In this week’s women in history, I am spotlighting only a few of many important women in the history of literature.
Born in 1696, America’s first woman newspaper editor, Ann Franklin, was the wife of the printer, James Franklin, and sister-in-law to Benjamin Franklin. Ann began learning the newspaper business from her husband soon after their marriage in 1723.
Ann’s husband, James, experienced censorship in Boston and served jail time for some of the “wicked” articles he published in the New England Courant. The couple moved to Rhode Island where they could be more liberal, bringing the first printing press to the colony and publishing the first newspaper, The Rhode Island Gazette.
After a long illness, James died at the age of 39 in 1735, leaving Ann with five young children to support and a newspaper and printing business to take over. She did many commercial printing jobs in her first year, printing sermons, advertisements, and British novels to supplement her income.
James Jr. and daughters Mary and Elizabeth helped their mother run the business, now called “Ann and James Franklin.” Ann gradually turned over business responsibilities to James Jr., but ended up outliving all of her children and returned to the printing press at age 65. She hired former son-in-law and printer, Samuel Hall, as her business partner in 1761, forming “Franklin & Hall,” which lasted until her death in Newport in 1763.
Ann Franklin was the first woman to write and publish an almanac, and was also the first woman inducted into the University of Rhode Island’s Journalism Hall of Fame. In 2008, she received the Yankee Quill Award, which recognizes a lifetime contribution toward excellence in journalism.
Mary Wollstonecraft was born on April 27th, 1759 in London. While she had a relatively short career as an author, it was a very well-rounded one. She wrote novels, treatise, a travel narrative, a book on the history of the French revolution, a conduct book, and a children’s book. What she is best known for is her book entitled ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’, which is often cited as one of the most important books in the feminist movement.
During her early years, Wollstonecraft had a great number of jobs. Unhappy with her home life, at the age of 19 she moved out and took a job as lady’s companion to Sarah Dawson. They had trouble getting along and in 1780, she returned home to care for her dying mother. After her mother passed, Wollstonecraft, her sisters and her friend, Frances Blood, set up a new school together. Unfortunately, Blood got very ill and Blood and her husband ended up moving to Portugal to try and improve her health. In 1785 Wollstonecraft left the school to attempt to nurse Blood back to health, but saddeningly, her efforts were for naught.
After Blood’s death, Mary obtained a position as a governess to a wealthy family in Ireland, but Wollstonecraft didn’t get along with the head of the household and left the job a year later to try to become a professional author. She moved back to London, learned French and German and translated texts for a living. During her stay in London, she published a wide array of writings. She ended up moving to France just a few days before the French king, Louis XVI, would be beheaded during the French Revolution. She wrote a few more novels while in France, including her Memoir, and a History of the beginning of the French Revolution. She died at age 38 giving birth to her second child.
Jane Austen is arguably the best known female author from the 1700s. She wrote six major novels during her life. Born in December of 1775 in the village of Steventon in Hampshire, she was one of eight children of a clergyman. She started writing in her teenage years. Her brother helped her publish her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, in 1811. In the early nineteenth century, women were not allowed to sign contracts, so publishing a book had to be done by a male relative. It was through her brother that her publisher, Thomas Egerton, agreed to publish Jane’s novels, which sold well on release. At the time, the novel-reading public was quite small, due to the cost of paper. The first print run of Sense and Sensibility was just 750 copies. However, as they sold out, the book was reprinted and later books had bigger print runs. Jane earned a modest income from her book royalties, but achieved little fame as the books were published anonymously.
In 1815, the Prince Regent (the future King George IV) requested one novel to be dedicated to him. ‘Emma’ is therefore dedicated to the King, even though Jane did not like the reports of his womanizing behavior.
Just a few years after achieving modest success as a published author, Jane began feeling unwell, and, despite trying to brush it off and continue writing, her condition deteriorated rapidly. Jane died of Addison’s disease in 1816 at the age of 41.
Born in 1965, Joanne Rowling, otherwise known as J.K. Rowling or Robert Galbraith, is famed for having written the Harry Potter fantasy series, which has sold more than 500 million copies, becoming the best selling book series in history.
From a very young age, Rowling had the ambition to become a writer. She studied French at the University of Exeter and, once she graduated University, she took various jobs in London. One of which was working for Amnesty International, a charity that campaigns against human rights, and she still generously supports today. In 1990, she first conceived the idea of Harry Potter, on a long train ride from Manchester to London. She started writing the book as soon as she got home, but it would be several years before it came to fruition.
In 1991, she moved to Portugal to teach English. In Portugal, she met her first husband, Jorge Arantes, and had her first child, Jessica. However, she and Jorge divorced a few years later. In December 1993, she returned to the UK, moving to Edinburgh where she worked on finishing her first book. At the time, she was living off state benefits and bringing up her daughter as a single parent. When she finished ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’, she found an agent and they tried to get it published. It was rejected by 12 major publishing houses, but eventually a small publisher, Bloomsbury, agreed to take the book on. The only reason they had agreed was due to the publisher’s youngest daughter’s enthusiastic reception of the first chapter. However, she was encouraged to keep her job as a teacher, because children’s writers don’t get paid very well.
Within the first few weeks of publication in 1996, book sales took off. More and more were being printed and soon she was able to leave teaching and become a full-time author. After the book’s success in the UK Scholastic, an American company agreed to pay a remarkable £100,000 for the rights to publish the book in America. In 1998, Warner Brothers secured the film rights to the books for over $1 million. Due to both the book’s and film’s great success, Harry Potter is one of the most recognizable media products in the modern day. In December of 2006, JK Rowling finished her final book of the Harry Potter series which was released in July of 2007, becoming one of the fastest selling books of all time.
J.K.Rowling currently lives in Scotland, on the banks of the river Tay, with her second husband, Neil Murray. Rowling has three children, two with husband Neil. In 2017, according to Forbes, Rowling’s estimated wealth stands at $650 million. It would be higher, but she has donated substantial sums to charity. The global Harry Potter brand is estimated to be worth £7 billion.
I hope you enjoyed learning about a few important women in the realm of literature, and I hope you check back next week when I’m going to be talking about some important women that have helped make the world a better place.