“I am obnoxious to each carping tongue/ That says my hand a needle better fits.”
These are the word of Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672), from the Prologue to her first collection of poems, published in London in 1650. With its publication, Anne became the first published woman poet writing in the English language. Also, as she had emigrated to America with her family at the age of eighteen, she became America’s first published poet, of either gender. Anne correctly foresaw that many would argue that poetry was not a fit occupation for a woman, and had prepared herself in advance to stand up to the critics.
Anne was born in 1612 in Northampton, the daughter of Dorothy and Thomas Dudley. Her father was steward to the Earl of Lincoln. From an early age, she showed exceptional academic ability, and was more fortunate than many girls at the time, in that her parents believed that women were entitled to a good education, even though in other ways they took a traditional view of the role of women in society.
As a young girl, Anne spent many hours in the Earl of Lincoln’s library, became exceptionally well read in history and literature, and was fluent in several languages.
When Anne was sixteen, she married her father’s assistant, Simon Bradstreet. In 1630, when Anne was eighteen, her father and husband decided that the family should move to America, in search of greater religious freedom. (The family were puritans, and King Charles the First had made it clear that he would favour the “High,” rather than the “Low,” wing of the church.) Anne, her mother, and her younger sisters did not have much choice in the matter. From what she wrote later, it is clear that Anne was unhappy about leaving England.
Anne wrote that when the family arrived in Boston, she found “A new world and new manners at which my heart rose.” This quotation has sometimes been assumed to mean that Anne’s heart rose with joy and excitement. But from the context, it is clear that, on the contrary, she meant that her heart rose in protest. But she went on to describe how she “submitted” and “joined with the church at Boston”, though reluctantly.
For the men of the family, the new world represented freedom and opportunity. But it must often have seemed to Anne that, for an intelligent and freethinking woman, the puritan community of Boston offered even less freedom than was to be found back home in England. A neighbour, Anne Hutchinson, was put on trial, and expelled from the community, for no other crime that being an independent – minded woman, with a strong personality, who expressed her views openly and publicly. This must have made Anne Bradstreet wary of expressing her own strong and sometimes unorthodox views.
But in time she found fulfilment and self- expression, through writing poetry, while remaining to outward appearances a devout and submissive member of the puritan community.
Unlike the vast majority of later women writers, at least until around the mid twentieth century, Anne succeeded in combining a successful writing career with marriage and motherhood. She and Simon went through difficult times, but remained very much in love. It is true that in the decision to emigrate, Simon’s wishes and ambitions had seemed to take precedence over Anne’s. But he was supportive of her writing career, and took pride in her achievements. Anne and Simon had eight children, and were more fortunate than most parents at the time in that all eight survived to adulthood. Some of the most moving of Anne’s poems are those written to, and about, her beloved husband and children.
Though outwardly conventional, Anne was certainly a feminist. In a poem about Queen Elizabeth the First, who Anne regarded as a hero and role model, she wrote “Let such as say our sex is void of reason / Know ‘tis a slander now, but once was treason.”
Of course women had been composing poetry from time immemorial, but with no thought of publication. Many works of genius must have been lost without trace, never read by anyone, except perhaps the author’s family and a few close friends. The publication in 1650 of Anne’s collection of poems, The Tenth Muse Recently Sprung up in America, showed other women that publication might be possible. By the end of the seventeenth century, several other women poets had followed Anne’s lead in achieving publication.
Written for Sheroes of History by Catherine Jane Crosland. @Catherine_jane9
Find out more…
Read more about Anne at the Poetry Foundation website.
This book, Anne Bradstreet and Her Time is a thorough exploration of Anne’s life (and the Kindle version is only 99p!)
This site has a useful timeline of Anne’s life which you can also download as a PDF.