It seems sisters were doing it for themselves a lot earlier than it was first thought. While the suffragettes are rightly credited with blazing a trail for women?s rights, and women such as Germaine Greer have taken up the mantle in more recent years, Victorian working-class women writers were making their mark for recognition through the strength of the pen.
That?s according to Dr Margaret Forsyth, Faculty Partnership Officer at Edge Hill University, who works in this specialised and under-researched field. Responding to growing interest in non-traditional writing, Dr Forsyth?s research has unearthed poetry from the nineteenth century that offers a fascinating insight into the lesser known writers who were active at that time.
The poems and autobiographical material that accompanied them, provide an insight into the period, with writing on industrialisation, the quest for self improvement, and self-education. Dr Forsyth has also discovered that writing was very much a way for working-class women to gain status.
The findings negate the widely held belief that women were only employed in factories or as servants to wealthy families, and confirms that, whilst women were rarely valued as workers, writing was a way for them to achieve literary recognition and some degree of prominence within their own communities
Discussion around women?s writing from the Victorian period tends to focus heavily on the works of Eliot and Gaskell, or Rossetti and Barrett-Browning with little else receiving much critical attention. However, after combing through periodicals and volumes of poetry from the time, Dr Forsyth has uncovered working-class women who were recording working and community life, alongside more traditional subjects of poetry.
Ellen Johnson, for example, wrote about how she suffered abuse at the hands of her stepfather and gave birth to an illegitimate child, a subject that was taboo at the time, while Janet Hamilton wrote about how industrialisation was gradually destroying quaint villages around Glasgow, creating one large urban area.
Speaking of her research, Dr Forsyth commented:
“It?s been fascinating and exciting to discover working-class women writers and their works, particularly as the university?s status as a developing centre of expertise in nineteenth-century popular culture is about to gain prominence through the launch of a major online database of resource material drawn from working-class writing.”
The database will provide valuable resource material for students and researchers. An online journal is also part of the future development of the project.