At a recent workshop, I was asked about humor, how to be funny. I regaled the group with stories about American female humorists with the caveat that I had not written the book on humorists. Then realized, hey, I but DID write my Master’s Thesis on them. Why not share a bit about the history of funny American woman?
American women have always been funny. Since the colonial times, women writers have made a living writing humorous columns that entertained and united their audience. American women writers have also consistently addressed social concerns and women’s issues in their work. Absent from the canon and from survey classes for too many years, the impression is that over the course of American Literature, female writers didn’t exist, let alone write humorous material. For example, few people know that far from being the only funny American in the late nineteenth century Mark Twain kept company with female humorists like Marietta Holley and Miriam Whitcher.
While Mark Twain was writing about the western frontier, Marietta Holley took on east coast village life. Holley (1836 – 1926) wrote a series of popular columns collected into twenty volumes, referred to collectively as the Samantha Books. Historians estimate that in 1898 the volume Samantha at Saratoga sold about the same number of copies (500,000) as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
One of the first female poets to be published when America was just a new collection of colonies was Anne Bradstreet (1612 – 1677). Unlike the male writers of the time (Swift, for example), Bradstreet, like successive women humorists, did not create her humor at the expense of others. While her contemporaries in England and America used a woman’s appearance or her body as grounds for savage humor, women humorists did not directly attack. At first, it seems laudable that women, so often the victims of masculine aggression both physical and verbal, did not take the low road and vilify men in return. Alas, their reticence was not a result of their superiority but rather, their disempowerment.
What female humorists did do was satirize and criticize the social norms rather than specific individuals or genders. Women writers did satirize other women, but not for how they looked, which is something a person cannot help. Rather, they took aim at their sisters’ foolish choices. A woman who accepts the whole parcel of societal norms without once questioning the tenements is considered fair game. Blind acceptance and parroting of societal norms is grounds for criticism and just cause for a satiric column. Women humorists, even today, tend to avoid making fun of features or attributes that an individual cannot change. They will not satirize a colony of dwarfs for being short. But if a person can change, or at the very least has the capability of thinking and rationalizing, yet still remains static, women humorists will either point out the possibility of progress and change or as the centuries progress, insist upon it.
Bradstreet was ironic and political, but her irony and comments on the treatment of women’s subordinate place in Puritan society had to be quite subtle in order for her to avoid the very real possibility of sanction and banishment from the colony. In Bradstreet’s world, her humor had to remain fairly hidden, for if the men of the town interpreted her political comments correctly, she risked being driven out of the community and eaten by bears. No wonder, she hid her humor and her political leanings. Her discretion kept her safe, but it also caused her work to be unrecognized for years.
“If what I do prove well, it won’t advance,
They’ll say it’s stolen, or else it was by chance ” (Barreca 101).
Bradstreet, working within the extremes of Puritan society illustrates the limbo-game that funny women had to play. If a woman’s humor was social, political, and questioned comfortable norms, she would of course be a threat to that society. Yet there was the sense, for all women writers, that someone needed to speak up. So women humorists bent over backwards and moved under the societal bar very carefully so as not to fall.
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