“Ida Rae Egli, editor of No Rooms of Their Own — Women Writers of Early California about California women writers in the 1800s, approaches her subject in both a scholarly and interesting manner. The title of her collection of women authors and their stories is derived from Virginia Woolf’s influential book, A Room of One’s Own.
Many historians have relegated the role of these pioneer women to four categories (“gentle tamers, sunbonneted helpmates, hell-raisers and bad women”) but none of Egli’s women writers seem to fit into those molds.
Egli sets the stage for her collection in her introduction, capturing the “differentness” of California men and women in the mid-1800s. Survival of the fittest was the rule as gold rush miners created their own laws, as the immigrating women learned to step out of their traditional roles.
These women found inner strength as they tended their own ranches, supervised the raising of cattle, managed dairies, vineyards and orchards, raised their families — all facing a multi-cultured populations that offered new perspectives on living. These women missed the safety, refinement and fellowship of Eastern cities but exulted in newfound freedoms.
This period of California’s history offered a unique opportunity for women writers. California residents were eager for a literature of their own that would reflect the unique populations, landscapes and social philosophies of early California.
According to Egli, “Young writers saw this as a new opportunity. California, they knew, was a cornucopia of untold tales, poems and dreams. Also, the intellectual spirit of revolution and personal freedom unique to the West Coast helped bolster the creative juices of even the most reticent writers. In and out of California readers wanted to see the real California.”
From the first, California literature sold because the settlers were cut off from their past literature and shared experiences on the rough plain provided a commonality between the audience and the writer.
But this prolific publishing period didn’t remain. California frontier literature lived about 25 years. The advent of the railroad directly affected writers and their ability to get their work published. The railcars changed the face of California — and its literature — the state was no longer an entity unto itself.
“These later pioneers wanted to replicate the streets, schools, operas and attitude they had left in New York City, St. Louis and Charleston. Church social halls sprung up across the state, along with Masonic Temples and orders of the Daughters of the American Revolution.”
The fate of women writers was sealed. After the golden years of publication, there were few publishing opportunities. The audiences were mostly conservative and not particularly interested in women’s literature.
Most of these authors have been unavailable to readers in the past. These characters are charming and carry a voice of their own.
Dame Shirley (1819-1906) is comparatively well-known for her readable letters while Mary Hallock Foote (1847-1938) is a professional story-teller. Charlotte Brown (1849-?) provides basic narrative of oral court testimony and Ella Sterling Cummins Mighels (1853-1934) reflects an almost current view on birth control and the purity of the white race.
Helen McGowan Carpenter (1839-1917), mother of Grace Carpenter Hudson of Sun House fame, was best known for her diary, essays and short stories, but she also wrote children’s stories and plays. “The Mitchells,” originally published in the Overland Monthly in 1895 is one example of many prose pieces about the “settling period.”
Egli, whose pioneer roots go back to pioneer Santa Cruz, was reared in Potter Valley. She is an English instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College, graduated from Sonoma State University before earning a master’s degree in American literature from San Francisco State University. The mother of a daughter and a son, she lives with her husband, an instructor of political science in Santa Rosa.
Egli attributes much of her ability to work on this project to her husband, Gus P’Manolis.
“He took care of the home front while I worked on the book,” said Egli. The book was an outgrowth of work and research performed for her master’s degree.
While she had to dig deep into magazine and newspaper archives for stories by white women in early California, Egli had to dig even deeper for even small glimpses into the lives of minority women. Her hope is that readers of her book will know of minority women’s writings and draw them from shelves and family chests so further illumination and understanding of the female experience in the West can take place.
The book is published by Heyday Books, in association with Rich Heide in Berkeley and is available at Mendocino Book Company.”