In the introduction, Stowell clearly announces the intention of portraying only those women who struggled to write “in the days before women had met men on equal terms in literature and art.” She emphasizes the dual hardship that they faced—of writing works of a quality that would be respected and accepted by the public and of circumventing the rejection of these works simply because they were written by women. She notes that many of the authors portrayed in Quill Pens and Petticoats used men’s names to avoid being rejected summarily, without a fair consideration of the merits of their work. While she is unstinting in her sympathy for and approval of her subjects, she avoids overt criticism of the society that forced them into so narrow a role. She also does not attack the weak or unsavory males who kept these authors in that place and who often tried to keep them from living their own lives.
Stowell’s overwhelming compassion and admiration for the women she portrays are obvious, as she depicts the often difficult lives that they led but that did not deter them from their writing. For example, although Mary Russell Mitford’s father was a doctor, he seldom practiced and soon gambled away the family fortune. In spite of her painful rheumatism, Mitford worked diligently at her writing to support him, considered it a privilege, and “never lost her cheerful spirit.” Similarly, Charlotte Brontë watched as her beloved brother and...
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Stowell’s collection of short biographical sketches of women writers of the past introduces the young reader to several considerations. Published in 1970, during a time of intense growth for the feminist movement and the concurrent upsurge of interest in civil rights and minority issues, Quill Pens and Petticoats focuses on the gross injustices suffered by women who refused to accept only what society would allow them. It draws attention to the hardships suffered by women who desired to live outside the accepted boundaries imposed upon them by a restrictive society; by extension, it may also draw the reader’s attention to continuing inequities of opportunity between men and women. Furthermore, the book suggests that rich rewards resulted from the adherence to this nonconformist behavior; while few of the women received the credit that they deserved during their lifetimes, those who did found great satisfaction from their writing. In addition, society itself has discovered lasting pleasure and value in the works produced by these tenacious and talented women.