Sunday, April 25, 2010

Beatrice Ironside

The January 31, 1807 issue of the Observer--the one that carried Benjamin Bickerstaff's resignation and the riposte of the editor, Eliza Anderson--was also the first one to introduce the name "Beatrice Ironside." Like Benjamin Bickerstaff, this was a pseudonym--in this case, a pseudonym for Anderson herself. But in the January 31 issue, it appeared only as a name under the masthead, which for the first time carried the words "by Beatrice Ironside."

It wasn't until the following week that the pseudonym appeared in the body of the magazine, under an editorial note addressed to "Readers and Correspondents" (who were, in many cases, one and the same). In a way, this is Anderson coming out of the closet, so to speak: it's both a description of the magazine and an invitation to prospective contributors, something that you might expect to find in a magazine's first issue or prospectus. The fact that this editorial didn't appear until after Bickerstaff went off in a huff leads me to suspect that, although Anderson was referred to as editor while he was still there, he was actually exerting quite a bit of editorial control. In any event, the rift between the two was decidedly bitter, judging from some editorial jousting later in the year.

In the note, "Ironside" catalogued the subjects the Observer would touch on--and a pretty exhaustive catalogue it is: the fine arts, history, poetry, fiction, even politics (although "Ironside" says that she herself "has never so much attended to the subject of politics as to entitle her to an opinion," and makes it clear that the publication will be nonpartisan). In this eclecticism, the Observer was similar to other "literary miscellanies" of the day.

And like its contemporary periodicals, the Observer relied on submissions from unpaid contributors, many of which apparently came in over the transom. Aside from Bickerstaff, who had now departed, Anderson appears to have been the only writer on staff, as it were. In her note to readers and contributors, Anderson thanked some of those who had sent in articles and poems and encouraged them to write more. (This included a writer she names as "Judith O'Donnelly," but then refers to as "he"--an indication, perhaps, that she knew the pseudonym was being used by a man.) Other contributors, however, were actively discouraged, including one who had sent "two or three pages that must be the production of some moon-struck brain ... We beg this gentleman henceforth to address us only in his lucid intervals."

One problem was that contributors were sending their submissions with postage due--so that Anderson had to pay for the privilege of reading these offerings, some of which "immediately found their way from our fingers to the fire." This was, as she put it, very expensive fuel, and she announced that henceforth all submissions must arrive with their postage paid.

It wasn't until a couple of weeks later, though, that Anderson, in the guise of Beatrice Ironside, would undertake the task of satisfying public curiosity about, as she put it, "what manner of woman our female editor may be"--and explaining the derivation of her pseudonym.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Sister Editors

When I first came across the fact that Eliza Anderson had founded and edited a magazine at the age of 26 in 1807, I thought: hmmm, that seems unusual. But at that point I didn't realize how unusual it really was.

I started doing some research into the history of women editors and journalists, and I was startled to discover that (a) nobody knew about Eliza Anderson, and (b) the secondary sources that talked about 19th-century women editors identified another woman--a woman who came after Anderson--as the first women to edit a magazine. For example, an online database identifying 65 women who edited periodicals or served as printers before 1820 doesn't mention Anderson. And her name doesn't appear in a list of over 600 female editors of the 19th century that appears as an appendix to a book called Our Sister Editors, by Patricia Okker.

That book identifies a woman named Mary Clarke Carr as probably the first woman to edit a magazine in the United States, as does an amazing book about Clarke Carr called Dangerous to Know, by Susan Branson. (Clarke Carr was the ghostwriter for a scandalous memoir by a woman who tried to rescue her lover from the gallows and kidnapped the governor of Pennsylvania; Branson's book reads almost like a novel.) Clarke Carr began editing and publishing a women's magazine with the charming name of the Intellectual Regale, or Ladies Tea Tray, in Philadelphia in 1814.

Not to take anything away from Clarke Carr's achievement, but here's the thing: Clarke Carr, and almost all the women editors of the 19th century who came after her, edited magazines for women. These women editors embraced their peculiarly female role, preferring to call themselves "editresses" rather than editors. But not only did Anderson predate them, her magazine didn't confine itself to what were considered women's concerns (cooking, fashion, household advice--along with some fiction and poetry). On the contrary, Anderson clearly saw the Observer as a general-interest magazine, taking on any and all cultural issues of the day--and she never referred to herself as an editress. And while the Observer wasn't primarily political--politics being a preserve that was seen as exclusively male--it invited and sometimes published pieces that touched on political issues.

In her book Our Sister Editors, Okker mentions that a woman named Frances Wright edited a general-interest magazine called the New Harmony Gazette in 1825--possibly the next instance of this after Anderson's one-year stint as editor of the Observer. But New Harmony was a utopian socialist community in the wilds of Indiana--presumably a more receptive locale for this sort of thing than conservative, merchant-dominated Baltimore.

Okker does quote a woman who had an experience similar to Anderson's own: Jane Grey Swisshelm, who was the editor and publisher of an antislavery periodical in Pittsburgh in 1848. Characterizing a male editor's reaction to her undertaking, Swisshelm wrote: "A woman had started a political paper! A woman! Could he believe his eyes! A woman!”

As we'll see, forty-one years earlier Eliza Anderson was moved to voice sentiments that echoed--or should I say presaged--Swisshelm's almost word for word.