia Bloomer (she was one of the first women to wear pants in public) introduces Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

1854 Maria Susanna Cummins publishes The Lamplighter; it sells 40,000 copies in its first month, ticking off literary elites like Nathaniel Hawthorne.

1855 Always happy to shake things up a bit, women’s rights crusader Lucy Stone marries Henry Blackwell, and (gasp!) decides to keep her maiden name.

1859 E.D.E.N. Southworth tells the tale of Capitola Black in her blockbuster bestseller, The Hidden Hand.

1861 The Civil War begins.