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Abigail Adams. After a painting by Gilbert Stuart. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-10016 DLC).

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Adams, Abigail (11 November 1744–28 October 1818), first lady and woman of intellect, was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts, the daughter of William Smith, a Congregational minister, and Elizabeth Quincy. Abigail grew up in a prominent and wealthy family, descended from Puritan leaders and successful merchants. She had no formal schooling, both because of her recurrent illnesses and the limited options available to girls. Yet neither obstacle prevented her from achieving a remarkably broad and sophisticated education. She enjoyed the family’s well-stocked library, the stimulating company of educated relatives and parsonage visitors, and the attentive tutelage of her grandmother. Her studies ranged from Shakespeare to Locke, from Plato to French. She also began two lifelong habits: letter-writing to distant relatives and friends, and the practice of a deep Congregational faith....

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Elisabeth Sherwin

Adams, Alice (14 August 1926–27 May 1999), writer, was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, the daughter of Nicholson Barney Adams, a professor of Spanish at the University of North Carolina, and Agatha Erskine Boyd Adams. An only child, Adams grew up in a Chapel Hill, North Carolina, farmhouse. As Adams recalled in a July 1996 talk at the University of California, Davis (UCD), “I was one of those really horrible children who wrote poetry. I came from an extremely literary little town, Chapel Hill, so writing was considered a marvelous thing to do. For me to become a writer was not the least rebellious, it was conformity.” She described her family as “three difficult, isolated people” and her mother as a depressed person and failed writer. “My mother read all the time so I thought: ‘If I'm a maybe she'll like me’” (quoted in ...

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Harriet Chalmers Adams. Harriet Chalmers Adams. Harriet Chalmers Adams, 1908. Glass negative. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-DIG-npcc-19900).

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Adams, Harriet Chalmers (22 October 1875–17 July 1937), explorer, lecturer, and writer, was born Harriet Chalmers in Stockton, California. Her father, Alexander Chalmers, Canadian via Scotland, came to California in 1864 to try his luck mining; he later ran a dry goods store with his brother before becoming a mine superintendent and part-owner. Her mother, Frances Wilkins, had grown up in the Sierra Nevada foothills. From the age of eleven Harriet and her sister Anna had private tutors. Her mother encouraged Harriet’s love of reading, while travels with her father developed her interest in the natural world as well as the Native American and Spanish-speaking cultures in the region. At thirteen Harriet and her father spent more than six months meandering the length of the Sierras from Oregon to Mexico, cementing her lifelong love of adventure. As a young woman Harriet continued her indoor and outdoor studies and had an active social life. She was fluent in Spanish and spoke Portuguese, French, Italian, and German as well....

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Adams, Harriet Stratemeyer (11 December 1892–27 March 1982), author and partner in the Stratemeyer Syndicate, was born in Newark, New Jersey, the daughter of Edward Stratemeyer, an author and the founder of the Stratemeyer Literary Syndicate, and Magdalene Van Camp. Much of Adams’s life was influenced by her famous father. Circa 1905 he established the Stratemeyer Literary Syndicate, whereby he developed new juvenile series, hired writers to flesh out plot outlines he created, then successfully marketed the manuscripts to publishers. Exposure to her father’s career sparked an early interest in writing. Years later Adams recalled watching her father and one of his chief ghostwriters, ...

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Adler, Polly (16 April 1900?–09 June 1962), prostitution madam and author, was born Pearl Adler in Yanow, Russia, the daughter of Morris Adler, a tailor, and Gertrude Koval (called “Isidore” and “Sarah” in her autobiography). Later in life Adler also used several aliases, including Joan Martin and Pearl Davis. When Adler was twelve, her family arranged for her to be tutored by the local rabbi in the hope that she would receive a scholarship to study at a Gymnasium in Pinsk. A year later, before learning the results of the scholarship competition, Adler’s father sent his daughter to live in the United States. Traveling alone, thirteen-year-old Adler arrived in New York in December 1913....

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Ahern, Mary Eileen (01 October 1860–22 May 1938), librarian and editor, was born on a farm southwest of Indianapolis, Indiana, to William Ahern, a farmer, and Mary O’Neill, both Irish immigrants. In 1870 the family left the farm for Spencer, Indiana, where Mary Eileen graduated from high school in 1878. Following her graduation from Central Normal College in Danville, Indiana, in 1881, she worked as a teacher in the public schools of Bloomfield, Spencer, and Peru, Indiana, for eight years....

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Zoë Akins. Photograph by Arnold Genthe. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-G432-0608-C-001).

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Akins, Zoë (30 October 1886–29 October 1958), playwright and screenwriter, was born in Humansville, Missouri, the daughter of Thomas J. Akins, a postmaster, and Elizabeth Green. During Zoë’s childhood, the family moved to St. Louis, where Thomas Akins was postmaster as well as a member of the Republican national committee. At age twelve, Akins was sent to Monticello Seminary in Godfrey, Illinois, and later to Hosmer Hall in St. Louis....

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Albert, Octavia Victoria Rogers (24 December 1853–1890?), author and activist, was born in Oglethorpe, Georgia, the daughter of slaves. Details of her life are sketchy. Little is known of her parents or her childhood beyond the date and place of her birth and the fact that she was born into bondage; thus, it is particularly intriguing that in 1870, only five years after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery and one year after Atlanta University opened, seventeen-year-old Octavia was among the 170 students enrolled at that institution. Further details of her life are equally sketchy. Most of what we know is culled from information in ...

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Louisa May Alcott. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ61-452).

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Alcott, Louisa May (29 November 1832–06 March 1888), author, was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, the daughter of Amos Bronson Alcott, an educator and philosopher, and Abigail May, the energetic, philanthropic daughter of a prominent liberal Boston family. Louisa grew up in Concord and Boston, suffering from poverty as a result of her selfish idealist father’s inability to support his family. Bronson Alcott habitually sacrificed his wife and daughters by refusing to compromise with a venal world, most conspicuously when he subjected them to an experiment in ascetic communal living at Fruitlands farm in 1843. However, the Alcotts’ intellectual environment was rich and stimulating: Louisa’s parents assiduously encouraged her writing, and their friends included leaders in abolition and women’s rights, including the Transcendental philosophers ...

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Alden, Priscilla Mullins (1602–1684), one of the first settlers of Plymouth Colony, was born the daughter of William Mullins, a shoemaker, and Mary (maiden name unknown). She was probably born in Dorking, Surrey, England, though there is no record of her birth. Her father’s life is not well documented, but he may be the William Mollines who was brought before the Privy Council in April 1616. If so, his Puritan faith might have been the reason that he and his family joined the Separatists on their ...

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Bess Streeter Aldrich. Courtesy of the Nebraska State Historical Society.

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Aldrich, Bess Streeter (17 February 1881–03 August 1954), author, was born Bess Genevra Streeter in Cedar Falls, Iowa, the daughter of James Wareham Streeter, a farmer and miller, and Mary Wilson Anderson. Aldrich was the youngest of eight children and the only one born in Cedar Falls, where her parents had moved a few years prior to her birth. Her mother and several of her brothers and sisters wrote poetry. Aldrich began writing short stories as a child; her first writing prize came at the age of fourteen when she won a camera for a children’s story sent to the ...

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Allen, Elizabeth Akers (09 October 1832–07 August 1911), poet and journalist, was born Elizabeth Ann Chase in Strong, Maine, the second of three daughters of Thomas Chase, a carpenter and circuit preacher, and Mercy Fenno Barton. Her childhood was traumatic. A fourth sibling died accidentally, and her frail mother, whose medical treatments led Elizabeth to vow to murder the doctor, died in 1836. Her father placed his daughters separately with acquaintances until he remarried the following year. Four-year-old Elizabeth’s foster parents forced her to work, whipped her, and shut her in the cellar when she failed to meet their expectations. She had some schooling at Farmington (Maine) Academy. She wrote her first verses at age twelve; these were published in a Vermont newspaper, having been submitted without her knowledge. Eager to escape a grim home, she began working at thirteen, first in a sweatshop-like bookbindery, later as a teacher....

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Ames, Mary Clemmer (06 May 1831?–18 August 1884), journalist and author, was born Mary Clemmer in Utica, New York, the daughter of Abraham Clemmer, a merchant, and Margaret Kneale. Her father came from an Alsatian Huguenot family that had settled in this country before the American Revolution, and her mother had emigrated from the British Isle of Man in 1827. She received her formal education at the Westfield Academy in Westfield, Massachusetts, where the family moved about 1847; she attended the academy probably until 1850. A poem that she wrote at the academy was published in the ...

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Margaret Anderson. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-112044).

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Anderson, Margaret (24 November 1886–19 October 1973), editor and author, was born Margaret Carolyn Anderson in Indianapolis, Indiana, the daughter of Arthur Aubrey Anderson and Jessie Shortridge. Anderson’s father was a railway executive who provided a comfortable middle-class existence for his wife and three daughters. Anderson, whose chief interest as a young woman was music and literature, was soon regarded as the rebel of the family. After three years at Western College for Women in Ohio, she dropped out and made her way to Chicago, hoping to find work as a writer. After various stints as a bookstore clerk, print assistant, and part-time critic, Anderson decided to start her own literary journal. With little money but a great deal of enthusiasm and support from friends, Anderson founded the avant-garde ...