Women of Valor


Poet or Poetess?

Emma Lazarus, 1849 - 1887

Many late nineteenth century American women writers, including Julia Ward Howe and Harriet Beecher Stowe, found success as authors. Still, they were often seen as a "damned mob of scribbling women." A well respected "poetess" like Lazarus was always placed one notch below male poets.Even admirers condescended to her—"She spoke like a man, but felt like a true woman."

Lazarus was well aware of her predicament, as poems like "Echoes" and "Sympathy" illustrate. But in spite of her view of the limits on women writers, Lazarus was outspoken about so-called manly themes like literature, war and religion. Her series of articles, "Epistle to the Hebrews," the poems of Songs of a Semite, and her impassioned defense of American literature are just a few examples of her influential writings.

After Lazarus's death, however, her embarrassed family scrambled to fit her memory into a more demure and feminine form. Her older sister Josephine published a memorial essay painting Emma as a painfully shy, "withdrawn" spinster, and "a true woman, too distinctly feminine to wish to be exceptional or to stand alone and apart, even by virtue of superiority. " Her younger sister Annie worked to erase Emma's vocal Jewish identification. As literary executor—and an Anglo-Catholic convert—she refused to grant permission in 1926 to reprint Emma's Jewish poems, finding them unseemly "sectarian propaganda."

  1. On late nineteenth century American women writers, as well as a citing of the Hawthorne quote, see Klagsbrun.
  2. For the "Spoke like a man..." quote, see Rabbi G. Gottheil, "Dr. Gottheil's Eulogy at Temple Emanu-El," American Hebrew 33 (Dec. 9, 1887): 78.
  3. For Josephine Lazarus's memorial essay quote, see "Emma Lazarus," Century 36 (October 1888): 877. Also reprinted in Josephine Lazarus, Introduction, The Poems of Emma Lazarus, by Emma Lazarus, vol. 1 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1889) 8.
  4. Annie Lazarus's quote is cited in Emma Klein, Introduction, Emma Lazarus: Poet of the Jewish People, by Emma Lazarus, ed. Emma Klein (Arthur James, 1997) 32.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Women of Valor - Emma Lazarus - Poet or Poetess?." (Viewed on April 18, 2014) <http://jwa.org/womenofvalor/lazarus/poet-or-poetess>.