I love blogs and articles that purport to be surprised that women are funny. The new humorists! How astonishing, women are funny!
Women have always been funny. Better news, American Women humorists have always, from the minute they reluctantly arrived on the east coast shores, earned a living being funny. Funny women are not new, Since the first English man convinced his wife or mistress to follow him to the new world, that wife and girlfriendwas compelled to commented on the experience. It was not complimentary.
In their work, American women employed the classic American humor technique – exaggeration. The exaggerated to express the marked difference between the romance of homesteading and the realities of outhouses, they exaggerated to express their frustration. They exaggerated because it’s better to laugh than cry. During the nineteenth-century women humorists began to speak in clearer language about the incongruities between the reality of a woman’s experience and the sentimental vision fostered by unthinking men and overly romantic periodicals. Not only that, writers like Marietta Holley, producing work in the mid-nineteenth century, clearly protested women’s restrictive situations and the fact that society barred women from exercising their real talents in satisfactory ways. Like most humorist, a strong message can be delivered much easier cloaked in a laugh, and women quickly became masters at the technique.
Who were the funny women on the frontier?
Marietta Holley (1836 – 1926) to quote Kate Winters, “from 1873 to 1914 one of American’s most popular writers with an audience as large as Twain’s.” She, like a number of early humorous writers, created a character to hide behind. Her Samantha was able to blurt out many truths that Holley herself couldn’t directly say. Which also speaks to the power of humor. When you create a person, when you exaggerate a situation, when you point out the follies of an idea in a humorous way, you earn more ears and hearts than if you deliver a serious, scolding articles. Holley go her point across with humor and articles written in the local dialect, which also probably served to take some of the edge off her comments.
“Well, you can’t put sense into a certain bump in anybody’s head if it wuzn’t made there in the first place––there are holler places in heads that you can’t fill up, do your best.”
Fanny Fern (1811 – 1872), By 1855 (the same year Leaves of Grass was published), Fern was the highest-paid (and first female) columnist in the United States, commanding $100 per week for her New York Ledger column.
“Well, then, negatively, I don’t want a literary woman. I should desire my wife’s thoughts and feelings to centre in me,—to be content in the little kingdom where I reign supreme,—to have the capacity to appreciate me, but not brilliancy enough to outshine me, or to attract ‘outsiders.'”
“I like that, because ‘t is so unselfish,” said Minnie,
Mary Abigail Dodge ( 1833 – 1896) wrote under pseudonym Gail Hamilton. She published her columns in the 1860s and 1870s and wrote Twelve Miles from a Lemon about her experiences in the west. While the male writers of this period, like Bret Harte, turned the frontier experience into one big exaggerated adventure, the women writers turned their reluctant foray into the wilderness into one long exaggerated hardship. An attitude that began creeping into the mid-nineteenth century writing was the uncooked kernel that perhaps a woman didn’t always need to be a good sport about all of this. Perhaps a woman could intimate – subversively at first, that she was not having a good time. “Now I am tired of driving cows out of my yard. You make me pay taxes, and you won’t let me vote; and the least you can do is to keep the cows out of my garden ” (Walker 114).
Frances Miriam Whitcher (1814 – 1852)
Creator of the Gossipy Widow Bedott, the Widow Bedott papers (1855) sold more than 100,000 copies.
In her introduction to From My Opinion and Betsey Bobbet’s (1873), Holley writes:
But still it kept a sayin’ inside of my mind, “Josiah Allen’s wife write a book about your life, as it passes in front of you and Josiah, daily, and your views on Wimmen’s Rite’s. The great publick wheel is a rollin’ on slowly, drawin’ the Femail Race into liberty; Josiah Allen’s wife, put your shoulder blades to the wheel.”
And so that almost hauntin’ voice inside of me kept a’ swaidin me, and finally I spoke out in a loud clear voice and answered it –
“I will put my shoulder blades to the wheel!”
I well remember the time I said it, for it skairt Josiah almost to death. (…)
“What is the matter Samantha?”
Says I, “Josiah I am goin’ to write a book.”
This skairt him worse than ever. . . ” (Walker 100).
There are many more humorous writers of course, but I wanted to point out here that if you too are a humor writer, you come from a long line of successful women. Wanted you to know that.
More funny women and their books:
- Mac Donald, Betty Bard. The Egg and I Philadelphia, JB Lippincoll, 1945
- Ballantyne, Shelia. Norma Jean the Termite Queen. New York: Doubleday, 1975
- Viorst, Judith, It’s Hard to be Hip Over Thirty and Other Tragedies of Married Life. New York: World. 1968
- Kerr, Jean. How I Got to be Perfect. New York: Doubleday, 1978
- Kerr, Jean, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies. New York: Doubleday, 1957
- Jackson, Shirley, Life Among the Savages. New York: Farrar, Straus & Young, 1953
- Skinner, Cornielia Otis. Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1942.
- Barreca, Regina Ed. The Penguin Book of Women’s Humor. Penguin Books: New York, 1996.
- Bracken, Peg. The I Hate to Cook Book. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1960
- Parker, Dorothy . The Portable Dorothy Parker. New York: Penguin Books, 1976