Happy Birthday to a Real Pro—Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Many people have listened to one of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s most familiar sonnets which begins: How do I love thee/ Let me count the ways… These words are often recited as a part of wedding celebrations. The sentiment expressed is just as relevant for couples today as it was when the sonnet was written more than a century ago. Barrett’s picture may look old-fashioned, but her ideas live on. All the little-girl curls and flowing skirts mask a very modern woman.

Today is Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 216th birthday. She was born on March 6. 1806 in Durham, England. Her father, Edward Moulton-Barrett came from a family that had lived for several generations on the island of Jamaica, which was then a British colony. The family became wealthy by producing sugar on plantations that relied on the labor of enslaved people. Like many other families who lived in the West Indies, there was considerable mingling and sometimes marriage among the European settlers and their African workers. Elizabeth Barrett, like her siblings, had dark skin and eyes and she always considered herself to be of mixed-race. Although there is no evidence to prove this one way or the other, the fact that she believed it had an important influence on her life.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Many of Barrett Browning’s poems express feelings and ideas that speak to readers now as clearly as they did when they were first written. But the times during which Elizabeth Barrett lived, meant that she had to struggle to become a poet. She lived in a society where women were supposed to be readers, not writers. Fortunately, Elizabeth’s parents did not entirely agree with this idea and they provided her with a good education and encouraged her writing.

Elizabeth was the oldest of the twelve children and they formed a close-knit family group. Each child had a nickname—Elizabeth was known as “Ba”, a name she used all of her life. Like her siblings, Elizabeth never had to look far for companionship. The girls in the family were educated at home while the boys were sent to schools to be trained for business.  Living on a country estate, the children turned to books and writing for entertainment. Elizabeth started writing poetry at the age of four, and when she was 14, her father had some of her poems privately published for distribution within the family.

Life at the Barrett’s was not without hardship though, especially after Elizabeth fell ill with a spinal disorder during her early teens. From that time on, she was an invalid and led a very restricted life. She took opiates to ease the pain of her spinal injury, but this medication led to further deterioration of her ability to live normally. On the other hand, being an invalid meant she was relieved of the household duties that kept her sisters busy and allowed her to work diligently at becoming a poet.

Almost everyone who has read and studied English poetry knows the story of EBB’s adult life. After living in seclusion with her family until she was almost forty years old, she eloped with the poet Robert Browning. Her father disowned her when she married, and the two were never reconciled. For the rest of her life, EBB lived in Italy, although she often visited London and kept in touch with many old friends. Her life centered around her poetry and her family. She and Robert had one son, but family life never kept her from being a dedicated writer. She wrote about current social issues such as child labor, the abolition of slavery, and the right of every woman to have a life of her own. Her reputation as a poet grew steadily after her marriage, culminating with the publication of her novel in verse, Aurora Leigh,  which the critic John Ruskin called it “the greatest long poem of the nineteenth century”. This poem was an immediate best seller and is still read and studied.

In 1861, a year after the publication of Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning died at the age of 55. 

During the late 19th century and down to the present day, EBB has been famous more for her life than for her work. Thousands of people have seen the play The Barretts of Wimpole Street either on stage or in one of several movie versions. But this presentation concentrates on the romantic elopement of Elizabeth and Robert and downplays her long career as a writer. For all of her crinolines and curls, EBB was a serious poet who worked steadily at becoming a great writer. Her husband and child were important in her life, but she never gave up her artistic ambitions.

There have been several biographies of EBB and last year the British scholar Fiona Sampson gave us a new one that sheds a great deal of light on Barrett’s life. Two Way Mirror: the Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Norton 2021) shows us Barrett as a social activist and a thinker. I highly recommend the book and as an introduction you might watch the video webinar that Fiona Sampson made for the National Library of Scotland.  

You may not want to read Aurora Leigh. Few people today have the patience to read a novel in verse, but we all should remember the poet who was perhaps the first woman to be recognized as a professional poet. She was even nominated to be Poet Laureate when that post became empty, although that honor finally went to Tennyson. EBB is often pictured as a frail, semi-invalid, which she certainly was, but she was much more. Rather than being defeated by her physical weakness she used it as a springboard into a successful career as a professional artist.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf—An Activist in Africa and the World

During the early nineteenth century, many people who worked to abolish slavery in the United States, including several women who have appeared on this blog, believed that freed African Americans should be sent to Africa to live. They were afraid that if they remained in the United States, they might be endangered by their previous owners or other supporters of slavery. Most people at that time seemed unaware of the long history of African Americans in America. Many enslaved families had a longer history of living on this continent than their European American neighbors had. Their African roots had been obscured or forgotten after generations of living in America.

Nonetheless, many sincere abolitionists believed that the newly freed people would settle happily in Africa and build a new life for themselves. Between the 1820s and the Civil War, the American Colonization Society raised money to send more than 15,000 people to an area on Africa’s West Coast that would be named Liberia. This, they hoped, would offer a new start for freed slaves. It would also, of course, relieve former slaveowners from having to accept their former slaves as equal citizens of the United States. And so, money was raised, and thousands of people were sent to Liberia.

The newly enfranchised African Americans, however, were not accepted by the Africans who lived in the area. The Africans did not speak English, and the Americans did not speak the languages of the indigenous people. The resettlement was not a success.  Liberia has been a troubled state from its beginning, but despite the difficulties it has faced, it has produced some of Africa’s most important leaders.  

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who served as president of Liberia from 2006 until 2018, was the first women ever elected as leader of an African country. Born in Monrovia, Liberia, in 1938, she was educated at the College of West Africa and later attended Madison Business College in the United States, the University of Colorado, and then Harvard College. When she returned to Liberia she worked as an economist in the government of William Tolbert.

After the Liberian military coup of 1980, Sirleaf fled the country and moved to Washington D.C. where she worked for the World Bank. Later she returned to Africa and worked for the United Nations and for several private banks. It was not until 1997 that she was able to return to politics in Liberia. And it was almost ten years later, in 2006, that she was elected president of the country.

During her years in office, Sirleaf succeeded in bringing women into government and into positions of power in other fields. She promised to bring reconciliation to the country, and to stamp out corruption, although these issues still remain problems. Nonetheless, Sirleaf brought Liberia a long period of peace. Newsweek named her as one of the ten best leaders in the world, and the Economist called her “arguably the best president the country has ever had”.   

In 2011, Sirleaf was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen. The three women were recognized “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”

Today, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, remains an important figure in Africa and in the world. She is active in causes from women’s rights to healthcare during the Covid pandemic.  In 2018 she started the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development, which aims “to be a catalyst for change across Africa, by helping unleash its most abundant untapped power – its women”.

An Anniversary and a New Focus—Savitribai Phule

2022 is the tenth anniversary of this blog. It is hard to believe that I’ve written almost 300 posts—287 to be exact. I hope to hit 300 this year. As I wrote in my first post in February 2012, I started this blog to share my ideas about the connections I have found with the men and women who went before us. From the beginning I have concentrated on women because their lives and ideas have often been neglected.  

As I look back over my posts, I see many familiar names spanning a wide history. I’ve written about Hatshepsut, the Egyptian “female pharaoh” who was born about 1485 BC and about Greta Thunberg who was born in 2003. That’s quite a range of time, but I’ve not ranged as widely in geography. Most of the women in my posts lived either in the United States or Europe. This year I am going to cast a wider net and include more women who lived in Asia, Africa, and other places on our globe. Even though I have travelled widely and visited countries around the world, I know far less than I should about their histories and peoples. This year I’ll try to broaden my vision.

Savitribai Phule is an important figure in the history of India. Born on January 3, 1831, in Maharashtra province, she is remembered now and honored as the country’s first female teacher. Her family belonged to the Mali caste, whose members traditionally grow flowers, spices, and other crops. Although Savitribai’s family was prosperous, they did not consider it appropriate to educate women, so she was illiterate when she married Jyotirao Phule. Her husband was a reformer and a strong believer in education. One of his first projects was to teach his young wife to read.

Phule Savitribai and Jyotirao

Savitribai studied with her husband and soon realized that education was the key for improving the lives of all women, especially those of the lower castes. With her husband’s support, Savitribai attended a teacher-training institute and later the two of them set up a school for girls. Soon they were running four schools for—the first schools for girls in India that were run by Indians. When they started to enroll girls from the lower castes—at that time called untouchables—however, both Savitribai and Jyotirao encountered strong opposition from many Brahmins and other higher caste Indians.

 Opponents to women’s education told Jyotirao that he would die young because he had allowed his wife to be educated. They claimed that educated women might use their skill to write letters to men outside of the family. Some protesters did not stop at making predictions. They also followed Savitribai as she walked back and forth to school and threw rotten fruit and dung at her to frighten her away from teaching. But the young couple was not deterred. They persisted in keeping their schools open and eventually they had 150 or more girls enrolled.

 Savitribai and her husband worked all of their lives to make life better for people born into the lower castes, and especially women. They introduced the name “dalit” instead of “untouchable” and helped people to enjoy the benefits of education and enjoy a more satisfying life. They campaigned against child marriage and called for better treatment for widows.

Even in the midst of her busy life, Savitribai found time to write and publish several volumes of poetry. After Jyotirao’s death, Savitribai continued his work with the help of their adopted son. When the bubonic plague struck India in 1897, she and her son set up a clinic to help victims of the plague. Savitribai died while doing this work.

Today Savitribai’s birthday on January 3, is celebrated as Balika Din in the province of Maharashtra, especially in girls’ schools. In 1998 she was honored by being the first Indian woman to appear on a postage stamp.

English language information about Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule is not widely available in American libraries, but there are a number of videos about this extraordinary couple posted on YouTube. Most of the films are produced in India and narrated in Hindi, but some have English subtitles. One that I enjoyed very much is Episode 45 of Bharat Ek Khoj entitled Savitribai

Savitribai Phule is remembered in India, but her life and work deserve to be known throughout the world.   

Three Women to Remember from 2021 Books

2021 has been a difficult year, and most of us will be glad to see it gone. We started the year with the happy news that vaccines against Covid 19 had become available, but after a tumultuous twelve months, we are still struggling to overcome hostile variants of the virus.

One of the few good things that could be said about the year is that for those of us who spent much of our time at home, it offered an opportunity to catch up on our reading. As I recall the books I have read this year, I am especially grateful for the ones that introduced me to women who have lived through some of the most fascinating periods in history.

Here are brief introductions to three women whose stories have most captivated me during 2021.

Briseis and Achilles

Briseis, a Trojan woman who lived during the tumultuous years of the Trojan War, tells her story in Pat Barker’s book, The Silence of the Girls. Briseis was a Trojan woman who was captured by the Greeks and given as a slave to Achilles. Briseis narrates the story and describes the difficult adjustment she makes to her suddenly diminished status. She paints a convincing picture of life in a camp of soldiers during a nine-year war that has stalled. The soldiers are tormented not only by the fighting, but also by a plague, which kills many of them. Briseis is an unforgettable woman and her story continues in the second book of Barker’s trilogy, The Trojan Women. We will have to wait a little longer for the final volume of the trilogy, which is promised, but not yet scheduled.

Anna Dostoevskaya

Moving forward in time, I found an unexpected woman—a woman I had never heard of—who played an important part in world literature by marrying the Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky. In his biography, The Gambler Wife: A True Story of Love, Risk, and the Woman Who Saved Dostoyevsky, Andrew D. Kaufman tells the story of Anna Grigoryevna Dostoevskaya. Born in 1846 to a middle-class family she became a stenographer and was hired by Dostoyevsky during a period when he was struggling to complete his novel The Gambler. The two fell in love and married. Despite his many gifts, Dostoyevsky’s ability to write was threatened by his gambling habit. As his business manager, editor and sometime publisher, Anna was able to guide his career and help him to become a major literary figure in Russia and in much of the world. After Dostoyevsky’s death Anna continued to publish and publicize his books. She worked tirelessly to keep his books in print and available to readers in Russia and all of Europe. I wonder whether his fame would have been as great and his genius so well-remembered if he had not had Anna to keep his name alive for the almost half century she lived after his death.

Another woman who made a lasting impact on me during this year was Fiona Hill author of There is Nothing for You Here. Hill grew up in the North of England, an area caught in economic depression because of the closure of the coal mines. Mining had been the major employment option for most people in the community, including Fiona Hill’s parents. With the disappearance of mining, Hill’s parents encouraged their children to get an education and move away from the North. Even with the encouragement of her family, it was not easy for Fiona Hill to take advantage of the educational opportunities available. Eventually, however, she attended university, moved to the United States, and became a public figure when she testified at the Congressional hearings on Trump’s impeachment.

Fiona Hill

Hill’s wide-ranging experience gives her insight into the educational systems not only in England but in the United States and in Russia. Her book is not so much a personal story, but a more general account of the barriers that keep working-class children from developing their skills and using their talents to become important participants in their communities. While leaders sign proclamations and declare goals, Fiona Hill reminds us that it is individuals who will have to learn to live in the new world that is coming. There Is Nothing for You Here points the way to changes our governments could make to prepare young people for that world.

Happy Reading for a Happy 2022!      

Start the Year with an Uncommon Woman–Margaret Fuller

The Smashwords publishing website is having a special year-end sale that includes my biography of one of America’s most famous women—Margaret Fuller. Fuller is the nineteenth century woman who inspired women throughout the country with her book Women in the Nineteenth Century. She was a writer, an editor and a pioneering foreign journalist who covered the 1848 revolution in Italy.    

Smashwords offers the ebook version of my book Margaret Fuller—An Uncommon Woman for the bargain price of FREE. This sale lasts until January 1, 2022.  Click on this Smashwords link to find the page and enter the sale code listed there to order your digital copy.

If you prefer to read a print version, you can find one at Amazon.com, but this special sale price does not apply to books purchased through Amazon.

HAPPY READING!

The Stenographer Who Saved a Genius– Anna Grigoryevna Dostoevskaya

During the mid-nineteenth century, Russia was a part of Europe but felt very separate from it. During that time, Russian middle and upper classes, women were proud of having more rights than they would have in other European countries. The right to an education was particularly important and a strong feminist movement grew up. Women were encouraged to educate themselves and become self-supporting. Surprisingly enough, one of the most liberating career paths for women was learning stenography. This was the path chosen by Anna Grigoryeva Dostoevskaya, a woman who was destined to play an important role in Russian literature.

Anna was born in 1848 in St. Petersburg. Her family encouraged her to be independent and read widely. She graduated with high honors from high school and decided to become a stenographer, one of the few careers in which a woman could earn a living. It was a stroke of luck when one of her teachers recommended her for a job with Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who was already one of her favorite authors. He had published several articles and two novels during the 1840s, but his career had been interrupted when he was sentenced to five years of exile in Siberia.

At the time Dostoyevsky met Anna, he was struggling to rebuild his career. His first wife had died, leaving him with a stepson to raise, his reputation as a writer had faded, and he was struggling to fulfill his contract to complete a novel called The Gambler. He called upon a friend to help him find a stenographer and luckily the friend recommended Anna, who had been one of his students.

Eventually, with Anna’s patient help, Dostoyevsky completed his novel and was able to fulfill his contract. During the weeks they worked together, he also fell in love with his faithful helper  and proposed to her despite the twenty-year difference in their ages. During the years before meeting Anna, Dostoyevsky had drifted into a life of gambling, which led to debts that interfered with his writing career. No one could have predicted that a 19-year-old stenographer would save him from his gambling addiction and his precarious life, but that is what happened.

With the help of Anna’s mother, who agreed to pawn the girl’s dowry and give the money to the newly- weds, Fyodor and Anna were able to leave Russia and spend four years in other European countries. Anna’s example of hard work and willing sacrifice inspired Dostoyevsky to continue writing despite the pull of the ever-tempting gambling casinos. Anna tried hard to understand his addiction and even spent a secret day at the casino alone so that she could better understand how the insidious promise of quick riches could tempt almost anyone to continue playing.

Throughout the early years of their marriage, Anna helped her husband continue his writing. She understood his need to gamble and helped him through the difficult years until they were able to move back to St. Petersburg and pay off their debts. During the rest of Dostoyevsky’s life, Anna managed his writing career, even starting a publishing company to sell his books. When he died in 1881, Anna was only 35 years old, but she dedicated the rest of her life to preserving his books  and his memory.

For many years, Anna’s role in Dostoyevsky’s life has been downplayed in accounts of his life, but a recent biography has now presented a more balanced view of her importance. The Gambler Wife: A True Story of Love, Risk, and the Woman Who Saved Dostoyevsky by Andrew Kaufman (Riverhead Books 2021) offers a fresh view of the creative partnership between these two remarkable people.

The Good She Did Should Live On—Marie Stopes

A lot of attention has been paid in recent weeks to the anti-abortion law passed in Texas. This is the law that enables an individual to profit by denouncing anyone they believe is helping someone to obtain an abortion. Legislators claim this will cut down on the number of abortions performed in Texas, yet research and experience have shown that the best way to reduce the number of abortions is to provide information about contraception. But Texas, according to a National Institutes of Health report, is not one of the 20 states that the requires schools to offer information about contraception. You have to wonder whether the Texas legislators are seriously interested in reducing abortions at all.

As we hear about the ways in which some conservatives are trying to do away with the knowledge and services that help people control their fertility, we should remember how difficult it was to start making that information available to anyone. The use of contraception makes it possible for women to play a variety of roles in the world. Yet, over the years, many people in public positions tried to withhold information instead of sharing it with those who need it. It’s about time to start honoring the women (and some men) who finally started to tell people how they could manage their sexuality and live more fulfilling lives.

Marie Stopes was an unlikely figure to play a role in this field, but in fact she played an important role. Born in Scotland in 1880, and educated in England, she was a paleobotanist. What is a paleobotanist? Someone who studies the way plants have evolved and developed through the centuries. She became the youngest person in Britain to receive a Doctor of Science degree in 1904 and became one of the first women to be elected a fellow of the Linnean Society of London.

Marie Stopes

During the first years of her career, Stopes devoted herself to science, but her interests expanded a she grew older. In 1918, she published a book called Married Love, which was one of the first books to give men and women frank and explicit details about sex. The book was a great success and sold widely throughout Britain and all of Europe.

Marie Stopes opposed abortion and strongly advocated that an expanded knowledge about contraception would eliminate the need for abortions. She founded the first birth control clinic in Britain and edited the newsletter Birth Control News. Few people have done so much to benefit women’s health and progress.

Despite all the good work she did for many people, Marie Stopes is often left unmentioned in histories of birth control. She was not a perfect person. At times, she advocated eugenics, a belief that society would be improved if people of low physical and mental health did not have children. Although she herself was not a racist, many people who advocated eugenics did believe that the white race was somehow better than other races. Today these beliefs have been rejected by scientists and social leaders, but Marie Stopes’ reputation has been permanently damaged.

Even though Stopes was not always right, I still believe we can honor the good work she did at a time when very few other people were willing to educate the public about birth control. We ought to acknowledge the good that she did and try to forgive her mistakes.   

Maria Montessori–a Teacher for the World

During these waning weeks of summer, thousands of children are returning to school. Many parents struggle with questions about how the distance learning experience of last year has affected them. Will the re-entry into school go well? This is a good time to remember the words of Maria Montessori who wrote: One test of the correctness of educational procedure is the happiness of the child.

Who was Maria Montessori? She was a woman who influenced early education throughout the world. But her path to education and to becoming the founder of a worldwide network of schools was an unexpected one.

Doctor Maria Montessori

Born in 1870 in Chiaravalle, Italy, Montessori entered a technical school as a teenager, intending to become an engineer. After graduating from that program, she decided that she would prefer to be a physician and entered medical school in Rome. Both of these careers were unlikely choices for a woman in Italy at that time, but Montessori never seemed to consider the more usual female path of giving up her career to become a wife and mother.

Medical school was difficult for her because she was a woman and was therefore not allowed to view a naked body in the same room as male students. She had to do her studies in the laboratory by herself after other students had left. During medical school, Montessori specialized in the treatment of children with physical and mental disabilities that made it difficult for them to benefit from conventional education. After she completed her degree, she continued to work with these children and to study treatments available.

Maria Montessori’s only child, a son, was born two years after she graduated from medical school. If she and her partner had married, she would have had to resign from her professional work, so the two of them agreed to remain unmarried but to be faithful to each other. Unfortunately, her partner was pressured into marriage by his family, so Montessori was left with the full responsibility of raising their son. She was forced to allow the child to be raised by other people and was not in contact with him until he became an adolescent. In later life he worked with her in setting up her schools and promoting her educational ideas.

As Montessori studied children and how they learned, she came to realize that methods devised to teach children with mental disabilities would be beneficial to all children. She devised teaching materials and set up learning environments so that children could work on their own and learn from one another. Montessori also continued lecturing and writing and her work became well-known in Europe and beyond. Many of her suggestions are couched as “rules” for adults working with children:

Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.

The greatest sign of success for a teacher… is to be able to say, ‘The children are now working as if I did not exist.

Although not many children across the world attend Montessori schools, the ideas and practices that Maria Montessori pioneered have affected education for many of us.

Frances Trollope—a Troublesome Visitor

We often hear stories of immigrants who came to America hoping to find a country superior to the one they left. Many settled in the new land and became enthusiastic American patriots. Some histories, however, tell the stories of immigrants who came for practical reasons and some who discovered that America did not live up to their expectations. Frances Trollope was one of these disillusioned immigrants. She came, observed, and then went back home. Worse than that, she wrote about her experiences in a book that outraged many Americans.

Frances Trollope, born Frances Milton in 1779, was a well-educated Englishwoman, daughter of a minister, wife of a barrister, and the mother of five young children. Her husband was not a wealthy man, and when Frances heard about a new idealistic community being set up in America, she decided that she could educate her sons inexpensively there and live a comfortable life. In 1827, she packed up several of her children and headed off for the new country. The plan was for her husband to follow later with their younger children.

Frances Trollope

Trollope’s idea had grown out of her friendship with Fanny Wright, a radical reformer who planned to build a new settlement in Tennessee where enslaved Americans could earn money to buy their freedom. The hope was that slavery would disappear and that slaveowners would not suffer any great loss of income.

When Frances Trollope arrived in America, she had learned enough about slavery to be a strong abolitionist. What she did not know, however, was that she would be surprised and shocked by the everyday habits of many Americans. She observed, took notes, and later wrote about what she had seen. Several years later, she published her first book: Domestic Manners of the Americans, which became both a best seller and one of the most hated books of the time. Her comments on the dining habits of the men she met on a river boat journey were often quoted by both friends and critics:

…the voracious rapidity with which the viands were seized and devoured …the loathsome spitting, from the contamination of which it was absolutely impossible to protect our dresses; the frightful manner of feeding with their knives, till the whole blade seemed to enter into the mouth; and the still more frightful manner of cleaning the teeth afterwards with a pocket knife…

None of Trollope’s plans for life in America worked out as she had hoped. Fanny Wright’s community in Nashoba, Tennessee, was a failure and Trollope was not able to settle there with her family. She took her sons to Cincinnati, Ohio and tried to earn a living by writing and lecturing but was not successful. She was not sympathetic to the American culture and offended many people by noting the discrepancies between American ideals and the behavior she observed.  

In 1831, Trollope moved back to England and lived the rest of her life in Europe. She traveled around the continent and wrote travel books about Belgium, France, and Germany. She also began writing novels and by the time she died in 1863, had published 100 books.  Her books were very popular, and during her lifetime she was considered one of the outstanding novelists of the 19th century. Modern critics, however, have been critical of her work, and most of her books have become unavailable except in specialized collections.

Two of Frances Trollope’s sons became writers. Thomas Adolphus Trollope was a well-known historian and respected in his time, but Anthony Trollope, the younger son, outshone him. He was the author of several series of books that have been turned into BBC drama series. His Barchester Chronicles and The Pallisers have made him the most famous Trollope of them all.

Lydia Maria Child—A Lifelong Fighter for Justice

When Europeans arrived in North America during the 1600s, many of them were surprised to find that people were already living in this “new land”. Nonetheless, the Europeans believed they had the right to take over the continent. Several centuries later, Americans are still struggling to undo long established injustices. After President Biden was elected in 2000, he appointed the first person of Native American ancestry to his Cabinet as Secretary of the Interior—Deb Haaland. The rights of Indian tribes have been recognized as an important value. But it took many arguments over hundreds of years to start ensuring justice for Native Americans. 

One of the earliest and most persistent fighters for fair treatment of Native Americans was the novelist and activist Lydia Maria Child. During her long life she fought for social equality for all races and sexes while at the same time carrying on her career as one of the most popular writers of the 19th century. Unlike many of the more famous suffragists, she was not willing to place the importance of women’s rights above the importance of justice for enslaved people and Native Americans.

Lydia Maria Child

Child was born in Massachusetts in 1802 into a family of strict Calvinists. As a girl, she did not receive much formal education, but her brother, Convers Francis, shared his books with her and encouraged her studies. After her mother’s death, Child lived for a time with her brother’s family and was introduced to many of his friends from Harvard. With his encouragement she wrote her first novel, Hobomok: a tale of Early Times, in 1824 and its success started her on a lifelong career as a writer.

Hobomok was widely acclaimed and brought a level of fame to the young author. She was even given a free ticket to use the Boston Atheneum, a valuable library from which women were usually barred. But Child was not content to support only popular causes. Ten years later, when she published an abolitionist pamphlet, “Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans called Africans” the ticket to the Atheneum was snatched away from her and her books were removed from the library. Despite this rejection, Child continued to support the three causes that were most important to her—Indian rights, Abolition, and Women’s Suffrage. Throughout her life, she never wavered in her loyalty to her causes.

After her marriage in 1828, Child continued to write, and her works were popular. Her practical domestic guide, The American Frugal Housewife, was one of the most successful books of the 19th century. Her husband, David Child, was an activist and public speaker, but he was never able to support himself and his wife. He developed many commercial ideas and borrowed money to carry out projects that rarely succeeded. His wife was responsible for earning enough money to support the couple, but she was not allowed to make decisions about spending it. Her husband could invest her money in any way he wished. Even when she wrote her will, she found that she was forbidden to distribute her money or the property her father had left her unless her husband signed the will. This must have made her more aware than many other women of the need for women’s rights to include the right to own property as well as to vote. Nonetheless, despite some short-lived separations, the couple continued to maintain their marriage.  

Lydia Maria Child lived until 1880 and during all those years of life she continued her tireless support of the important social reforms of the time. It seems ironic that such a tough, committed fighter should be remembered, if she remembered at all, by a sentimental children’s poem she wrote. It is the traditional Thanksgiving poem “Over the river and through the trees, to Grandmother’s House we go…”

To learn more about this tireless fighter for human rights, you can read the excellent biography The First Woman in the Republic by Caroline Karcher (1994).