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Kate Sanborn: The Woman of Wit

Kate Sanborn
The Woman of Wit
1839–1917, USA

This Scribblewits story is… kind of personal!

In 1884, the New York literary circle was abuzz with controversy. The art and literature critic Richard Grant White said in an issue of The Critic magazine that humor was “that rarest of qualities in woman.” As in, women aren’t funny. Or, more accurately, women are RARELY funny.

That stings!

It stings because “women aren’t funny” is a chorus that’s been sung for ages and ages, long before Richard Grant White wrote his stupid article, and long after. It’s the silliest idea and the fact that it has had traction for centuries is simply mind-boggling to me.

And it’s part of the reason I’m so dedicated to the Scribblewits project—because women ARE funny, and there’s thousands of years of evidence to prove it.


After Richard Grant White said his idiotic thing, Kate Sanborn was all, "BITE ME!" (She’s not the only woman who pushed back, but I’ll save that story for another day.) She published an anthology in 1885 called The Wit of Women, overflowing with examples of funny women from ancient Greece to modern times.

So who is this Kate Sanborn?

She was born July 11, 1829 in New Hampshire. Her father was a professor of English and Latin at Dartmouth college, and Kate was well-educated in literature and language.

When she was 11 years old, her dad sent one of her stories to a children’s publication and Kate earned a publication fee of three dollars. Hey, that’s more than I’ve earned for many of the humor pieces I’ve published, where the publication fee was a big ol’ zero!

Kate supported herself through teaching, writing, publishing and lecturing (she had a lecture called “Spinster Authors of New England” which sounds like a hoot). In a compendium of New England women, Kate is noted as being “full of anecdote, spirit, wit” with a "sharp and fearless pen."

When she began to compile “The Wit of Women,” Kate was initially met with some resistance. She writes: “The encouragement to attempt this novel enterprise of proving ('by their fruits ye shall know them') that women are not deficient in either wit or humor has not been great.”

But despite the lack of encouragement, Kate soldiered on to defend the honor of witty women everywhere.

In the introduction to the book, she writes:

It is refreshing to find an unworked field all ready for harvesting.

While the wit of men, as a subject for admiration and discussion, is now threadbare, the wit of women has been almost utterly ignored and unrecognized.

With the joy and honest pride of a discoverer, I present the results of a summer's gleaning.


And I feel a cheerful and Colonel Sellers-y confidence in the success of the book, for every woman will want to own it, as a matter of pride and interest, and many men will buy it just to see what women think they can do in this line. In fact, I expect a call for a second volume!

And Kate’s prediction was correct. The book was successful and had multiple reprints.

One reviewer wrote that Kate “proves that the authoress is one of those rare women who are gifted with a sense of humor.” Ouch!!

“It may fairly be said to establish the fact that there have been feminine wits not inferior to the best of the opposite sex.” Not inferior? That’s the best compliment you can give? Ugh.

Anyway, I salute Kate’s desire to prove that women are funny, and I appreciate The Wit of Women for introducing me to dozens of funny women throughout history, many of whom I’ve featured right here in Scribblewits.

Once and for all…

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