Early American Feminists, Real and Fictional

This has been one of those weird and inadvertantly synchronous weeks, where the same topic keeps cropping up in completely different and unrelated ways. Since I find early American feminism and the suffrage movement interesting, I decided to share.

First, on Monday, I heard a teaser for an NPR story that I made a mental note to go back and listen to later online. I just did, and it was the fascinating story of Victoria Claflin Woodhull, “The First Woman to Run for President – in 1872.” Woodhull turns out to have been quite a controversial figure, stating in speeches her opinion that marriage was akin to slavery and advocating her right to practice “free love,” meaning that she should have the freedom to both love and change her mind. (She had been sold into marriage very early in life to an alcoholic, so she had some strong views on the matter.) She didn’t sit well with many of the suffragists of middle class, “more serious” backgrounds, but she was quite sincere in her beliefs and did become the presidential nominee for the Equal Rights Party. (Frederick Douglass was nominated as her vice-president, but without being asked. He declined to even acknowledge the nomination.) In the end, her name didn’t even appear on the ballot.

This tied in eerily well with the mystery series I recently rediscovered at the library and had just checked out two more books in, the Seneca Falls series by Miriam Grace Monfredo.* The series begins during the events surrounding the Women’s Rights Convention of 1848 and then continues on through the Civil War. The main character, Glynis Tryon, is the librarian for the town of Seneca Falls, NY, and a very independent, staunchly unmarried woman. While the mysteries she keeps getting somewhat reluctantly embroiled in are obviously fictional, as are many of her friends and relatives, the reader still encounters quite a bit of historical fact as well.

For example, Glynis becomes friends with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Reading these books has brought these women more to life for me, in that I never realized before that, although I almost always heard their names together in history classes, they were actually quite different as people. Anthony remained unmarried her whole life, which freed her to become the famous orator we learn about today. Stanton, on the other hand, (voluntarily) had 7 children, and had to restrict most of her work to writing (though she did plenty of that.) Even so, they were good friends for 50 years.

Other historical figures make more cameo-like appearances throughout the books, such as Professor Thaddeus Lowe in the book I most recently finished, featured just before his founding of the Union Army Balloon Corps under President Lincoln, for the purpose of reconnaisance during the Civil War. Glynis and many of her friends are also involved in the Underground Railroad and the Temperance Movement. For added spice, her niece Bronwen is employed first as a Pinkerton agent and then as an agent for Treasury Department at the very beginning of the Secret Service, in what turns out to be the very eventful early days of the Civil War. Another niece, Kathryn, works as a nurse under Drs. Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell at their New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. The final niece, Emma, owns her own dressmaking shop, which she insists on retaining as her property and continuing to work in after marriage.

I confess that I read these books much more for the history than the mystery. I read the first several books when I was in high school and upon rediscovering the series in the library a few months ago, I truly couldn’t tell you what the mysteries in those initial books were about at all. But the time and the place are fascinatingly realistic, and I’ve been enjoying getting back into them. It’s really an amazing time in history to look back on and imagine, especially for women. The struggle for women’s suffrage comes alive, and frankly, it makes being a spinster seem really cool. (No offense to my new husband.) Highly recommended for other historical fiction buffs. May remind some people of Dr. Quinn.

-posted by Dana

*Gasp! Wikipedia does not have information about either this series or this author! I haven’t had that happen before.

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One Response to Early American Feminists, Real and Fictional

  1. tytoalba says:

    Weird and synchronous indeed…when I get the scrambled bits together the second part of my Sheik post covers neighboring ground.

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