We have become so used to seeing local bookstores disappear from our neighborhoods that is is difficult to remember how important these stores used to be. From the early days shortly after the American Revolution up until the end of the twentieth century many bookstores were meeting places and informal universities where people discussed politics and social issues as well as literature. And some of the most important bookstores have been run by women including Elizabeth Peabody.
We have no picture of Elizabeth Peabody as a young woman, although she was well-known in Boston. As her biographer, Megan Marshall, explains, Elizabeth’s portrait was painted in 1828 by Chester Harding, a well-known portrait artist in Boston. Elizabeth was 24 years old at the time and teaching at a school she had started for girls. Instead of being pleased by the portrait, her parents were scandalized. Women of that time did not have pictures of themselves hung on walls and displayed to others. Unlike men, women were supposed to live lives that were private and hidden from everyone except their families. Despite the prevailing customs, however, Elizabeth was destined to become a well-known and beloved figure in Boston and elsewhere during her long life. The portrait, incidentally, was destroyed years later in a warehouse fire so the only existing pictures show Elizabeth as an elderly woman.
Elizabeth was one of three Peabody sisters—the other two were Mary, who married Horace Mann, and Sophia, who became the wife of Nathanial Hawthorne. All three were born in the early 1800s and lived through most of that eventful century, but Elizabeth had the most lasting influence and left a legacy that is still with us.
But to return to the bookstore…in 1839 Elizabeth opened a small circulating library and bookstore in the family home. She knew Ralph Waldo Emerson and many of his friends who were interested in expanding the intellectual horizons for Americans. They were eager to learn about the new ideas being talked about in Europe and Elizabeth’s bookstore offered them a chance to read and discuss European journals and new books. Not only that, Elizabeth also opened a small publishing operation and published several articles and books written by members of the group including several of Nathanial Hawthorne’s early stories. She was probably the first woman publisher in the United States.
Elizabeth Peabody’s small bookstore in West Street was the place where the new Transcendental Club held meetings. Margaret Fuller offered her “Conversations” in the bookstore for the wives and friends of the Emerson circle. Elizabeth’s bookstore appears in my mystery story A Death in Utopia as a place where the Charlotte Edgerton and her friend Daniel Gallagher can follow up ideas for solving a mysterious death.
Running a bookstore and being a publisher were not Elizabeth Peabody’s only occupations. Later in life she opened the first kindergarten in America and her most lasting legacy remains the revolution in teaching young children which grew out of the kindergarten movement. Megan Marshall’s biography The Peabody Sisters; Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism gives a good start on learning about Elizabeth and her accomplished sisters.
Reading the obituary of Karen de Crow in the New York Times today brought back memories of the optimism many of us felt about feminism during the 1970s. The National Organization for Women (NOW), which De Crow led from 1974-1977, fought for equality for women in jobs, social life and sports.
Some of those battles have long since been won. We no longer think it bizarre that girls as well as boys should be able to play sports in schools and in Little League teams. When De Crow was representing a young girl who wanted to play baseball, one coach said to her “Over my dead body will girls ever play Little League baseball. “If one of them ever struck out a boy, he would be psychologically scarred for life.” I don’t think anyone now thinks that a boy’s life would be ruined if a girl could strike him out in a baseball game, but far too many men and boys still find it impossible to accept women as equals.
Why is it that so many men still find it impossible to allow women to make their own decisions about their bodies, their ambitions, and their choices? Rape on college campuses is still a threat to women students. Is it so hard to understand that every human being has a right to decide when and how they will have sexual relations? And why is it that campus rape is so often associated with athletes? Why are women’s bodies still viewed as trophies that should be the reward for winning at sports?
Women have moved far ahead in business and the professions, but even the most eminent women in the country are still questioned far more about their personal lives than men are. All we have to do is to read or view the news stories that have appeared recently about Hillary Clinton. Why does she have to answer questions about her marriage and her life choices far more often than male candidates?
More than a century and a half ago, Margaret Fuller wrote: “If you ask me what offices they [women] may fill, I reply—any. I do not care what case you put; let them be sea-captains, if you will”. She was ridiculed for demanding the impossible, but many women took up the challenge. They have become doctors, lawyers, mayors, senators and governors. But the struggle is not over. Not until women can walk on college campuses in safety and equality, apply for any job, and run for office without harassment will women be truly equal.
It is important to remember Karen De Crow and NOW, as well as all the other women who have fought over the years so that girls and women can make their own choices and live the lives they truly want. The struggle continues.
Brook Farm, the first secular Utopian community to be established in New England, attracted the attention of most of the intellectuals in the area when it opened in 1840. Margaret Fuller, already a well-known writer and lecturer was one of them. As a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott and others who supported the establishment of the community, she participated in discussions about whether a communal lifestyle would encourage people to write great books, paint beautiful pictures and develop an American culture. Many Americans wanted to develop a culture quite different from the European model. They did not believe that all art and culture should be created by aristocrats who did not need to work or earn money. The early 19th century was a time when many people were trying to discover how society could be structured to allow everyone to have a chance to become educated and creative even though they had to make a living.
Margaret Fuller toyed with the idea of joining Brook Farm as a member. Living in a community like that would free her from the necessity of supervising a household for herself and her mother. The reaction of Brook Farmers to Miss Fuller was mixed. Many of the young women considered her a model for what a brilliant woman could make of her life, but others (especially, perhaps, the young men) thought she was arrogant and talked too much. Some of them even called the most obstreperous cow in their barn the Margaret Fuller heifer.
In the end, Fuller decided she needed solitude to pursue her own work, but continued to visit often. She was determined to make her mark in the world, and she succeeded. She became one of the most influential literary figures in New England. Then she moved to New York to write for the New York Tribune. Later she traveled to Europe as a reporter and became a friend of men who were plotting revolutions in several countries.
Fuller’s book Women in the Nineteenth Century was considered revolutionary. She urged women to find their voices and express their own ideas. The book influenced women around the country and even though Margaret Fuller herself died at the age of 40, her work bore fruit in the early feminist movement. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were among the women who read her works and tried to follow her path.