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History of US Women in Printing

This blog was submitted by our very own intern, Elena Johnston ...

In the times of the women's march, intersectional feminism, and a possible female vice president, I have beenreflecting on the role of women in the industry—including the printing industry. This is the first entry in a series about women in printing. There is nowhere else to start than in our home country, and when else to start but at the beginning.

In a country where men dominated so much of early history, it is interesting to note that printing was brought to America by a woman. Elizabeth Glover was the first person in the US colonies to own a printing press. Her husband, Joseph Glover, bought the press from England. It would be the second press in the New World and the first in the colonies. While her husband purchased the press, it was Elizabeth who would establish the press in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1638. She enlisted the help of indentured servant Stephan Daye to help run the press. During her tenure, Elizabeth printed several documents, including Freeman's oath written by John Winthrop and Bay Psalm Book, of which 1700 copies were printed. Elizabeth Glover died in June of 1643, and while Daye and others tried to keep the press going, the press came to an end shortly after. The printing press was donated to Harvard University. It was the catalyst for the Harvard University Press, a publishing house that is still used today and is one of the largest presses for academic works in the world. The first press in the US created a legacy of education and women empowerment, a strong legacy indeed.

Another woman in colonial printing was none other than the sister-in-law of Ben Franklin, Ann Franklin. A Boston native, much like Elizabeth Glover, Ann was raised in a cerebral household and married printer, James Franklin. And at the age of twenty-seven, the two moved to Rhode Island and set up a paper. Acting as his assistant at first, Ann helped run the Rhode Island Gazette. This press would be the one that Ben Franklin learned to set type when he was young. After her husband's death and the Gazette's ruin, Ann found work with the General Assembly of Rhode Island, becoming the official printer of the General Assembly. And while she could not yet vote, Ann was responsible for printing ballots and critical legal documents and currency.

In 1741, Franklin became the sole printer of the most famous Franklin's almanac, an almanac that thousands read and still endures the test of history. However, the pinnacle of her career happened in 1758 when she created the Newport Mercury with her son James. She was editor until she died in 1763. The paper is still being published today (as a side note, on a recent trip to Rhode Island, I had the pleasure to pick up a copy of the paper, a charming small-town paper, exhibiting New England culture). Ann Franklin was the first woman to be inducted into the journalism hall of fame at the University of Rhode Island. Her papers can be found in the journalism library at Brown University.

The last woman to be featured here (although there are so many women in US history that contributed to printing) is the first African American woman printer, Mary Ann Shadd. She founded the Provincial Freeman in 1853. Her paper was printed in Canada; Mary Ann had fled her home of Delaware after the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 threatened her free birth. Although she settled in Canada, she remained faithful to African American roots, often discussing racial justice and independence. The masthead of her paper read, "'Self-reliance is the True Road to Independence." She was a fiercely strong woman who often was called "unladylike" for working in a white male-dominated field. She was a great political debater and an abolitionist in her own right. William Wells-Brown, the first published African American novelist, spoke highly of her.

Unlike her white female counterparts listed above, Mary Ann did not hold the same educational background due to her race. However, she was still able to create a successful paper, proving that one did not need formal training to succeed in the printing industry. Mary Ann's legacy as a Canadian printer is also incredibly influential was, she was the first female printer in Canadian history. Her paper was circulated through the Northern states and was often given to slaves hidden in the underground railroad as inspiration and news sources.

Along with Frederick Douglass, Mary Ann used her paper to uplift Black creatives' voices and was an advocate for Black education. The final edition of the Provisional Freeman was published in 1861, shortly before the civil war began. Following the civil war, she moved back to the US and attended Howard University's Law School. She was the second Black woman to receive a law degree. Her career as a lawyer was just as impressive as her career as a printer. She founded the Colored Women's Progressive Franchise. Towards the end of her life, she represented women's suffrage, testifying in front of the House Judiciary Committee alongside Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She was the first African American woman to vote in an election. Throughout history, she is celebrated for her work, being inducted to the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1998.

All three of the women featured have given so much to history. They are writers, academics, activists, printers, and, most importantly, women. We have much to owe to Elizabeth Glover, Ann Franklin, and Mary Ann Shaad, amongst hundreds of other women, who paved the way for printing artists and writers today to create art that inspires and lifts up women. On behalf of women printers and artists everywhere, thank you for using your talents to form a country where our voices are heard.

Sources and further reading:

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