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The Written Word – Victorian Women’s Periodicals
By Kathryn Pritchett
March 3, 2023

March is Women’s History Month, which is pretty much EVERY month for us Paper Lantern Writers. But this March we’re focusing on the Written Word and so I’ve been thinking about what my homesteading protagonist would have read. I doubt she owned many books beyond religious texts and there were no public lending libraries in Utah Territory until the turn of the century—thirty years after she arrived. But periodicals flourished during this time, so she would likely have read newspapers or magazines—even some written by and for women.

The end of the nineteenth century saw a boom in women’s periodicals both abroad and in America. Advancements in printing and postal services as well as the desire to articulate Victorian ideals of womanhood all contributed to women reading and writing for these new publications.

Aside from well-known fashion magazines like Godey’s Lady’s Book and Peterson’s Ladies’ National Magazine, many of these periodicals grew out of organizations that promoted religious or social movements.  From 1880 -1883, Utah Territory boasted two such periodicals produced by and for women—the Mormon Woman’s Exponent and the non-Mormon Anti-Polygamy Standard. They were ideologically opposed on the issue of polygamy, but both “supported religious commitment, self-improvement, community involvement and social reform, at the same time stressing the primacy of home and family in women’s lives,” writes historian Sherilyn Cox Bennion.

Their content reflects the complex, literary women who shaped these periodicals. The Woman’s Exponent editor, Emmeline B. Wells, was born on Leap Year, the seventh polygamous wife of a prominent Mormon and mother to five children. A scholar and prolific writer, she wrote under two pseudonyms—Blanche Beechwood, who wrote fiery political prose and Aunt Em, who dispensed domestic advice. Under her own name, she often advocated for women’s suffrage.

Jennie A. Froiseth helmed the Anti-Polygamy Standard. An Irish immigrant, she traveled to Utah Territory with her brother where she met and married a former Civil War officer. Also a mother of five, she was a fierce anti-polygamy crusader who believed strongly in women’s rights and became the vice president of the Utah Women’s Suffrage Association. Though the Standard only lasted 3 years (the Exponent would remain in publication until 1914), Froiseth gave voice to women who left polygamous marriages. She would eventually compile their stories into The Women of Mormonism.

The Exponent was affiliated with the LDS church, but the Standard also had religious ties and covered events such as the cornerstone laying for St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Both publications tackled pressing issues of the time that had little to do with religion. Concerns they shared included female education, temperance and suffrage. (Once the LDS church officially abandoned polygamy in 1890, rival editors Wells and Froiseth worked together to organize women in the newly founded Republican party of Utah.)

Practicing Victorian Domestic Arts

Each publication also championed domestic arts. The Standard featured “A Housekeeper’s Corner” that gave laundry tips and described how the Japanese cooked rice. The Exponent told readers how to care for house plants and what home remedies to stock. They promoted traditional womanly virtues but also encouraged women to engage in noble pursuits outside the home.

“Their papers illustrate the increasingly common phenomenon of women’s endorsing the tradition of a ‘women’s sphere’ while stretching its boundaries,” writes Bennion.

Stretching boundaries is something we Paper Lantern Writers aspire to as we write about women in history. What periodicals have shaped your perspective—or your protagonist’s perspective—on “the women’s sphere”?

Kathryn Pritchett
Written by Kathryn Pritchett

Kathryn Pritchett writes about strong women forged in the American West. To interact with her and the other Paper Lantern Writers, join us in our Facebook group SHINE, on Instagram, and Twitter.

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