Women’s History Month Wednesday: Harriet Jacobs

The 2023 theme for Women’s History Month is “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories.” Each week I’m highlighting one woman from the past who wrote about women along with one contemporary woman who wrote about her. Women writing about women who wrote about women. This week’s installment on Harriet Jacobs and Jean Fagan Yellin contains elements of a great literary detective story.

Harriet Ann Jacobs (1813-1897) is best known for her 1861 autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Jacobs had been born into slavery in Edenton, North Carolina, and as a girl came to live in the household of one of the town’s physicians, Dr. James Norcom. By the time she entered her teens, Norcom made clear his plans to force her into a sexual liaison. Jacobs, determined to avoid this and secure her freedom, began an affair with a local lawyer, Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, and had two children with him. Still, Norcom pursued her.

In the 1830s, Harriet Jacobs hid herself in her grandmother’s attic and orchestrated the sale of her children to Sawyer, who eventually got them to freedom in the North. Jacobs remained in the cramped space for seven years before she could arrange to safely follow. In New York, she became involved in abolition work and in the early 1850s began writing an account of her life as an enslaved person.

A sympathetic white friend had purchased Harriet Jacobs’s freedom. Jacobs no longer had to worry about Norcom using the Fugitive Slave Law against her, but she still chose to publish her autobiography under the pseudonym Linda Brent, and she changed the names of the other real-life people in her story. She told an unvarnished tale about the sexual violence endemic in slavery, something long whispered about but rarely publicly discussed. Jacobs also worried about reactions to her confession about her out-of-wedlock relationship with Samuel Sawyer. It took a great amount of bravery to write such a revealing book.

By the time it was getting into readers’ hands in early 1861, the secession movement had started in the South. The Civil War would begin in April. Harriet Jacobs worked in Washington, D.C. to assist the formerly enslaved people who fled there for safety. She and her daughter Louisa operated a school, too, before they headed back South after the war to help the newly freed people. Jacobs ultimately returned to Washington, where she died in 1897.

Harriet Jacobs’s book was largely forgotten by the time the twentieth century rolled around. Most historians who ran across old copies of it assumed it was fiction, penned by an abolitionist to promote the cause. But Jean Fagan Yellin (1930- ), then an English professor at Pace University who wrote about nineteenth-century women, race, and literature, wasn’t so quick to accept that assumption. She combed through archives for years, looking for mentions of the work and clues to its author’s identity. In 1981, Yellin published the article “Written by Herself: Harriet Jacobs’s Slave Narrative” in the journal American Literature. Six years later, Harvard University Press republished Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, edited by Yellin.

The biography, Harriet Jacobs: A Life, came out in 2004, Jean Fagan Yellin’s expert narrative of Jacobs’s extraordinary life. Without Yellin’s willingness to ask new questions and explore new sources, Harriet Jacobs might have been lost to history for many more years.

Women’s History Month Wednesday: Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The 2023 theme for Women’s History Month is “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories.” On Wednesdays during March, I’ll highlight one woman from the past who wrote about women along with one contemporary woman who wrote about her. Women writing about women who wrote about women.

I’ll begin with Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935), a writer, social activist, suffragist, and feminist who was a member of the socially and culturally influential Beecher family that included the minister Lyman Beecher and the writers Harriet Beecher Stowe and Catherine Beecher. Note: Gilman didn’t always like the feminist label and her views on race were hardly laudatory.

(Photo: Francis Benjamin Johnston via Library of Congress)

While separated from her first husband, Charles Walter Stetson, Gilman published “The Yellow Wallpaper” in 1892, a semi-autobiographical account of a young wife’s struggle with post-partum depression and the doctor-recommended “rest cure.” The story received mixed reviews at the time, but has since gone on to become a classic piece of feminist literature.

Feminism and social reform intrigued Gilman, leading her to reject the tradition gender conventions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She was especially critical of the lack of financial independence for women. In 1898, Gilman published Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution. The book’s success turned her into an international figure in the women’s movement. Two years later, she remarried, this time more happily to her cousin, Houghton Gilman.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman has attracted the attention of scholars and biographers since at least the 1980s. In 2010, historian Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz published Wild Unrest: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” one of my favorites. Horowitz showed how Gilman’s experiences as a patient and then later as a writer documenting her treatment reflected the way nineteenth-century Americans understood mental health and illness. It’s one of the most interesting explorations of Gilman and her work.

Horowitz received her Ph.D. in American Studies from Harvard University in 1969, when “second-wave” feminism was at high tide in the United States. She went on to teach, ending her academic career at Smith College as the Sydenham Clark Parsons Professor of History. Many of Horowitz’s books, including Wild Unrest, focused on women’s history. Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-Century America, published in 2002, was a finalist for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize.

Until next Wednesday…..

Women’s History Month 2023

“Welcome to My World of Women’s History”

That’s the greeting I chose for the home page of this website. Once every year, during the month of March, it takes on added significance because of the observance of Women’s History Month. I’ve marked that month in different ways on my blog. The 2018 entry, for example, highlighted that year’s “Nevertheless She Persisted” theme with information about the lawyer/activist Pauli Murray followed by a couple of book recommendations.

This year, Women’s History Month kind of snuck up on me, even though I knew Pamela Toler would once again be running her excellent blog series, Talking About Women’s History. The first installment, featuring biographer Cathy Curtis, is already up, and it’s wonderful.

So when I finally looked up this year’s theme this morning, I was especially intrigued:

This Women’s History Month is not only all about women as historical figures, but it’s also about the women who have written about them. It’s like getting a bonus Women’s History Month.

Over the next four Wednesdays of this month, to match the 2023 theme, I’ll be posting a book recommendation along with some information about its author.

Stay tuned.


Queen of the West Wednesday Doubleheader, Chapters Nine and Ten

Chapter Nine. “Happy Trails”: Becoming a Television Star

After Dale Evans gave birth to her daughter Robin, attendants wheeled her out of the delivery room.

It was August 26, 1950, and the Queen of the West and the King of the Cowboys had a new baby girl. But the joy the parents felt was soon overshadowed by concern. Robin Elizabeth Rogers–Dale and Roy planned to nickname her Stormy–was diagnosed with Down syndrome and with an inoperable heart problem. Doctors were not optimistic about Robin’s future, but the loving parents took their baby home, determined to prove the medical experts wrong.

As Dale Evans worried about her daughter’s health, she and Roy embarked on another project together: a televised version of The Roy Rogers Show, a thirty-minute contemporary Western that ran on NBC from 1951-1957. The song Dale had written for their radio show, “Happy Trails,” now became the theme song for their small-screen show.

Chapter Ten. Angel Unaware: Faith and Celebrity

Dale grieved over Robin’s death but had no time to wallow.

Robin Rogers died two days before her second birthday. Dale Evans held herself together through work. She and Roy were scheduled to appear at the World’s Championship Rodeo at Madison Square Garden in about four weeks, a major event they could not afford to cancel.


Despite their hectic schedule in New York City, Dale found time to write about Robin. She penned her first book, Angel Unaware, published by the Fleming H. Revell Company in 1953. It quickly became a bestseller, and Dale donated the proceeds to charity.

And another bonus on this double edition of Queen of the West Wednesday, historian and writer Pamela Toler has featured me in her Women’s History Month blog series called Talking About Women’s History. I answered three questions about Queen of the West and asked Pamela a question about women’s history.

Women’s History Month 2022

My favorite  “rabbit rabbit” of the year is the first day of March, not just because of the good luck wishes, but because it’s the start of Women’s History Month.

On the 1st of the Month: Don't Forget To Say "Rabbit Rabbit"! - Farmers'  Almanac

This year, the National Women’s History Alliance has selected “Providing Healing, Promoting Hope” as the annual theme. It’s both timely and historical. We are still dealing with Covid, and many women earn wages in the health care field. Many more, as mothers and/or family care givers, are the front line health providers in their homes.

2022 Theme Products

Historically, women have always done the latter. And it’s taken generations of struggle for them to break into the professions to become doctors and nurses. Janice Nimura recently wrote about sisters Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell who broke the male-students-only medical school barrier in the 1800s. Olivia Campbell, in Women in White Coats, focused her book on Elizabeth Blackwell, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, and Sophia Jex-Blake. And my 2020 biography told the story of Dr. Mary Walker and her determination to serve with the U.S. Army as a physician during the Civil War.

Elizabeth Blackwell

(Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell)

My most recent book, Queen of the West: The Life and Times of Dale Evans, also relates to this year’s Women’s History Month Theme. Dale experienced a lot of heartache in her life. Most of it had to do with her children. To cope with it, and to try to help others in similar situations, Dale turned to prose writing. In 1953, she published Angel Unaware, her best selling book that has gone through multiple printings and editions. If you follow along with my Queen of the West Wednesdays here on this blog, you’ll probably learn more about that episode of Dale’s life. (Of course, the book tells the whole story!)

Hardcover Angel Unaware: A Touching Story of Love and Loss Book

I wish you all a happy, safe, and book-filled Women’s History Month.