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Lyons Den Books

Keeping Secrets: 
The Girlhood Diaries of Women Writers

(Henry Holt, 1995 ISBN: 0-8050-3065-4)
Jacket illustration copyright ©1995 by George Pratt.

Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte Forten, Kate Chopin, Sarah Jane Foster, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Ida B. Wells, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman were 19th century young women who grew up to be novelists, poets, essayists, or journalists. Keeping a private diary helped each girl find her public voice.

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Ida B. Wells Ida B. Wells

On the afternoon of May 4, 1884, twenty-two-year-old Ida B. Wells boarded the train to Memphis, Tennessee. As usual, she sat in the ladies' car. But the conductor refused to take her ticket because she was black. He insisted that she move to the smokers' car. Ida recalled that this car was "already filled with colored people and those who were smoking." In the 1880's railroad smoking cars were sickening places. The dirty seats, spit-covered floors, and wild cursing and drinking disgusted genteel passengers, both black and white.

The Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad had met its match. Ida knew she was a lady, and in the ladies' car she planned to stay! When the conductor grabbed her arm and pulled her out of the seat, she sank her teeth into the back of his hand. The poor fellow realized he couldn't handle her on his own, so he found two men to help haul her away.

Ida braced her feet against the seat in front and held on tight. But as white onlookers clapped their approval, she was dragged from the car. When the train stopped, she chose to leave rather than ride in the segregated smoker. The sleeves of her linen coat were torn out, and she later recalled that she "had been pretty roughly handled."

The editor of the Living Way, a black Baptist newspaper in Memphis, asked Ida to write an article about her experience. The article was so successful that the editor asked her to write more. Ida had never been afraid to speak her mind. Now she discovered that she had a writing voice, too.

From Keeping Secrets: the Girlhood Diaries of Seven Women Writers, pp. 118-120.


Can't decide what to write about? The girls in KEEPING SECRETS wrote about books, chores, horseback riding, dances, clothes, and school. They told secrets about friends, boys who drove them crazy, and sweethearts. They complained about teachers, mothers, brothers, hairstyles, and rules. They worried about money, grades, and absent fathers. All the girls longed to be writers, and most composed poems for an audience of one: her diary.

activity Click to read Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour."

activity See Alice Dunbar-Nelson's unpublished diary-like novel, THE LAZY WOMAN.

activity Order Charlotte Perkins Gilman's classic short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper."