Women have had a hand in shaping history, through their roles as activists, educators, laborers, scientists, artists, and intellectuals. The writing they leave behind is a physical and lasting manifestation of their ideas. It teaches us about the diversity of their experiences and desires; and it guides us in building and improving upon their work. The rare documents gathered here speak to women’s complex identities, and to how women infuse themselves into their efforts to improve the world. Some women, like Aphra Behn, Lydia Huntley Sigourney, and Angelina W. Grimke broke through glass ceilings by creating art that also set new literary precedents—the first professional female playwright, the first commercially successful American female poet, the first African American woman to publish a play. And still others, like Jane Addams and Angela Davis, dissatisfied with the damaging political systems around them, protested vocally and in print, encouraging women readers to continue passing along their books to grow their movements. In her own way, each of these women published to improve conditions for other women—even in circumstances where sexual identity or race put them at risk for increased persecution compared to what their more privileged sisters faced.
As gender equality and human rights remain prescient, honoring the contributions of these remarkable women to literature, civic engagement, political activism, and women’s rights is quintessential to the perpetuation of progress and growth.