Anonymous was a woman

Your favorite famous quotation: was it by Voltaire? Yogi Berra? Or some woman you’ve never heard of?

Fred R. Shapiro, the Yale Alumni Magazine's quotations columnist, is editor of the Yale Book of Quotations.

Illustration: Michael Gillette

Illustration: Michael Gillette

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  • "I would venture to guess that Anon,
  • who wrote so many poems without signing them,
  • was often a woman."
  • —Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own

Virginia Woolf wrote those words about the entire realm of literary creation, not about that special subset of it called "quotations"—the minting of concise snippets so eloquent or insightful as to be memorable. But those of us who dig deeply for the earliest sources of well-known lines discover, time and again, that here, too, Woolf was right: Anonymous was a woman. Many of the great quotesmiths have been women who are now forgotten or whose wit and wisdom are erroneously credited to more-famous men.

Scholars of sociology, history, psychology, women's studies, and other fields, not to mention writers and thinkers like Woolf herself, have written about why this should be so. I won't seek to tackle that question here. Instead, I present the raw material—or, rather, the fraction of it we know.

The authorship of some of these phrases had been forgotten for years or decades before being unearthed by a researcher. In other cases, the authors were never "lost"—their names have long been known to specialists and can be easily found with a little research—yet they are mostly unknown to the general public. Moreover, the real authors are often obscured by inaccurate attributions that have gained wide currency.

Finally, a few of these lines were crafted by women who are anonymous partly because they worked in professions that tend to be anonymous, such as screenwriting or speechwriting. I've included them nevertheless, because they show the range and depth of well-known quotations by women. The hallmark of almost all these cases, in fact, is that people are surprised to learn that such famous lines were written by such obscure women.

The quotations here are grouped in two categories: the misattributed and the forgotten. Within each category, they are listed chronologically. And after the lists, I offer one more surprise. As it turns out, there have often been anonymous women behind the enterprise of quotation collecting itself—even behind the most iconic male name.