The following is taken from Women of Courage, Ten North Country Pioneers in Profile, written and produced by the St. Lawrence County, NY Branch of the American Association of University Women (1989).
A North Country woman who achieved fame and a certain notoriety in her satirical books about women's rights and a woman's proper place in marriage never actually was married, but spoke with the voice of experience through her fictional heroine, Samantha Allen.
Marietta Holley was born on July 16, 1836 on her father's farm near Pierrepont Manor in Jefferson County, NY. Her formal education ended at age 14 and she gave piano lessons for several years and cared for her family after her father died when she was 25. However, she yearned to be a writer and was always scribbling verses on whatever scraps of paper she could find. She wrote both poetry and fiction and attempted to sell them under a pseudonym.
Once a neighbor reminded her about her duty to support the fatherless family. She predicted that Marietta would not earn enough from her writing to pay for paper and postage. She also offered to introduce Marietta to a widower who needed a hired girl to help him with his two children and 15 cows. The neighbor said that Marietta could earn three dollars a week, and if she suited the man he might marry her.
Her style of writing was often compared both in content and popularity with that of the famous Mark Twain. She used wit and gentle satire to prose questions concerning women's lack of rights in a then male-dominated world. her fictional spokeswoman Samantha, wife of Josiah Allen, speaks in a rustic dialect to poke fun at all sorts of claims and pretensions. For example, Samantha cannot understand why men are trying so hard to protect women from the effort it takes to walk to the polling booth and slip a piece of paper in a box. She has noticed that these same protective instincts do not apply to churning butter, baking bread, and washing clothes, which she observes take considerably more effort.
Samantha Allen challenged the status quo of social and political reality of the times and planted herself squarely on the side of sensible women's rights. She raised questions concerning history's treatment of women and their powerlessness before the law. She insisted that a woman, upon marriage, gave up control of her body, her property, her wages, even her personal possessions. She was not allowed to testify in court, sue, contract, hold title to property, sign papers as a witness, or establish businesses. A wife's will had to be signed by her husband in order to be legal. Husbands, even proven drunkards, had control of children after a divorce and were generally able to secure a divorce on broader grounds than were women.
Recognition as a writer and financial independence were slow incoming to Marietta Holley. It was not until 1872 that she received $600 (a substantial sum in those days) for her first book, entitled My Opinions and Betsy Bobbet's. This launched a series of Samantha Books - ten in all - which were widely read throughout the world. Some were published in England; some were translated into French. In all these she used humor spoken by Samantha to cover all the issues that stirred women to extricate themselves from second-class citizenship and to struggle for equality. She received large advances from her publishers, and sales of at least one of her books, Samantha at Saratoga put her on the better-seller list for the decade of the 1880s.
Flower Memorial Library in Watertown, NY has a full collection of her works in a special Marietta Holley room. Though she eventually became famous and financially comfortable, Holley always lived in or near her ancestral home until her death on March 1, 1926, at the age of 89.
A WPBS-TV Local Production - Marietta Holley was a Jefferson County writer of the 19th century whose work once shaped the entire women's rights movement in the United States. Hailed as "The female Mark Twain," Marietta Holley wrote in a distinctive colloquial voice that has largely faded from modern literary use, but is still fresh and strong in her books. Holley and her work have fallen into relative obscurity and are largely unknown outside of very narrow academic circles. This local documentary is intended to re-ignite awareness of her importance in the history of the United States and of Jefferson County, in particular, and to re-introduce her literary style and the flavor of her work to contemporary audiences. (Aired March 28, 2005.)
Download Program Script [PDF]
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