Women and Literature

By: Sylvia Grider and Lou Rodenberger

Type: Overview Entry

Published: February 1, 1996

Updated: August 5, 2020

Texas has a rich literary tradition, identified most frequently with the Anglo men writers of the early to middle twentieth century who dealt eloquently and dramatically with the birth of the republic, the efflorescence of the range cattle industry, and the discovery of oil. From the 1920s through the 1940s, Texas letters were dominated by the now-mythic figure of J. Frank Dobie, who was widely known as "Mr. Texas" and who exercised considerable control over what was published about Texas. Typical of many men of his generation, Dobie took little notice of the literary output of contemporary women writers or their predecessors. His indifference toward women writers was symptomatic of the prevailing temperament of Texas culture. According to James McComb, the "Texas Mystique" is "paternalistic, chauvinistic, wealthy, aggressive, friendly, exploitative, prejudiced, independent, optimistic, enterprising, boisterous." Furthermore, according to McComb, this characterization is "widely believed, casually followed, occasionally helpful, and painfully misleading." As McComb implies, the Texas Mystique is exclusively male.

Women, however, in spite of being ignored by the Mystique, played a crucial role in the development of Texas culture, both during the nineteenth century and afterward. Their role as homemakers and guardians of morals and culture on the frontier is undeniable, and female pioneers' lives apparently were not as romantic or dramatic as those of their male counterparts. Understandably, frontier women also succumbed to loneliness and despair more frequently than men did, and their mortality rate was probably higher. In part because they were excluded from the Mystique, the literature that Texas women have produced differs dramatically from that of Texas men. Texas women rarely have written about high times and shoot-em-ups on cattle drives or heroism during battles against Mexicans or Indians. Instead they have focused on the more human problems of personal relationships and maintaining quotidian stability during times of crisis. Women writers have also examined the universal qualities that sometimes get blotted out by the Mystique: humor, loyalty, betrayal, decency, paradox, faith, steadfastness. Women writers have neither felt an obligation to uphold the Mystique nor often consciously attacked it. Instead, they have ignored the mythic image of Texas culture and Texas people and have in the process produced another body of literature that is distinctive but not as widely known as that of the more traditional men writers.

Women have contributed to the full range of literary production, from poetry to short stories to novels to journalism to personal-experience essays to scholarly articles, monographs, and books. Although nonfiction dominates much nineteenth-century writing, the best-known and most extensive literary genre has been fiction. Especially among contemporary women writers, Mexican-American women have been actively publishing high-quality fiction that is barely known outside of the mainstream. They write about topics even further removed from the Mystique than their Anglo counterparts. Theirs is a literature born out of the distinctive Hispanic culture of Texas, of which Spanish-English code-switching is a feature. Their subject matter is survival, triumph, and serenity in a hostile or indifferent majority world. Women writers from other ethnic groups in Texas have had limited literary production. A number of African-American women playwrights are active in the Houston area, and other contemporary black women are beginning to publish fiction that is receiving statewide and national attention.

For well over a century, a limited but solid body of scholarship has documented the growth and development of Texas women's literature. The first known descriptions of Texas women writers are to be found among the compendia of miscellaneous data that were a fixture of Victorian literary and intellectual life. Ida Raymond's Southland Writers: Biographical and Critical Sketches of Living Female Writers of the South, With Extracts from their Writings (1870) is the earliest known literary history written by and acknowledging Texas women writers, who were classified at the time as Southern; the South v. West debate did not emerge for several more decades. Raymond's book is essentially a biographical dictionary containing brief entries on otherwise little-known authors. In 1885 the first literary history specifically about Texas was compiled and edited by a woman, Ella Hutchins Steuart. This ambitious work-Gems from a Texas Quarry; or Literary Offerings by and Selections from Leading Writers and Prominent Characters of Texas, Being a Texas Contribution to the World's Industrial Exposition at New Orleans, 1884–85-anthologizes both men and women writers, including a number of women whose names are obscure or otherwise unknown today but who were apparently well-known and popular writers in their day, especially as journalists. A fascinating and ephemeral source of literary history concerning Texas women writers, and perhaps the first piece devoted exclusively to that topic, appeared on successive Sundays in the Galveston Daily News in 1893. Entitled "Women Writers of Texas," this two-part article by Bride N. Taylor, vice president of the Texas Women's Press Association (see TEXAS PRESS WOMEN), consisted of brief biographical sketches of seventy-seven women authors, starting with Mary Austin Holley and concluding with a sketch of the modest Taylor herself, added by the editors. In 1896 Elizabeth Brooks published her biographical dictionary, Prominent Women of Texas, which includes a chapter on prominent authors. Writers and Writings of Texas, edited by Davis Foute Eagleton, an English professor at Austin College in Sherman, appeared in 1913. Interspersed among the men, Eagleton provided biographical sketches of nine women authors, with representative excerpts from their works. A supplement lists the names of 131 Texas women writers, with a notation of genre, such as poetry, or the titles of their significant publications. The next significant work after Taylor and Brooks devoted exclusively to women was Annie Pickrell's Pioneer Women in Texas (1929). The biographical-anthology format of this book underscores the tenacity of this genre of writing in Texas.

Spurred in part by the Texas Centennial (1936), Texans began to seek recognition and legitimacy in national literary circles. Subsequent literary histories focused on Texas as a distinct region and on the literary genres being produced in the state rather than on the biography of the authors. One of the earliest of these genre-oriented anthologies is A Century with Texas Poets and Poetry, published in 1934 by Vaida Stewart Montgomery. The dominant trend in Texas literary history during this decade was to identify Texas literature as part of the larger field of southwestern literature. Dobie's idiosyncratic Guide to the Life and Literature of the Southwest, first published in 1929 and originally the syllabus and reading list for his course of the same name at the University of Texas, fueled this identification of Texas with the greater Southwest. This shift in focus away from the biographical and toward the regional also brought Texas women scholars and literary critics to the forefront, along with a few men scholars. Topical bibliographic guides included Mabel Major, Rebecca Smith, and T. M. Pearce, Southwest Heritage: A Literary History with Bibliography (1938, 1948, 1972); Florence Barns, Texas Writers of Today (1935); and Sister Agatha (Mary Louise) Sheehan, Texas Prose Writings (1936). Leonidas W. Payne's A Survey of Texas Literature (1928) presents some critical and bibliographic material as well as biographical information on Texas authors, including a number of women. For many years these topical and bibliographic works set the standard for Texas literary histories and are still reasonably reliable, although dated, guides today. Some more recent works are Southwestern American Literature: A Bibliography (1980), A Bibliographical Guide to the Study of Western American Literature (1982), The Texas Literary Tradition (1983), and Range Wars (1988).

Since the mid-nineteenth century, the literary output of Texas women writers has been steady and varied. Although decades later many pioneer women wrote and published their memoirs of early Texas, Mary Austin Holley published contemporaneously with the events she described. Holley, first cousin and confidante of Stephen F. Austin, was a sophisticated, well-educated, and articulate woman who moved to Texas to start a new life after the death of her clergyman husband. Her visit coincided with the birth of the Republic of Texas, and her book, Texas. Observations Historical, Geographical, and Descriptive, in a Series of Letters, Written during a Visit to Austin's Colony, with a view to a permanent settlement in that country, in the Autumn of 1831, which included one of the earliest accounts of the Texas Revolution, was primarily propaganda designed to attract settlers. Holley, though the first, was not the only woman to write best-selling nonfiction about early Texas. In 1852, Jane Cazneau (writing under the pseudonym Cora Montgomery) published Eagle Pass, a vivid description of the two years that she lived on the Texas side of the Rio Grande. Nearly forty years later, Fannie Chambers Gooch published a similar description of Mexican life and society as she experienced it while living in Mexico for several years, Face to Face with the Mexicans (1887). Another book based on the author's personal experience was Teresa G. Vielé's Following the Drum (1858), an account of army barracks life on the Rio Grande in 1851.

Other women turned to fiction in order to write about the dramatic events unfolding around them. In 1855 Augusta Evans Wilson published the first Texas novel by a woman, the highly sentimental and romantic Inez: A Tale of the Alamo, a typical nineteenth-century potboiler that chronicled the travails of a romance between an Anglo heroine and her Tejano lover. Foreshadowing what became the hallmark of Texas women writers, Wilson eschewed concentrating on the battle of the Alamo itself, but instead emphasized the doomed love of her protagonists. In 1888, Amelia Barr's novel Remember the Alamo presented a more realistic treatment of Tejano-Anglo relationships during the turbulent period of the revolution. Twenty-five years later, Barr provided a detailed record of Austin social life and the city's upheaval during the Civil War in her autobiography, All the Days of My Life (1913). By the end of the nineteenth century, Mollie E. Moore Davis, who grew up on the San Marcos River in the 1850s, wrote two novels from firsthand knowledge of Texas life: Under the Man-Fig (1895) and The Wire-Cutters (1899). The Wire-Cutters realistically depicts the lives of pioneer women and would-be cattlemen during the infamous episodes of fence cutting in West Texas in the 1880s. The book appeared three years before Owen Wister's famous The Virginian (1902) and four years before Andy Adams's celebrated Log of a Cowboy (1903), and is therefore the first "Western" novel.

Women writers did not gain further notice as significant contributors to Texas literature until the 1920s, when they began to publish fiction full of social commentary. For example, Mattie Ruth Cross's The Golden Cocoon (1924), which went through five editions in the first year after publication, reflects the author's knowledge of the sterile lives of North Texas tenant farmers. A year later, Emily Dorothy Scarborough caused an uproar in West Texas with her anonymously published novel The Wind (1925), which depicted the harsh reality of the ranch country around Sweetwater, where she had lived as a child. Another contemporary of Cross and Scarborough, Karle Wilson Baker, was known for her poetry more than her fiction. Winifred B. M. Sanford's short stories, many of which were published in the American Mercury, came fresh from her observations as a curious newcomer to Wichita Falls during the 1920s oil boom. During this same decade, the most distinguished Texas writer, Katherine Anne Porter, began her career. She rejected traditional roles of women as too confining and began to explore women's interior lives in short fiction. In 1939, the newly formed Texas Institute of Letters honored J. Frank Dobie's Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver as the best Texas book of the year instead of Porter's Pale Horse, Pale Rider. In spite of this snub, which she never forgot and never forgave, Porter went on to national acclaim, while Dobie remained a regionalist. By the 1940s other Texas women were gaining national attention. Loula Grace Erdman, a Missouri transplant to Texas, won the Dodd-Mead Redbook award in 1947 for The Years of the Locust, a depiction of the separate viewpoints of five women attending the funeral of the family patriarch. Her other novels and stories, such as The Edge of Time (1950) and The Wind Blows Free (1952), dealt sensitively and realistically with Panhandle pioneer settlers, especially women and children.

By the 1960s, Texas women's writing had developed and matured into a more mainstream tradition, its primary Texas connection being setting rather than adherence to stereotyped Texas characters and plots. In fiction as well as other genres-poetry, children's literature, journalism, and scholarly articles and monographs-contemporary Texas women have distinguished themselves as writers dealing with universally accessible themes rather than narrow regional focus. See also LITERATURE.

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Sylvia Grider, "Women's Literature and History in Texas: A Confluence of Traditions," in Fane Downs and Nancy Baker Jones, eds., Women and Texas History (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1993).

  • Writers, Authors, Publications, and Literature
  • Literature
  • Women
  • Visual Arts

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Sylvia Grider and Lou Rodenberger, “Women and Literature,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 23, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/women-and-literature.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

February 1, 1996
August 5, 2020

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: