Women and wit in the early United States

Document Type


Publication Date



English Language and Literature | Literature in English, North America


"So many ahs! and ohs! so much fainting, tears, and distress" is how one early American female novelist described her own bestseller. Women's writing in the early United States is notoriously tear-saturated. After the Revolution, writers praised simplicity and sympathy and admonished female readers that witty banter was a selfish indulgence. This presentation examines how and why women's writing continued to advocate laughter by focusing on an unlikely source: the novelist Hannah Webster Foster. Foster is best known for The Coquette (1797), a novel seemingly so anxious to generate a good cry that it ends with an image of the heroine's tombstone. I will argue, however, that in The Coquette and especially in her second novel, The Boarding School (1798), Foster represents both the risks and the possibilities of women's wit. Through Foster's writing, we can gain insight into the ways that gender and historical circumstances shape how humor circulates, to whom, and why.


The slides for this presentation are not available.