Autobiographies, Diaries, and Journals by Women Analysis

At Issue

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

Besides capturing first-hand accounts of historical events and social issues, autobiographies, diaries, and journals provide an invaluable means of recording women’s individual viewpoints and their lives, work, thoughts, and dreams. In addition, these self-writings offer an outlet for women to oppose gender restrictions and challenge patriarchal society. Twentieth century writer Anaïs Nin, whose diary encompassed her entire literary career, believed that writing a diary helped “to make the separation between [her] real self and the role-playing a woman is called upon to do.” The diary, she asserted, kept her other self alive. Most early personal narratives tend to be partial and sketchy and to focus on spiritual crisis and conversion. Although later autobiographies, diaries, and journals carry on the spiritual tradition, most focus on secular issues: social change, political activism, and artistic and self- development. Readers tend to become more actively involved in personal writings than in fiction and tend to empathize more with the writer. This, in turn, raises consciousness and encourages change.

U.S. Women

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

Although women’s self-writings maintained the British spiritual tradition in the United States, other forms developed: captivity narratives, abolition appeals, frontier diaries and journals, religious tracts, and political activist documents. In the seventeenth century, Mary Rowlandson recorded, in her captivity narrative, her treatment by American Indians. In addition to her chronicle of spiritual struggles, Puritan diarist Esther Edwards Burr presented political ideas and feminist ideals. During the Civil War, Southerner Mary Boykin Chesnut recorded her viewpoints on the war and on slavery in A Diary from Dixie (1905). Women’s autobiographies, diaries, and journals also preserved the history of frontier women in the nineteenth century. The journal of missionary Narcissa Whitman recounts her trek to Oregon, and the diary of Sarah Royce was published as A Frontier Lady: Recollections of the Gold Rush and Early California (1932).

Women’s narratives also serve to expand social agendas and religious movements. Diarist Alice James, sister of novelist Henry and psychologist William, called for social justice for the Irish poor. Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, published her autobiography Story of My Childhood in 1907. In her autobiography Retrospection and Introspection (1895), Mary Doolittle, a prominent Shaker leader, wrote of women’s equality in the Shaker community, and Mary Baker Eddy, founder of...

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Canadian Women

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

Early Canadian pioneer women’s self-portraits record their development in travel and settlement diaries. Unlike the self- writings of U.S. women, their self-narratives, often written as letters home, help these women to hold onto old relationships, record the new land and new relationships, encourage immigration, and, in a manner akin to early African American accounts, demonstrate personal growth in finding a place in the New World. Elizabeth Simcoe, the wife of Upper Canada’s first lieutenant-governor, revealed in Mrs. Simcoe’s Diary (1792-1796) an account of an adventurous life in the Ontario wilds. The Journals of Mary O’Brien, 1828-1838 (1968) presented her metamorphosis from a refined English spinster into a Canadian pioneer mother. Novelist Laura Salverson continued the Canadian immigrant experience in Confessions of an Immigrant Daughter (1939), which traced her mobile life from Iceland to Manitoba. Human rights activist Marie Campbell’s autobiography Halfbreed (1973) documents a life overcoming racism, poverty, and drug addiction; and popular writer Sylvia Fraser brings to light the idea of repressed memories in My Father’s House: A Memoir of Incest and Healing (1987). Both Campbell and Fraser continue Canadian women’s experience of overcoming adversity.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

Benstock, Shari. The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women’s Autobiographical Writings. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Blain, Virginia, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy, eds. The Feminist Companion to Literature in English: Women Writers from the Middle Ages to the Present. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990.

Braxton, Joanne M. Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition Within a Tradition. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

Buss, Helen M. Mapping Ourselves: Canadian Women’s Autobiography in English. Montreal: McGill- Queen’s University Press, 1993.

Jellinek, Estelle C. The Tradition of Women’s Autobiography: From Antiquity to the Present. Boston: Twayne, 1986