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   Date: 3/24/10 Bookmark and Share

Sarah Parton (Fanny Fern), journalist, novelist

“I am sick, in an age which produced a Brontë and a [Barrett] Browning, of the prate of men who assert that every woman should be a perfect housekeeper, and fail to add, that every man should be a perfect carpenter."

Sarah Payson Willis Parton, better known as Fanny Fern, a successful novelist, noted humorist, champion of women's rights, and the first American woman newspaper columnist, spoke these infamous words on November 17, 1860. Fern’s pen was no less sharp than her mouth. From a young age she proved to be full of life, earning the schoolgirl nickname of “Sal Volatile.”

Born in 1811, in Portland, Maine, Parton led a happy childhood. Her family had a background in journalism, no doubt from which she attained her life ambition. Parton was one of nine children, four of which went on to pursue journalism as a career.

After attending Miss Catherine Beecher's Ladies Seminary in Harford, Conn.—where she met and befriended Harriet Beecher (Stowe)—she married Charles H. Eldredge, an affluent banker, in 1837. They had three children and raised them together until 1846, when Charles died. Needing a means to support her children, she married Samuel P. Farrington, a Boston merchant and widower, in 1849. A very messy separation and divorce ensued three years later.

Her family refused to support her after her divorce, and after trying to earn a living teaching and sewing, Parton, living in “undesirable” lodgings, gave her daughter Grace to her Eldredge grandparents. Destitute, Parton turned to writing and Fanny Fern was born.

Fern wrote for The Mother’s Assistant, the True Flag, and the Olive Branch, small Boston magazines, attracting the publisher James C. Derby who collected her writings in Fern Leaves from Fanny's Port-Folio, published in 1853, an instant bestseller, followed by a sequel, Fern Leaves, in 1854 and a copy for younger folks, Little Ferns for Fanny's Little Friends. Soon, Robert Bonner, owner of the New York Ledger, added her to the list of contributors for the sum of $100 for writing a weekly column, making her the highest paid and first woman columnist in America. She stayed at the Ledger for the next 15 years, amassing a fan base of over half a million readers per week.

Fern also wrote two novels, the immensely popular Ruth Hall in 1855, and Rose Clark in 1856. Also in 1856, she married her third husband, the biographer James Parton, a man 11 years her junior.

Fern was far ahead of her contemporaries when it came to equality between the sexes. She spurned the double standard of housework and “too-large” families and became very critical of conventional religion. She wrote on many subjects, including literature, prison reform, prostitution, venereal disease, family planning, divorce, education, and generally, rights for women. Fern died in New York City in 1872 at age 61, after six years of struggling with cancer.

 

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