Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Women Writers - A Map for the Journey

March 23:  Today's post provided by Erica Silverman

Women Writers – A Map for the Journey
As a child, I didn’t know I would grow up to be a writer, but it seems there was always a longing inside that was pulling me in that direction.  I was drawn to words, to reading, to writing, to poetry. And I was drawn to books about the lives of creative people.  I consumed biographies of artists, musicians, especially writers.  I identified with them.  I imagined myself into their lives.  I didn’t consciously notice that they were all men until I stumbled upon – finally – the biography of a woman writer.  The Silver Answer – a Romantic Biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.    How I loved this book that opened up new ways to see my life.
Later as a young feminist in high school and college, I learned about many of the women written out of history.  My focus remained creative women.  I wanted to know everything about them. What was their creative process?  How did they learn their craft? Who helped them? Who hindered? How had they dealt with failure? With success? I was seeking a road map for my own writing path. 
And so when I decided to write about Emma Lazarus, I came to the task with that same hunger, the hunger of my childhood, to find a map for the journey, to explore what it is means to be a girl who grows up to be a writer. 

Emma Lazarus, whose famous words are engraved on the Statue of Liberty, was studious, serious, intense, and driven to write. By the time she was seventeen, she had written enough poetry to fill a thick volume that her father published for their family.  Picked up a year later by a publishing house, it received good reviews.  It was this volume that Emma had the courage to send to Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Her desire to grow as a writer was such that when he responded to her book with praise, she pressed him for criticism and guidance. 

Years later, her courage manifested in another way.  She became a spokesperson for the Russian Jewish immigrants who, fleeing pogroms, were arriving at New York Harbor by the thousands.  She chastised the Jewish community for failing to come to the aid of its immigrants.  Although she traveled primarily in Gentile social circles in which "polite" whispered anti-Semitism was common, she wrote confrontational articles condemning the persistence of anti-Semitism in Christianity.  While quick to explain that she was not religious, her Jewish heritage informed some of her most powerful poems.  She became an energetic activist for immigrants.  Lazarus turned out to be as passionate about politics as about poetry.  Being a Jew and a woman informed her writing and her politics.  She wrote, "Until we are all free, we are none of us free." 

In Emma Lazarus, I discovered a passionate, powerful, courageous, creative role model.  In writing about her, I was speaking to the little girl with a longing to write that I once was, and also to girls today who share that dream.

Another inspiring American woman poet I wish I had been able to read about as a child is Phillis Wheatley.  There are two picture books that introduce young readers to her moving story:

          Phillis Sings out Freedom by Ann Malaspina

     Phillis’s Big Test by Catherine Clinton, illustrated by 
                                           John Qualls

The filmmaker/feminist/educator Martha Wheelock has been exploring the lives of creative women, bringing them to light in beautifully crafted educational films. How I wish there had been films like this available when I was little!  You can find her films, about the lives of such women as Madeleine L’Engle and Berenice Abbott at:

Martha is also the creator, along with Kay Weaver, of a wonderfully rousing feminist music-short, called One Fine Day.  I just love this!  It never fails to give me goose bumps and fill me with hope.   
                Go see it on youtube:  
(you can also purchase it at
One Fine Day: A Film By Kay Weaver and Martha Wheelock

Happy Women’s History Month!
Editor's Note:  Erica Silverman is a librarian and also the award-winning author of beginning readers (Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa series) and picture books.  A curriculum guide for her newest book on Emma Lazarus is available at her website,


  1. Copies of your book are due to arrive at my library any day. I can't wait to read it. Best wishes and thank you for sharing your inspiration. I am lucky enough to live near enough to visit the Statue of Liberty, and have been there twice. It's an inspiring structure, made more so, by the words of Emma Lazarus.

  2. This is a wonderful post, Erica. I loved reading about your realization that you could be a writer too. Sometimes when something is so important to us it's hard to believe we can achieve our dreams. That's one reason why books by our amazing 'foremothers' are so valuable. Like Emma. And thank you for posting the moving One Fine Day video...

  3. I have been a longtime fan of Emma Lazarus. There was so much more to her than "Give me your tired, your poor." It was so sad that she died so young.