The History of Feminist Zines: The Una

Born in Providence, Rhode Island in February of 1853, The Una was edited by Paulina Kellogg Wright Davis for the first two years of its existence. It eventually relocated to Boston and endured for another year under the editorship of Caroline Healey Dall. Most significantly, The Una might’ve been the first suffrage publication in America.

In other words, two months into my column on the History of Feminist Zines, I’m already offering up a retraction—i.e. The Lily, according to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, was not the first suffrage zine. I hope no one sues me over this.

The Una was, inarguably, one of the earliest publications owned, written, and edited entirely by women. However, in their History of Woman Suffrage (1881), Stanton, Anthony, and Gage claimed that The Una (1853) was the “first pronounced woman suffrage paper,” likely due to the fact that The Lily, founded by Amelia Bloomer four years prior (1849), was considered a “temperance monthly” at its inception.

That said, Stanton et al do acknowledge that The Lily “advocated Woman’s Rights, and attained a circulation in nearly every State and Territory of the Union.” Ironically, those facts also signify that The Lily was neither a temperance-focused publication nor a zine at its height, making the history of suffrage “zines” – large and small, widely circulated and regional – muddy territory.

Thus, maybe this column isn’t about classifying, categorizing, and/or chronologically surveying the history of suffrage publications. Maybe the suffrage movement doesn’t neatly unfold along a linear continuum. Most things of significance don’t.

The History of Woman Suffrage also serves up an impressively long list of newspapers founded and run by women in the 18th century—from New York to New England, Virginia to the Carolinas—though none were considered politically progressive publications, nor were any addressing The Woman Question.

Stanton et al clearly considered the early 19th century publishing endeavors by women to be the harbingers to their generation’s more radical (suffrage) publications. Thus, they note the emergence of Sarah Josepha Hale’s ladies’ magazine in 1827, as well as Lydia Maria Child’s paper for children that same year.

In 1840, the most notable new publication was Margaret Fuller’s The Dial, the transcendental quarterly that was famously co-edited by the American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Curiously, Stanton et al never acknowledge that The Dial was co-edited by Ralph Waldo Emerson, instead referring to him as a “contributor” rather than a co-editor!

The Lily—or what I previously dubbed “the first suffrage publication”—was launched in Seneca Falls, N.Y. in 1849 by Amelia Bloomer. Dr. Lydia Sayre Hasbrook’s The Sybil, along with The Pledge of Honor, edited by N. M. Baker and E. Maria Sheldon, both appeared in 1850.

Finally, in 1853, suffragists, abolitionists, and intellectuals converged in the pages of the nation’s first self-proclaimed suffrage journal, The Una.

The Una drew its name from the Latin una, meaning one. For its founder, Paulina Kellogg Wright Davis, the word una not only signified “truth,” but was “to be used as a constant suggestion of fidelity to all.” The suggestion here is that first-wave feminism, at least for Davis, was a movement concerned with equality in the broadest sense.

Considered a leading “reform journal” of its time, The Una published the work of a pantheon of 19th century notables, including Elizabeth Peabody, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Frances D. Gage, Lucy Stone, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It also covered the broadest array of women’s issues of any contemporary publication—”[women’s] individual freedom in the State, the Church, and the home; woman’s equality and suffrage as a natural right.”

But none of this should be perceived as a radical endeavor for a woman who, along with her first husband, “resigned from their church to protest its pro-slavery stance.” Davis and her husband also served on the committee of the Central New York Anti-Slavery Society, and in 1835, the two organized an anti-slavery convention in Utica.

After the death of her husband in 1845, Davis moved to New York to study medicine, and by 1846, she was touring and giving lectures on female anatomy and physiology to women, a profession that was nearly unprecedented in her time. Not surprisingly, gender discrimination was even more prevalent in medical studies than other fields, which eventually led to the formation of a handful of medical schools designed exclusively for women—New England Female Medical College in Boston in 1848, and Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1850. According to the National Women’s Hall of Fame, Davis is credited with “encourage[ing] some of her listeners to join the first generation of women physicians.”

In 1849, she married Thomas Davis, a Democratic congressman from Rhode Island, and adopted two daughters. During this period, she turned her attention more fully to women’s right, and from 1850-1858, she served as the president of the National Woman’s Rights Central Committee.

In 1855, two years after launching The Una, she handed the editorship to Caroline Healey Dall.

Davis continued to evolve her role in the suffrage movement, co-founding the New England Woman Suffrage Association in 1868. Two years later, she organized the meeting for the twentieth anniversary of the Women’s Suffrage Movement. That same year, she published The History of the National Woman’s Rights Movement.

Davis died on August 24, 1876, in Providence. Fittingly, she was eulogized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

From the symbology of its name to the remarkable career(s) of its founder, The Una is a feminist zine that deserves to be resuscitated, and we have Stanton, Anthony, and Gage to thank for bringing it to our attention.

RD is the founding editor of TRR (and a zinester).