Giving a voice to history’s unheard female poets

In 2017, I decided to buy a general anthology of poetry by women – a volume that would include voices spanning many centuries and voices from diverse backgrounds. I discovered to my surprise that there wasn’t one, and I resolved to rectify that.

I included many contemporary writers, but during my research I also uncovered a rich seam of women’s writing and wondered why I wasn’t familiar with many of the fantastic works in this hidden history, despite having edited five previous anthologies. These voices simply hadn’t been heard. A hundred years after women won the right to vote felt like the perfect time to share their poetry and their stories.

Ana Sampson

The canon of well-known poetry is stuffed with women, but they’re almost exclusively viewed through the eyes of men. I asked myself first why more women didn’t write in previous centuries. The most obvious reason was lack of education. Even aristocratic women received a rudimentary education compared to their brothers, with no grounding in the highbrow subjects considered suitable for poetry such as history or the classics.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning lamented the lack of ‘poetic grandmothers’ forming a tradition for female writers to aspire to. But it was more than this: for many centuries they faced ridicule and condemnation, as eighteenth century parents fretted that their bookish daughters would put off suitors, and male writers railed against women who diverted their attention from domestic duties to writing.

I discovered a wealth of beautiful nocturnal poems, and wondered whether that was the only time women could carve out to write, once their (often, in previous eras, very large) families had finally gone to bed.

Poetry is – as poet Polly Clark has said – an ‘elite sport’. It requires learning, leisure and liberty, all things men have enjoyed more than women throughout history. The career path of the Romantic poet – tramping off to rugged and solitary places to seek inspiration – was difficult for women to pursue until relatively recently. Their very clothes conspired against them, they had chaperones imposed upon them and nobody had yet invented hiking boots.

Women did write, despite all these factors, but for many of them publishing their work was unimaginable. Even into the nineteenth century, it was not considered quite seemly to for women to market their books. Selling your work seemed scandalously akin to selling yourself.

So some writers circulated their work only among their friends, like Catherine Maria Fanshawe whose famous ‘Riddle on the Letter H’ has often been ascribed to Byron. (She was rather well-connected at the court of George III, so her influential friends preserved and eventually published her poems.)

Many were only published posthumously. I loved researching Mary Leapor, an eighteenth century kitchenmaid who was fired for burning the dinner as she wrote. Ambitious and unwilling to let lack of education hold her back, she wrote plays as well as verse but died young from measles and never saw her work in print.

Some women published under pseudonyms. Some were published by others, relieving them of the stigma of appearing pushy – an accusation still wearyingly regularly levelled at women in the public eye. Anne Bradstreet emigrated to one of the earliest American colonies and her poetry was published back in London by her brother-in-law. Early editions emphasised her pious, Puritan respectability and the fact that she hadn’t given permission for them to appear – though recently it has been suggested rather hearteningly that she not only knew but engineered the publication of her books.

Even in the mid 20th Century Anne Halley – a German Jew whose family had fled the Nazis to America – recalled her writing being lambasted by male editors for ‘female self-pity’ and ‘kitchen sink imagery’, experiences that galvanised her lifelong commitment to fighting for equality.

It has been hard for women writers to get their work taken seriously, even when it has been published. Many of the women I researched also came from under-represented communities and faced a double barrier to recognition. Frances Harper was an anti-slavery activist who refused to give up her seat in segregated trolley car a hundred years before Rosa Parks made her stand, and Pauli Murray – who eventually became California’s first black District Attorney – was arrested for sitting in the whites-only part of a bus in 1940s Virginia. These women faced an even harder fight to have their work heard.

I wanted to tell these women’s stories, so researched the biographies of every writer included in She is Fierce. I was awed by them, from Knole and Sissinghurst’s Vita Sackville West to freed slaves to Bluestockings – who rebelled against 18th century society merely by discussing intellectual topics over tea.

From a tragic suffragette to campaigning Victorian ladies of letters; from civil rights activists to pioneering scientists and refugee schoolgirls these were and are incredible women who have produced wonderful work. In defiance of everything stacked against them, they wrote. And now – I hope – they will be read.

Did you know?

  • Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte originally published poetry under male pseudonyms as Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell – but their booksales were so disappointing, they turned to novel writing instead.
  • George Eliot was the pseudonym of Mary Anne Evans.
  • The seminal Penguin Poetry of the Thirties anthology included only one poem by a woman
  • It’s estimated that only 1% of everything published in the 17th Century was written by women

She is Fierce: Brave, Bold and Beautiful Poems by Women edited by Ana Sampson is published by Macmillan, priced from £9

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