Writing Women Who Started a Trend—Jane and Maria Porter

During the early 1800s, more and more people in England were leaning to read. In 1800, 60% of men and 40% of women were literate, but the numbers were growing every year. Supporters of public education declared that the purpose of reading was to give people access to the Bible. But the secret passion of the new readers was often to read fiction—stories that brought excitement and pleasure into their lives. And the people who wrote the stories that people clamored for were often women.

Two of the women who provided popular fiction for the masses were the sisters Jane and Maria Porter. They were born in the 1780s to an Irish doctor and his wife who were then living in Durham, England. Besides Jane and Maria, there were three sons in the family and their father encouraged them all to read, write and learn as much as they could. Unfortunately, the father died young, shortly after Maria was born, leaving them without a secure income. His widow moved the family to Edinburgh where the two girls attended a charity school. Both of them were attracted to reading and writing and as they grew older, they began publishing short articles. In 1790 the family moved to London.

While the boys in the family tried to earn their livings by joining the army or becoming diplomats, both of the girls turned to writing. Between them, they may have invented the historical novel. Jane Porter’s first novels, Thaddeus of Warsaw (1803) and The Scottish Chiefs (1810) were based on well-known figures and were written in a popular style. Both became bestsellers. Many of Jane’s books went through numerous editions and some remained in print for more than 100 years. In fact several editions of The Scottish Chiefs are still available on the Amazon website. But, despite the pleasures of fame, being a bestselling author during the nineteenth century was not easy, especially for a woman.

Maria Porter

At the time when the Porter sisters were writing, women were expected to be dependent on men for economic security. Either their fathers or their husbands were supposed to earn money; women stayed at home. The three Porter brothers should have taken on responsibility for supporting their widowed mother and the two girls, but instead they spent much of their time building up debts of their own. The girls took over, but writing and publishing novels was not an easy way to earn money.

Today, authors expect to earn royalties on the books they write. The more popular a book becomes, the more money the author earns. During the early 1800s, there was no such thing as royalties. Books were sold to the publisher for a flat payment and if they were reprinted and sold widely, the publisher made the money, not the author. The only way the writer could earn more money was to update and change the story and sell it to a publisher as a new book.

The Porter sisters were always short of money, because they supported themselves as well as their mother. The best solution to find security would have been to marry a man with a good income. Both Maria and Jane were attractive women and men clustered around them at social events. Several times they met men who appeared ready to suggest marriage, but somehow, when a wealthier young woman appeared on the scene, each of the Porter’s suitors decided to marry for money rather than to propose to a penniless writer.

Besides not having royalties, the Porter sisters also suffered from the lack of international copyright. Their books sold well in America, but the authors received no money at all from these sales. Late in her life, after Maria died, and while Jane was struggling to keep going, her American publisher wrote to her to say that he believed she deserved some share of the profit he was making from her books. Instead of sending money, however, he sent a gift—a large chair, which turned out to be useless because Jane had no place to keep it.

Both Jane and Maria Porter have been almost forgotten, but fortunately for us, they exchanged numerous letters with one another and the letters have survived. In 2022, their lives were retold in a remarkable book–Sister Novelists: The Trailblazing Porter Sisters Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontes  (NY: Bloomsbury 2022) by Devoney Looser. It makes me happy to know that Jane and Maria are being honored at last and I’m sure many readers will join me in celebrating their lives.

Witches–They Weren’t Who You Think They Were

Every year when Halloween comes along, images of black-robed witches suddenly appear in ads and on social media. It is curious that witches still remain a prominent part of our culture even though more than 300 years have passed since witches played an important role in American history. [The witches who were part of the culture of indigenous people in America are not the ones who are remembered at Halloween. The black-robed women who are pictured on candy boxes and Halloween cards come from the European tradition.]

Modern Halloween costume

Witchcraft accusations have a long history in Europe, but at the time when the American colonies were being settled, the fever was dying down in England and most of Europe. As witch trials dwindled in England, they grew in the American colonies which had been settled by people from England. But there were differences. In the New England colonies more women than men were punished for witchcraft. And the victims were not just a random group of cranky old women who annoyed the neighbors, put spells on livestock and in general caused trouble. What was it that made the accused so vulnerable to being described as witches?

In recent years, historians have studied the records of accusations of witchcraft in early New England, especially the Salem witch trials that occurred during 1692 and 1693. It turns out that many things we thought we knew about witches are not accurate. It is true that most of the people accused were women but they were not necessarily the oldest women around or the poorest. What they had in common was that they were past child-bearing age. That was the crucial thing. Also, most of the women were either unmarried or widows. They did not have a husband to support them.

To understand what made some women particularly vulnerable to charges of witchcraft, we have to look at the laws of inheritance that governed the economy of the Massachusetts colony at the time of the trials. Most workers in the colony depended on farmland to support them and their families. When a man died, it was important that his land was passed on to his children so the family fortune could be maintained. The normal pattern of inheritance was designed to keep farmland in the family.

Most men who owned farms and had families, started distributing land when the children got married. The oldest son generally got one-third of the property when he married. Younger sons received a smaller portion of land or money upon marriage. Daughters were given a settlement upon marriage, usually about half as much as the eldest son would receive.

When a man of property died, his wealth was distributed in this way to unmarried children. His widow, however, was entitled to one-third of his property for her use for the rest of her life. This pattern kept widows from being a charge on the community while they lived. They could not, however, sell the property. It was only theirs for their lifetime. Upon their death, whatever was left was distributed to the remaining children.

It is important to remember that married women owned nothing at all. When a woman married, everything she owned became the property of her husband—even her clothes, her jewelry and her wedding ring. She did continue to have whatever dower her father had given her upon marriage. Her children or stepchildren could not take this money or property from her.

New England wife spinning

It is easy to see that this situation provided some motivation for children and stepchildren to hope the women who held the land did not continue to live on it and enjoy it for an unreasonable length of time. If that woman happened to be accused and punished for witchcraft, her hold on the property would disappear.

There is no way of knowing how many accusations against witches were made by people with an interest in her property, but it must have been a continuing temptation for some, especially younger sons who might have to wait for a young stepmother to die before they could receive some of their father’s land.

The history of witchcraft in America is a fascinating study that can help us understand why some of our ancestors acted the way they did. One book I highly recommend is The Devil in the Shape of a Woman by Carol F. Karlson (Norton 1998). You will probably be able to find that in your local library or in bookstores.

Knowing the stories behind the way our ancestors lived helps us to understand the forces that have shaped our country and our attitudes even today. The persecution of witches may seem strange, but the more we know about how people of colonial times lived, the better we can understand the way they acted.

America’s First Female President? Edith Galt Wilson

A century ago, before American women were allowed to vote in presidential elections, one woman took the reins of presidential power and held them firmly for almost two years. Edith Galt Wilson had never been elected president, of course, but because of her position as Woodrow Wilson’s wife, some unfriendly commentators claimed that she had seized an illegitimate amount of power over her husband.  How did this happen? Well, 1919 was a very different world from the one we live in today, and Woodrow Wilson’s presidency was far more of a one-man operation than any recent presidencies have been.

Wilson, unlike most recent presidents, had not been engaged in national politics before he became president. He had started his career as a college teacher, a very popular teacher, who moved up through the ranks to become president of Princeton University and later the governor of New Jersey. When he was elected President in 1914, he moved to Washington, but did not move into the active society of political circles. His first wife, Ellen Axson Wilson, was shy and very family oriented. She preferred quiet family life to mixing in Washington society,  and not many people were invited to the White House. Shortly after Wilson’s first election to the presidency, she became seriously ill with Bright’s disease. During her illness, she and the President became even more isolated. When she died in 1914, she left behind a a bereft President and three daughters.

Edith and Woodrow Wilson

Wilson accomplished a great deal during his first term in office. He introduced the graduated income tax, which put government finances on a much firmer basis than it had ever had. Unfortunately, he also segregated government agencies, a destructive move that lessened the status and weakened the financial position of Negroes for generations to come.

Wilson’s personal life was not happy after the death of his first wife. He worked hard but had few friends and became very isolated. Friends tried to introduce him to other women and in 1915 he met and was attracted to Edith Bolling Galt, a young widow from Virginia. She had grown up in an elite family with deep roots in the South. One of her ancestors was Pocahontas, who had married John Rolfe, one of the earliest colonists in Virginia. Edith was one of eleven children and had been given most of her education at home. Her father believed that education money should be spent on sons, but he provided a large library and Edith’s grandmother tutored her and her sisters.

Wilson and Edith were attracted to each other and he persuaded her to become engaged, but they decided not to get married until more time had passed since the death of his first wife. They were married in a small ceremony at home in 1915. 

The major issue that dominated Wilson’s later years in the White House was the war in Europe. During his first term in office, Wilson pledged to keep America out of the European war. He won a narrow election victory in 1916, but the following year Germany’s introduction of submarine warfare led him to request Congress to declare war. In April 1917, Congress voted to support the war. A draft was initiated and thousands of Americans went to fight in the war.

Wilson was a firm opponent of war and his major preoccupation as World War I drew to a close was to ensure that another European war would never occur. In 1919, he and Edith attended the Paris Peace Conference where Wilson worked hard to draft plans for a League of Nations. Unfortunately, he worked mostly alone, with help from other Democrats, but without involving any of the many Republicans who wanted to participate in postwar planning.

After Wilson had completed his draft proposal, he returned to the United States to urge the Senate to sign his plan. That was when disaster struck. In October 1919, Wilson suffered a serious stroke that left him partially paralyzed. It was then that his wife became an active participant in protecting her husband and concealing the extent of his illness. With the support of his doctor, Edith demanded that all communication with the President must be approved by her.

Rejection of League of Nations

For the next year and a half until his presidency ended, Edith Wilson controlled her husband’s life. She examined all letters and other communications addressed to him and decided which he should see. She ruled on who could visit the President and how long they could occupy his time. Even the Vice President, who had never been active in the administration, was not allowed to see him. Wilson was reluctant to have any changes made in the peace plan that he had developed and Republican Senators were unable to see or to influence him. In the end, the Senate did not approve Wilson’s Peace Plan and America did not become a member of the League of Nations.

Ever since this bitter ending to Wilson’s term as President, historians have argued about how influential Edith Galt Wilson was in his life. During Wilson’s last year in office, several opponents accused Edith of trying to seize power and take over his role. Others supported her in her claims to have been only a loving wife trying to protect her husband.

If you want to learn more about the dramatic events of Wilson’s last years, you might want to read Gene Smith’s When the When the Cheering Stopped: The Last Years of Woodrow Wilson (2016). The details of the struggle are fascinating, although none of us will ever know the full story of what happened during those hectic postwar years. That is why history is so fascinating—very few accounts can tell the true inside story of other people’s lives.     

A Foreign Queen for England—Charlotte II

If you watch news on TV these days, you can scarcely miss seeing pictures of crowds in London paying tribute to Queen Elizabeth II. Her funeral on September 19 has attracted the attention of many people in Europe and beyond. She served as queen of England for seventy years before dying this month at the age of 96. Pictures of the preparations for her funeral and speeches of tribute have been broadcast around the world. Her funeral on September 19 will be marked by an outpouring of love and respect from celebrities as well as ordinary people.

More than 200 years ago, in 1818, England was mourning the death of another queen, Queen Charlotte, wife of George III. Queen Charlotte was not a monarch, as Elizabeth was, but she was England’s longest serving female consort. (The only royal consort who served longer than she did was Prince Phillip, who was consort to Queen Elizabeth II for almost seventy years until he died in 2021.) 

Charlotte was born in 1744 in Mecklenburg-Strelitz, a small duchy in Germany. When George III of England inherited the British throne in 1760, his advisors recognized that he needed a queen, so they looked around Europe for suitable royal wives. Charlotte was an obvious choice. She was the right age and came from a royal family. Like most women of the time, she had been given very little education and was unlikely to question anything the king or his advisors might choose to do. So Charlotte was quickly sent off to England with only a few servants and attendants. She had a difficult voyage through stormy weather, and the wedding took place less than six hour after she had arrived in England.

Queen Charlotte and two of her children.

The king and his new queen must have had a difficult time getting to know one another. King George spoke no German, and Charlotte no English, but they did share a love of music. Somehow they seem to have achieved a reasonable relationship. Charlotte worked hard at learning English, although, according to reports, she always spoke with an accent. She and King George III had 15 children and 13 of them survived to grow up. That was quite an achievement for the time when so many children died in infancy.

The king, unfortunately, was not as healthy as his children were. During the first years of their marriage, everything went well. King George III spent a good deal of his time negotiating with England’s far-flung colonies. Charlotte’s name is memorialized in the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, as well as in several cities, bays and other places in Canada and New Zealand. She introduced the tradition of Christmas trees to England and supported the expansion of Kew Gardens.

King George III, however, developed mental problems as he grew older and was forced to step back from his royal duties. Charlotte was overwhelmed by the illness of the king. The novelist, Fanny Burney, who served as one of the queen’s attendants described her reaction to the news of his serious attack in 1788. “My poor Royal mistress! Never can I forget her countenance—pale, ghastly pale she looked; …her whole frame was disordered, yet she was still and quiet.”  

The king’s mental problems grew worse as he became older. Eventually his two oldest sons served as regents. Charlotte remained a supportive wife and mother. She continued to act as hostess at palace events during the regency of her sons, but her relationship with her husband was difficult. By the time she died in 1818, it is unlikely that the king was able to understand that she was gone. He died a little more than a year later.

Although much of Charlotte’s legacy has been forgotten over the years, she had a lasting influence on English royalty. Two of her sons became kings  of England—George IV and William the IV. Another son was the grandfather of Queen Victoria, another long-serving queen.

And questions about her legacy continue to come up. In recent years, a few articles have raised the issue of Charlotte’s racial heritage. Several writers have suggested that she had African ancestry. This idea is based mainly on pictures of Charlotte and on some accounts  of her written by people who claim she looked like a mulatto. Very few historians accept this idea of African ancestry and, of course there is no way of going back to find evidence one way or the other about her DNA. But people can continue raising questions about Charlotte’s ancestors. We’ll never know for sure. That is what makes history so fascinating—there are seldom permanent answers. We continue to read and study evidence, but final truth remains an elusive goal.

The Fire that Changed How America Lives—Frances Perkins

Most Americans spend Labor Day weekend shopping or having picnics with their families. We don’t often think about what we are celebrating. Labor Day doesn’t mark the end of a war or the birth of a famous man. Instead, it celebrates a revolution for the average person. The biggest changes in American life have come about not through wars and heroics, but through the ways that the lives of average workers have been changed. And the woman who played a major role in bringing about this major change in people’s lives is seldom mentioned today—Frances Perkins.

Frances Perkins was born in Boston in 1887 into a prosperous family, but she spent most of her life in New York and Washington D.C. Like many women of her time, she was given a good education but was not expected to use her education in a job or career. Her destiny, as her family saw it, was to marry a prosperous husband and raise children to follow the same path as her mother and aunts. But Frances saw life differently.

Frances Perkins

During the late 19th century and the first years of the 20th century, America was becoming a business powerhouse. Farming was no longer the only option for young people growing up. Manufacturing, mining, and trade developed requiring an increasing number of workers. Also during these years, there were few job opportunities for working class people in Europe, so many of them fled to America to find peace and security in which to raise their families.

Employers were able to hire workers for a few dollars a week and require them to work for ten or twelve hours a day six days a week. Most immigrant families could not survive on the wages of one person, so children were sent to work as young as seven or eight years of age. Jacob Riis’s book, How the Other Half Lives, revealed to many middle-class people the difficulties faced by immigrant families. Frances Perkins read Riis’s book and was inspired to move to the city to see what could be done to improve conditions.

After Perkins moved away from New England, she became a social worker in Philadelphia and New York, but a dramatic fire in 1911 changed the course of her life. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire, which caused the death of 146 workers, occurred in her neighborhood. It opened her eyes to the overwhelming unfairness of the problems faced by workers. She began to realize she could do more through politics than she could through providing care to individuals as a social worker.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire 1911

Perkins began working in New York with a government committee to ensure fire safety. Working with politicians meant mingling with men who were unused to seeing women as anything other than wives and mothers. During this period of her life, Frances realized that the men she worked with were uncomfortable confronting a young, well-dress woman and did not know how to treat her. The solution Frances found was to try to appear older than she was, to wear somewhat dowdy clothes, and to project a motherly image. This was her way of not frightening off her male colleagues and she became famous for looking like someone’s wife rather than a politician.

By the time Franklin Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, he was aware of work Perkins had been doing in New York and appointed her the Secretary of Labor in in Cabinet. She was the first woman ever to serve in such a position and she served for twelve years, becoming the longest-serving cabinet member.

Frances Perkins was responsible for some of the major achievements of the New Deal—including the minimum wage law, unemployment insurance, and Social Security. She tried to introduce healthcare as a benefit for all workers, but the American Medical Association killed that provision.     

Social Security is probably Frances Perkins’ most lasting achievement. Today about half of people over 65 get fifty percent of their income from Social Security and 25 percent  get ninety percent of their income from that program. Some Republicans have tried over the years to end the Social Security program, but it has made such a lasting impact on American society that it is unlikely that it will end.

Behind the scenes of her political life, Frances Perkins led a difficult personal life. Her husband, an engineer, became mentally ill and had to be cared for or institutionalized for many years. Frances Perkins tried to keep her private life very separate from her public service in government, but her biography by Kirstin Downey, The Woman Behind the New Deal (2009) fills out the picture of this fascinating woman. She deserves a thank-you from all the Americans who benefit from the programs she supported.

Working Behind the Scenes: Abigail Adams and Her Sisters

Watching the results of the primary elections in many American states over the past few months, I’ve been struck by the number of women running for office. We’ve watched ads and heard speeches about policies supported or opposed by a wide range of women. It makes me wonder how government functioned back in the days when women, supposedly, did not participate in elections at all.

One of the unacknowledged stories about the history of American is that it was not only the famous “founding fathers” who set up the basic structure of government. Hovering in the background were a number of women some of whom contributed important ideas. Among them the three Smith sisters of Massachusetts. Their stories have been told by  Diane Jacobs in her book Dear Abigail: The Intimate Lives and Revolutionary Ideas of Abigail Adams and Her Two Remarkable Sisters (2014). 

Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, was the best known of the sisters. She is famous for writing to John in 1776 while he was helping to prepare the Declaration of Independence: “remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.” 

Those were brave words, but Abigail did not persuade her husband or any of the other men who were writing the basic documents on which the United States still depends. Although considered very outspoken women for their times, Abigail and her sisters accepted the role of women as helpers to their husbands rather than leaders. I wonder what they would think of the women in politics today.

Abigail Smith Adams was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts, in 1744, the middle sister of three girls in a clerical family. Although at the time girls were barred from the colleges where their brothers and future husbands were being educated, the Smith girls were lucky. All three sisters were well educated by their mother and had access to large book collections. All three had high ambitions. Abigail’s life is much better documented than the lives of her sisters, but in Jacobs’ book we learn more about the lives of all three of the women.

Unlike most history books, which focus on the meetings, battles, and speeches of prominent figures, Jacobs also tells the story of what was going on among family and friends of the politicians. While John Adams was traveling to Europe to negotiate with Great Britain, for example, Abigail was at home keeping their family going. She was the one who maintained the farm and household. She hired workers, supervised the building and repair of several houses, educated their children, and handled the family’s investments.

Women’s lives were filled with endless labor. Because there were few doctors, women were the main providers of medical care to their families. It is surprising to learn about the number of illnesses that occurred routinely—from yellow fever in Philadelphia when Congress was meeting there, to tuberculosis for which no cure was known, as well as long periods of depression which several family members endured. Some of the men in the family also developed alcoholism. This is the first history book I have read that mentions the tragedy of spousal abuse that alcoholism sometimes causes, but it was a problem that was not recognized or discussed.  

Abigail was her husband’s most important adviser during his long career in politics. He relied on her help while he served in diplomatic posts abroad and later when he served as Vice President and later President of the young country.

Despite being aware of how important their contributions to public life were, Abigail and her sisters were apparently willing to accept the fact that they were never allowed to vote, much less run for election. All of their work and all of their ideas were accepted as normal gifts that women ought to give to their husbands and families without expecting acknowledgements or rewards. It would be more than a century before women’s contributions were recognized as important enough to earn her the right to vote. And it took several generations of more confrontational women to win that right.

Now, at a time when women are losing some of the rights they have long enjoyed, is a good time to remember that rights are seldom gained by asking patiently for them. They must be won by actions, arguments and a refusal to take “no” for an answer.

Dorothea Lange—Picturing America during Difficult Years

People alive today are no doubt the most photographed generation that has ever lived. Cell phones record our daily life and let us see what is going on in the rest of the world. We are accustomed to seeing people splashing through floods in India, scratching for food in drought-stricken fields in Africa and enduring bombings in Europe.  But documenting news through photographs is a fairly recent development. We owe the richness of our visual lives to a handful of photographers whose work made photography a vital source of information in the modern world. One of the influential women in this field was Dorothea Lange, a documentary photographer who introduced thousands of Americans to the sight of the landscape of our country and the people who live and work in it.

Born in 1895 in Hoboken, New Jersey, Dorothea Lange grew up in New York and its suburbs observing and living with people in the city. As a child she suffered a bout of polio that left her with one crippled leg. She always felt self-conscious about that, but she did not let it hinder her activities. While still a teenager, she made up her mind to be a photographer even before ever owning a camera. After graduating from high school, she travelled to California with a friend and settled in San Francisco. There she got a job in a photography studio and within a few years became a successful portrait photographer. In 1920 she married the painter Maynard Dixon with whom she had two sons.

Dorothea Lange

For ten years or more she and her husband lived busy social and professional lives. They became part of the progressive artistic life of San Francisco and knew many painters and journalists. Dixon loved painting scenes of the rural areas of California and Arizona, so the couple spent a great deal of time traveling in the Southwest. Unfortunately, when the 1920s ended with a financial crash, the market for photographic portraits and for paintings almost disappeared

Both Lange and her husband were ardent supporters of Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal policies of providing help for workers, including artists. For a decade starting in the early 1930s, Lange worked for the Farm Security Administration taking pictures and writing reports about conditions throughout the western and southern states. When the dust storms of the mid-thirties pushed thousands of people from their barren fields in Oklahoma and other Southern states out to California, Lange took some of her most famous pictures, including the iconic “Migrant Mother.”

As World War II started, the United States began to force Japanese American families who lived in Western states into internment camps. Lange proposed a project of documenting this move through photographs. She also interviewed people as they were being moved into the camps and documented their difficult lives. Most of her pictures of camp life, however, were impounded by the government and did not become available until after the war. They can be seen now in the National Archives and at the Bancroft Library of the University of California.

Migrant Mother” one of Lange’s most iconic photos of the Depression

Dorothea Lange’s life and work continued for twenty years after the end of WWII. For those who are interested in her life and achievements, Linda Gordon has written an absorbing biography. Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits (2009). Gordon not only makes Lange and her personal live come alive, she also paints a picture of California during the first half of the twentieth century. Reading about Lange’s life, we learn about how farming developed in the West and about the variety of Californians—Indigenous people, Latinos, and Easterners fleeing the Depression. Lange’s life was lived at a turning point for the country and her pictures help us understand how important those years were. You can find  the book, Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, at most public libraries.  

Jemima Boone–The first Star of Frontier Life

Everyone who has studied American history knows the name of Daniel Boone, a pioneer who led settlers into Kentucky and encouraged the Westward expansion of the original thirteen colonies. His daughter, Jemima, is less well known, but she had an important role in expanding American territory. 

Jemima’s great adventure started on July 14, 1776, when she was 13 years old and living with her family at Boonesborough, the settlement her father had organized. She and two other teenaged girls took a canoe out on the Kentucky River, which flowed close to the settlement. Seeing flowers on the opposite shore, the girls decided to paddle over and pick some. No sooner had they drawn close to the shore when a group of Shawnee and Cherokee Indians appeared, seized the canoe, grabbed the girls, bound their hands, and marched them away from the river.

Abduction of Jemima Boone by Charles Wimar (1853)

Fortunately, Jemima and her friends were familiar with the difficulties of tracking people through a heavily wooded area and did their best to leave traces of where they had gone. The girls were wearing long dresses, which made it difficult for them to walk through the dense woods, so the Indians cut several inches off the bottoms of the skirts. The Indians buried the fabric so that it would not be found, but the girls were able to tear pieces from the ragged skirts and attach them to bushes along the path. When the Indians noticed what they were doing, they ordered them to stop, but some pieces of fabric were left.

It wasn’t long before the settlers in Boonesborough heard cries and realized something was happening. They ran to the river where they found the empty canoe floating in the water. The girls had disappeared and the men realized they had been captured. Daniel Boone quickly organized a few men as a search party. Although both Shawnee and Cherokee Indians travelled often through the area, their trails were well hidden and Boone and his party didn’t know which direction they would choose.

Jemima was wearing a bonnet and she realized the bonnet strings could give information. She tied knots in the string to indicate the number of Indian braves who had taken them—five in all. Because the girls were clever enough to leave clues, and because Daniel Boone and his party understood them, it took only a few days to rescue the girls. Despite worries among the settlers, the girls were not injured by their captors. In fact, the girls seem to have established congenial relations with several of the Indians and reported that they had been well treated.

Jemima and her friends, however, soon became only a background to the media blitz (by 19th century standards) of their story. During the years after they had returned to Boonesborough, been reunited with their families, and married other settlers, their story was often retold. It served as the basis for a fictional retelling in Sir Waler Scott’s The Last of the Mohicans in 1826 and was the basis for both paintings and stories in popular media.

It seems sad that Jemima would never be able to read Scott’s novel because like most women among the colonial settlers she was never taught to read. She did live a long, adventurous, and presumably happy life, however, as a wife and mother until her death in 1834.

Jemima’s story and the effect it had on her father as well as other settlers on the Western frontier is the subject of a recent book by the novelist Matthew Pearl, The Taking of Jemima Boone: Colonial Settlers, Tribal Nations, and the Kidnap That Shaped America (2021). Pearl has done a lot of research and he sticks carefully to the known facts about the incident and its repercussions. The result is a fascinating picture of what life was like for both settlers and Indians during pioneer days on the western frontier. It was a lot more complicated and far more fascinating than most versions that have been available in books, movies and on TV.

Who Controls a Woman’s Life? Caroline Norton and Her Fight for Her Children

Today in several American cities demonstrators are marching to protest the expected Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v Wade. Women fear that they will lose the right to decide whether or not to have an abortion. This seems an appropriate week to celebrate the work of one woman who fought to enlarge and protect the rights of women at a time when most women had no choice at all about bearing or raising children. In fact, by law in England once a woman was married, all her rights were given to her husband. But one woman started a battle which continues to this day.

Caroline Sheridan was born in 1808 in London. Her grandfather was the famous playwright, Richard Sheridan, and her father was an actor as well as a diplomat. Caroline was one of three daughters in the family, all of whom were admired for their beauty and lively wit. Unfortunately, when their father died suddenly, the family was left without any regular income and were almost penniless. His daughters had to rely upon their beauty and charm to build satisfactory lives for themselves. And because marriage was the only acceptable career for a woman, that meant they each had to find a reliable husband.

Caroline Sheridan Norton

Caroline, the middle daughter, was beautiful and had a quick wit which attracted many men, although some people considered her too sharp-tonged and outspoken. In 1827, she married George Norton, a barrister with political ambitions.  He was well-educated and capable, but like his wife, he was dependent on earning enough money to support his family. The marriage quickly became a difficult one. Norton was a harsh and strict husband. He encouraged Caroline to support his career by making friends who could help him to get a government appointment, but he was a heavy drinker and became abusive if he thought his wife was too friendly with other men.

Despite their troubles, the couple remained together and had three sons who became the center of Caroline’s life. As the family unhappiness continued, Caroline threw herself into writing. Her first book The Sorrows of Rosalie was published in 1829. It was a success and she wrote several other novels as well as pamphlets on current affairs. As a married woman, all of the money she earned belonged to her husband. According to English law, married women were not recognized as individuals, but only as dependents of their husband. Furious at the way her husband took all her earnings, Caroline began to spend more and more of the money earned by her writing. Her debts, like her earnings, became the responsibility of her husband, but his anger and resentment about this only led to more abuse. The couple finally separated in 1836 when Caroline left Norton and moved into one of her sister’s houses.

After their separation, Caroline continued her busy social life. One of her closest friends was Lord Melbourne, the Prime Minister. They saw each other frequently and wrote many letters about what was happening in government circles. But then George Norton committed what Caroline saw as an unforgiveable sin—he kidnapped their three sons and moved them to Scotland to live with his sister and her husband. Caroline was not allowed to visit the boys or to make any decisions about their education. She protested to her family and friends, some of whom supported efforts and tried to persuade Norton to let her see her sons more often.

In the midst of this battle over custody, Norton decided to ruin Caroline’s chances by accusing her of sexual misconduct with Melbourne. He brought charges against Melbourne and the case went to trial. Personal letters between Caroline and Melbourne were read aloud in court and servants who had been discharged from the household were called upon to testify that they had seen inappropriate behavior between the two. In the end, the jury ruled that adultery had not been proven. Norton was not able to sue for divorce, but Caroline’s reputation would never recover from the scandal.  

Caroline’s life was not destroyed by the Melbourne trial, but it was set on a path which led her into more and more political activity. She continued to write novels as well as articles and political pamphlets. Her work along with that of other women helped lead to laws such as the Custody of Infants Act 1839, the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 and the Married Women’s Property Act 1870. 

George and Carolyn’s lives remained stormy although they never divorced. Caroline won the right to see her sons and eventually her grandchildren, but their relationships had been damaged by the years of separation. George Norton died in 1875 and Caroline in 1877

Antonia Fraser has written a thoughtful biography of Caroline Norton called The Case of the Married Woman: Caroline Norton and Her Fight for Women’s Justice (2021). This biography paints a vivid picture of what married life was like during the 1800s and helps us to understand some of the difficult battles that have been fought to enable women to control their own lives. Now it appears that the battle is not over yet.

Viewing Stars and Finding a New World—Sophia Brahe

Although wives are often remembered as the helpmates of their husbands, sisters are less likely to be given that spotlight. Most male scientists have probably had sisters, but astronomers seem to be the only ones who made their sisters part of their team. Caroline Herschel, for example, helped her brother William Herschel with his observations for many years and was known and honored as a discoverer of planets.

Two centuries before Caroline Herschel made her mark, another younger sister became an important assistant to her astronomer brother. Born in 1556 (or perhaps 1559) Sophia Brahe was the youngest child in a large brood of children born to a noble family in Denmark. Her brother, Tycho Brahe, the oldest child in the family, was ten years older than Sophia. As she grew up, Tycho realized that his youngest sister was unusually curious and loved to learn, so he provided books to help her learn about chemistry and horticulture. He believed that a woman would be unable to become an astronomer so he did not suggest that she learn about heavenly bodies even though that was his major interest. But Sophia was a determined girl. She read astronomy books in German and had Latin books translated so she could study them. Eventually Tycho recognized his sister’s talents and began to make her one of his assistants.

Sophia Brahe

Sophia frequently visited Tycho’s observatory, Uranienborg. Tycho Brahe was the first astronomer to recognize the importance of careful, precise observations of the stars and planets. Sophia Brahe helped him to prepare his observations for his publication De nova stella, or On the New Star. She assisted with a set of observations that led to the discovery of the supernova now called SN 1572, as well as observations of the December 8, 1573 lunar eclipse. She, along with other assistants, made observations that helped Tycho develop his theory of orbits. This work was essential in establishing modern methods to predict the positions of planet.

Today, as we look back on the work of Brahe and his associates, it is hard to believe they could learn so much about the behavior of astronomical bodies without the help of modern instruments like the telescope. It was not until thirty years after Brahe’s observations that a Dutchman, Hans Lippershey, applied for the first patent for a telescope.

Astronomy was only one part of Sophia’s life. In 1579, she married Otto Thott. The couple had one son before Otto died leaving Sophia to raise the son and maintain Thott’s estate until the child came of age. She continued to visit her brother at Urainienborg, but also used her horticultural expertise to design magnificent gardens and develop her son’s estate.

Like most astronomers of the time, both Tycho and Sophia were interested in astrology. Most people believed that accurate predictions about people’s lives could be based on the movements of planets. The desire for astrological predictions was one of the most important reasons why many rulers supported astronomers in their courts. Tycho was more interested in learning about astronomy, but Sophia Brahe devoted much of her time to investigating genealogy and astrology.

In 1602, Sophia Brahe married Erik Lange, an alchemist who devoted much of his fortune into trying to change base metals into gold. Her family, except for Tycho, strongly disapproved of the marriage of Lange and Sophia, so the couple lived in poverty for many years. But her work continued. Besides her studies in astronomy and astrology, Sophia Brahe completed a detailed genealogy of the Danish Royal Family

According to an article in Wikipedia, the poet Johan L. Heiberg proclaimed that “Denmark must never forget the noble woman who, in spirit much more than flesh and blood, was Tycho Brahe’s sister; the shining star in our Danish heaven is indeed a double one.”