First In Their Field: Frances Whitcher

 

From Bridesmaids to Mean Girls, from Legally Blonde to the new Ghostbusters movie, it is impossible to argue that women can’t be as funny as men. When did women first get their start in comedy? The first successful female comedy writer was born in the 19th century.

 

Born in Whitestown New York in 1811, Frances Whitcher was a writer from an early age. When describing her abilities as a child she said, “I received at my birth the undesirable gift of the ridiculous. I can scarcely remember the time when the neighbors were not afraid that I would make fun of them.” Her parents often scolded her for her smart mouth growing up. Whitcher even recalled older women in her neighborhood praying over her but it was all to no avail, Whitcher would still tell jokes and tease others.

 

Her talent may have gotten her into trouble as a child but served her well as an adult, Whitcher would grow up to be one of the first women prose humorists in the United States.

 

GodeysLadysBookCoverJune1867.jpgWhitcher wrote about sketches pulled from her everyday life. Her writings were first published in her thirties when she contributed poems in the 1840s to the Saturday Gazette and Godey’s Lady book. The subjects of her writing centered on satirizing the upper class and gentility. She focused on issues of fashion, courtship, social standing and anything she found hypocritical. She attacked anything that she felt detracted from a woman’s potential to be seen as rational human beings. Whitcher drew inspiration from women she knew in real life and many people in her town were insulted and outraged when they thought they were the individuals being mocked in her sketches.

 

Whitcher’s most famous writing is a series of sketches called “The Widow Bedott Papers”. The collection was published in 1855 and became a bestseller, the book sold 100,00 copies within ten years. Unfortunately, Whitcher was not alive to see her writings, filled with the same humor that she was punished for as a child, become a national sensation. Whitcher passed way from tuberculosis three years before the book’s publication in 1852.


Melissa Jones
Want to learn about more women who were first in their field? Check out the Women’s Museum of California’s online gallery
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