Anne Royall, The Feminist Writer Who Became The Last Victim Of A Witch Trial

Anne Royall, The Feminist Writer Who Became The Last Victim Of A Witch Trial

At a time when women weren't allowed to speak out, Anne Royall did the impossible to be heard, even if that caused her hardships.

We’re constantly experiencing witch hunts on the internet, on television, on newspapers… literally everywhere. Nowadays you can’t really say anything to the public because most likely there will be people considering your words to be offensive and extremely socially incorrect, especially on social media. It’s become so annoying that sometimes you want to throw your phone or computer to that unknown person commenting stupid things to everything because they apparently don’t have anything better to do than sharing their opinions as if they held the ultimate truth of life. Now, these lovely people have existed since the dawn of time. It must be a sort of genetic combo that has managed to survive.

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Anne Royall, first professional female journalist

I think this has more to do with a close-minded upbringing that makes people believe that their beliefs are the only real and possible thing, so anything outside their mindset must be condemned and eradicated. You just have to take look at history and see all the characters that have been backlashed for thinking outside the box. That’s the case of Anne Royall, the woman who asked to be treated just like any other man, even before the suffragist movements and the notion of women’s rights existed. She was an adventurous, brave woman who didn’t care about what society told her to do. On the contrary, she condemned it through satire and bold public comments, since she thought that free speech and press were the only way to really free oneself and make a progress as a society. Naturally, most people didn’t think that way, and her life became a constant dodging of comments and violent demonstrations.

Born in Maryland in 1769, Anne’s family didn’t have much and was constantly looking for ways to survive. When her father died, she and her mother started working as house servants at a wealthy family’s house owned by William Royall. He became quite interested at the young girl and allowed her to have a great education. He even allowed her to spend some of her working hours at the library, where she became acquainted with the great classics of literature. When she grew up, in 1797, they got married despite his family’s dislike, since they saw her as an inferior person who only wanted their money. The lived a pleasant life together for about fifteen years until his death in 1812. In that moment her life changed drastically.

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Nellie Bly, pioneer research journalist

William’s family wasn’t going to let her keep everything they thought belonged to them and started a legal process to nullify their marriage. Seven years later, they succeeded and left her penniless, but this wasn’t really going to break her spirits. Since she started educating herself with the help of her husband, she started developing liberal ideals. The fact that William treated her as his equal intellectually and morally had a huge impact on the woman she would become. She decided that she had all the tools to make a living for herself and that she wanted to do what she loved the most: writing.

She was now 57 years old, but by no means it meant she couldn’t be reborn and start over. She started writing as she traveled throughout the country, so she became one of the main presenters of the American life. Her great sense of humor and racy style made her a success among the audience, especially women who were absolutely bored with the many romantic pulps and novellas they were allowed to read. Seeing the success she was having, she decided it was time to show what she believed in. She moved to Washington in 1824 and soon started writing about the government and specific politicians. This, of course, wasn’t as well received as her travel annotations. 

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Ethel Payne, first African American female journalist

By that time, she petitioned a federal pension as the widow of a veteran of the American Revolution. It wasn’t until more than twenty years later that her petition was granted, and even then, William’s family got most of its benefits. But as you might have seen, this didn't stop her and her work as a writer was giving her enough to live modestly. At first, her boldness was seen as innovative. It’s said that one day when president Quincy Adams was taking one of his regular river baths, she sat on his clothes and didn’t move until he answered all her questions. She passed through history as the first woman to ever interview a president. More than being upset and offended by this woman’s impertinence, he was the one who supported her petition for a pension. He even invited her to his house to spend time with his wife. But life was going to put her a new obstacle.

Soon, her comments on politics, religion, and society started to bother a wide part of the priviledged class, who started qualifying her as a hysterical woman who had no class nor refinement and that should be treated the same way society treated prostitutes, drunkards, and criminals. This was published in many newspapers of the time that tried to discredit her, pretty much in the same fashion as slut-shaming on the internet. Still, she was determined to defend her beliefs to help break the taboos of her time.

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Jane Grey Swisshelm, pioneer female publisher and editor

Now, what about the actual trial? It was a time of extreme religiousness and conservative beliefs, so naturally, her many comments were seen as a direct provocation. She lived in an apartment next to a fire station that was built with people’s taxes but was soon borrowed to the Presbyterians to held services. Many of her comments towards this particular branch of religion weren't well accepted and soon they started gathering outside her house, praying God to forgive her, and those who were more offended, would throw rocks at her windows. It became a living hell. Sick of the situation, one day she had enough and decided to act. She started cursing and shouting at the mob outside her house and was immediately arrested. Now, normally this would have been solved quite easily at the station, since disturbing the public peace wasn’t even a major crime, but by now she had quite a wide number of enemies who wanted her out of the picture. Thus, she was sent to trial. 

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WWI female correspondents

The official reports stated she was a "public nuisance, a common brawler, and a common scold." And it didn’t matter how much they tried to give her a memorable punishment, there was no law nor way to get rid of her, so she was fined and managed to get out. Still the story of the trial made all the newspaper and people throughout the country claim for her head. However, rather than being affected by the experience, it only made her stronger. At the age of 62, she started her own newspaper, the Paul Pry, and her opinions and writing became harsher, more direct, and bolder. She even had some sort of motto that read, “The enemies of these bulwarks of our common safety, as they have shown none, shall receive no mercy at our hands.” And hell they didn’t. She was determined to speak out and expose all those who were against the law, no matter their level of power. And so she did until her death in 1854. 

For many years, she was a symbol of female strength, but also a proof of the harsh life of women who dare to go against the social rules. Her determination served as a mold for other women to understand that, no matter how many obstacles you face, if you’re true to your beliefs, there’s no way you can be silenced.


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Cover photo, Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst in the 2015 movie Suffragette.