Lydia Maria Child
by Robin Proud
Prairie UU Society
presented on October 20, 2013

Since this is th­­e 6th woman I have researched and presented from our UU heritage, I am no longer surprised to find that there were women in the 18th and 19th centuries who had great accomplishments in literature, the arts, and social action, even though we have little or no knowledge of them. But this one totally blew me away. The Preface of the authoritative biography states:

For half a century, Lydia Maria Child (1802-80) was a household name in America. The famous antislavery agitator William Lloyd Garrison hailed her as "the first woman in the republic." Senator Charles Sumner credited her with inspiring his career as an advocate of racial equality and sought her advice on Reconstruction policy. The suffragist leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton cited Child's encyclopedic "History of the Condition of Women" as an invaluable resource for feminists. The Transcendentalist theologian Theodore Parker pronounced her monumental "Progress of Religious Ideas" "the book of the age; and written by a woman!" A newspaperman ranked her popular weekly column of the 1840's "Letters from New York" "almost at the head of journalism in America", Edgar Allan Poe praised one of her novels. Her "Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans" was widely acknowledged as the most comprehensive antislavery book ever published in America. In addition, she wrote several more novels, manuals on housekeeping and caring for the sick, reflections on aging, and over several years a large part of the contents of the first magazine for children in America. She also edited the first-person account "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl". Her correspondence with John Brown after his failed attempt, and with the governor of Virginia on the Harpers Ferry event was widely reprinted.

And yet she is so little known, remembered for a children's poem if for anything.

As I look at the lives of women I have brought to you, I see some commonalities. As I began to list them, I saw they also matched up with the ancient elements of the Hero's Journey described notably by Joseph Campbell. Even if you don't recognize that name, you are all familiar with the arc of the hero, seen in fairy tales and myths around the world, including our modern fairy tales such as Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz and Harry Potter. So let's look at Child's life through that lens.

The hero often feels out of place and has attributes not expected in society. All the women I've studied were exceptionally well-read and self-educated. This was of course the only way they could be educated, as no higher education was available to women, even the level we now know as high school.

Lydia Francis, as she was born, had parents who ran a farm and a bakery and had no particular interest in education or literature. Their three oldest children followed in their footsteps but their fourth child, Convers, who was to grow up to be a Unitarian minister, loved books and learning. He enlisted the persuasion of the local pastor and physician to convince his father that he should go to a preparatory school and then to Harvard. Even though Lydia was 6 years younger than Convers, she shared his love of literature and read everything he brought home. In a letter she wrote at age 15 to Convers who was at college, she reviewed Milton's "Paradise Lost" by saying she admired the style and grandeur, "But don't you think that Milton asserts the superiority of his own sex in rather too lordly a manner?... Eve is made to say to Adam, 'God is the law, thou mine: to know no more Is woman's happiest knowledge, and her praise'.

The other formative experience of Lydia's youth was the illness and death of her mother. It seems that Susannah Child suffered from tuberculosis, not helped by the strain of bearing 7 children in 12 years, one of whom died. Lydia was 12 and all her siblings out of the house in her mother's last days. In an essay Child recounted how she came home one day "having done her work wrong side outward" and lost her accustomed place at the head of the class, that is, she came home unhappy. When her mother asked her to "go down stairs and bring her a glass of water", Lydia asked "pettishly ...why she did not call the domestic to do it" (that is, the maid). Her mother gave a "look of mild reproach" and asked again "Will not my daughter bring a glass of water for her poor sick mother?" Lydia did it but "instead of smiling and kissing her, as I was wont to do, I sat the glass down very quick, and left the room". She did not return to say good-night but later in bed she was struck with remorse, went back to ask forgiveness and found it was too late, her mother had "just sunk into an uneasy slumber", from which she would not awaken. Commentators have put forward theories of how this incident drove Lydia to be a caretaker devoted to others, and at the same time constantly seeking their love and approval. This incident could also have been related to her decision in her teens to stop using the name Lydia and go by her middle name of Maria, as she said the original name had unhappy associations.

The first task of a hero is to leave home, and in 1815 Maria went to live with a married sister in Maine. It turned out that this gave her a more varied social circle than she had enjoyed in Medford, Mass. Although her parents' home was near Boston, the stratified society didn't afford her the opportunities she would later earn. In Maine, Maria also met Penobscot Indians, not only in brief encounters, but by actually visiting their encampments. From this she fashioned at the age of 22 the novel Hobomok. This was the period when Washington Irving and James Fennimore Cooper were expressly working to create an American literature based on American history. This in itself was new, but Maria's take was quite exceptional. When the intended husband of the heroine is lost at sea, she becomes the wife of an Indian and bears him a child. Later the original fiancé returns and Hobomok nobly gives up his wife and moves west. We already see here a belief that Child maintained throughout her life, that interracial marriage was not a problem, and indeed could be a solution to racial issues. There is a lot more in this novel about religion, patriarchy, and sexuality that is striking for its time and the youth of its author. For instance, a character who seems to embody Child's ideas finds institutionalized religion and even the Bible narrow and harsh. She prefers nature "In creation, one may read to their fill. It is God's library - the first Bible he ever wrote." Of this, biographer Carolyn Karcher remarks "Here, in embryo, a dozen-odd years before Emerson proclaimed it, is the Transcendentalist gospel."

Reaction to this book was understandably mixed. Some were horrified by the idea of the "revolting" relationship but many appreciated the literary merit and the "American" quality of the novel. However, Maria had published it at her own expense, that is her father's expense, and she could not continue to write without more income. In typical fashion, she did not sit back but reached out to achieve a goal. In our hero analogy, a hero meets people or creatures who either help or hinder. But Maria also took matters into her own hands. She heard that the famous Harvard professor George Ticknor had spoken well of Hobomok, and she wrote to him asking him to help promote it. He agreed, getting additional reviews and excerpts printed, and inviting Maria to literary soirees in Boston. With her fame increasing, she published The Rebels, a novel of the Revolution. She designed it as an allegory with the plot somewhat secondary and overall it was weaker than her first book. The strongest parts of it were her recreation of the political and religious rhetoric of the time. A speech and a sermon she wrote for the novel sounded so authentic that they were reprinted in 19th century schoolbooks and memorized by schoolchildren as historic speeches.

Most of the women I've researched were single throughout life, Margaret Fuller marrying very late, Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Martineau, and Elizabeth Peabody never marrying. Maria seemed to have great good fortune in meeting early in life a man who shared her beliefs and enthusiasms. David Lee Child had a classical education, spoke 5 languages, had traveled in Europe and worked with famous politicians in Washington D.C. In 1823, when David was working as a diplomat in Portugal, he was so incensed by the crushing of a liberal movement in Spain that he threw off his career to go and fight for his ideals. (interesting that a similar motive would animate young people to go to Spain about a hundred years later.) The fight was a doomed one but illustrated David's way of living, which has often been called "quixotic". She found him intelligent and gallant. What she didn't know was that he was broke. He had forfeited his career and needed his parents to bail him out. He was 8 years older than Maria. She was still in her early twenties and enjoying the attention of salons as "the brilliant Miss Francis" courted by several authors and artists.

In 1826 Maria started work as the editor of the periodical that was to make her most famous - The Juvenile Miscellany. It had several aims - to entertain, to instruct and to mold children. Childhood was just being invented as a time with its own needs rather than children being treated as miniature adults and put immediately to work. There was great interest in moral and civic education for the new republic. Although today we would find the contents boring and didactic, they were a huge leap from competing journals which were mainly sermons preaching to the youth. Maria made sure to include verses, puzzles, and drawings. She also deliberately included stories showing the lives of Native Americans or slaves with the purpose of awakening the sympathies of her readers. Families were enthusiastic. Children waited on steps for the mail carrier when the magazine was due to arrive.

Maria continued to publish essays, stories and novels, and it seemed her career was secure. This may have helped her decide to marry David in 1828. His situation was rather desperate. As a fiery journalist, he had accused several important people of corruption and favoritism. Although these allegations may have been true, he had only the word of unreliable informants to back them up. He found himself being sued for libel, which cost him hundreds of dollars in legal fees. His newspaper The Massachusetts Journal was also in serious financial trouble. So from the beginning of their marriage, her income bailed him out. It would become clear that David, whatever his virtues of enthusiasm and sincerity, was absolutely incapable of dealing with money or running any type of business.

Even this difficult situation was grist for Maria's writing mill. In 1829, in addition to the Juvenile Miscellany and literary criticism and works for David's Massachusetts Journal, she published The Frugal Housewife, a handbook for young wives. There were some books on housekeeping in print, but they were mainly designed for an upper-class lady with chapters on "Morning Calls" "Dinner Parties" and "Servants". Child shared the lessons she had learned living with little, and her chapters included "Cheap Cakes" and "Common Pies". She stressed using everything, even faded fabrics, tainted butter, and pig's head. She had ample time to practice these economies when David spent six months in prison as the outcome of the libel suit.

Back to our hero story - the hero receives a call to action. Jesus meets John the Baptist, Harry is visited by Hagrid, Luke Skywalker finds Obi-wan. And Maria was the object of proselytizing by William Lloyd Garrison, who was beginning to build a national antislavery movement in 1830. But Maria did not blindly jump on board; rather she read and researched for herself. There were various solutions proposed at the time to the problem of slavery. Many felt that slaves should be freed and sent back to Africa - "repatriation". What Maria found was that blacks opposed this idea, seeing themselves as Americans entitled to American rights.

In 1832 David played a major part in the founding of the New England Anti-Slavery Society, along with Unitarian minister Samuel J May, Bronson Alcott, John Greenleaf Whittier, and others. And Maria, our hero, set off on her quest. In 1833 she published the first full-scale analysis of slavery - An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans. This was an amazing undertaking. She used history, logic, law, economics, religion, and a worldwide context to make her case. She included a section on the effects of slavery on both black and white women.

She knew that this book would be controversial but probably did not realize the extent of the outrage it provoked. In addition to condemning slavery in the South, she criticized racial prejudice in the North. Scathing reviews were followed by the doors of society being closed to her. Friends snubbed Maria and David. Her brother Convers counseled prudence and moderation and refused to take an abolitionist stand in his church. Her other brother James, who had named his daughter after her, now said he couldn't stomach "niggers" or "nigger-lovers".

Karcher says, "In addition to the pain of broken friendships, Child bore the cost of professional blacklisting as her erstwhile patrons among the Boston aristocracy mobilized against her. Former admirers like Harvard professor George Ticknor slammed their doors in her face, cut her dead in the street, and enforced a policy of ostracism toward anyone who violated the ban against her. The future attorney general of Massachusetts, James T. Austin, a political enemy of David's, who several years later would defend the mob killing of an abolitionist editor as a patriotic act, hurled the Appeal out the window with a pair of tongs. The Boston Athenaeum withdrew the free library privileges Ticknor had induced the trustees to confer on Child as a token of esteem that only one other woman had been accorded (library privileges Child desperately needed for her research in progress on The History of the Condition of Women. ) Most damagingly, readers boycotted her writings, and parents canceled their subscriptions to the Juvenile Miscellany. The Miscellany folded and even sales of The Frugal Housewife plummeted, reducing Child's already meager income to a pittance."

There was no way Child could have foreseen this level of reaction, and yet if she had I think she would have changed nothing. And to think we have never heard of this brilliant and brave woman and her important work!

Of course, there were abolitionists who supported Child and praised the book. Indeed many who joined the movement around this time credited the Appeal with their conversion to activism, including William Ellery Channing and Charles Sumner. Although it was only after a series of conversations that Maria was able to move Channing from a cautious position to full supporter of the cause, he always credited her with his change of heart.

While Maria produced a volume of anti-slavery stories and marched on with her history of women, David continued to take on idealistic causes. He spent time and money defending a Spanish crew charged with piracy, to no effect. Maria even traveled to Washington DC to petition president Jackson for mercy, but his reply was "By the Eternal, let them hang!" Next David worked on setting up a racially integrated settlement in Mexico but as plans were being worked out, that area became part of slave-holding Texas.

In 1835 David and Maria were invited by British abolitionists to travel to England for a speaking tour. They sold their belongings and traveled to New York. But at the dock as they were boarding the ship, officers arrested David for outstanding debts from his failed newspaper. Maria sat down on the quay and wept.

His next idea was to start a sugar beet enterprise in New England, thus avoiding the need to use sugar from cane worked by slaves. David traveled to England to learn the trade and order equipment, while Maria remained at home dealing with the many debts related to his failed businesses and lost legal cases. The Childs had had to give up their home and live in lodgings, which Maria always disliked. It also seems from letters that Maria was not psychologically or sexually fulfilled in her marriage. Maria obviously cared greatly for children but we know that the couple never had any of their own.

Once again, David's endeavor failed. The company who had sponsored him in the sugar beet enterprise, promising to pay for equipment and a salary, dissolved without giving him a penny. A second company also failed, and David was left with the bill for hundreds of dollars of machinery being shipped from Europe. David and Maria ended up trying to grow the crop themselves, painfully digging and weeding, with very little to show for it.

At the same time, the Abolitionist movement was struggling with a division known to many social movements. There was a split between those who wanted to be moderate and attract a larger audience, and those who wanted more radical and immediate action. The more radical faction voted to exclude women and non-resistants, that is pacifists. Some of us have first-hand experience with the type of split that strikes so many movements

In the hero myth, this is the part of Child's life where she undertook numerous quests and accomplished great deeds. In 1841 Maria took on the editorship of the National Anti-Slavery Standard which she would hold for two years, with David as Assistant Editor. She worked to put her stamp on it both in working to heal the schism and in reinventing the journal as a family newspaper. It attracted 5000 readers. But it became clear that sects within the movement were devoting at least as much energy to attacking each other as to abolishing slavery.

By now Maria had spent 15 years struggling to bail David out of various predicaments, working and worrying and realizing that he was incapable of change. In 1843 she took on the momentous step of legally separating her finances from David's. The law at the time stated that she could keep her property from her husband only by transferring it to another male custodian. She named their friend Ellis Loring, stating that she was doing this partly for David's benefit so that money would be available when he again needed help. She did not seek a divorce but she went ahead with her life staying in New York, where they had been living, while he returned to Massachusetts.

Maria used her surroundings to produce a series she called "Letters from New York", where she exposed a disparity we still recognize. "Wealth dozes on French couches, thrice piled and canopied with damask, while Poverty camps on the dirty pavement, or sleeps off its wretchedness in the watchhouse. There, amid the splendour of Broadway, sits the blind negro beggar, with horny hand and tattered garments.... In Wall-street and elsewhere, Mammon, as usual, coolly calculates his chance of extracting a penny from war, pestilence and famine; and Commerce with her loaded drays and skeletons of horses, is busy as ever fulfilling the "World's contract with the Devil". The real criminal, she said is the society that "makes its own criminals" and "If we can abolish poverty, we shall have taken the greatest step toward the abolition of crime."

At the same time Margaret Fuller was living in New York and writing on similar subjects. Both women took on the cause of prostitutes. Child defended and mentored a poor young woman indicted for an attack on a gentleman rake who had seduced and abandoned her. The judge claimed that since the young woman was obviously of low morals, she was totally at fault. Child ridiculed the lawyer's "lively picture of poor innocent men tempted, betrayed and persecuted by women"

Having taken on the huge topics of slavery and women's history, Maria turned next to world religion. "The Progress of Religious Ideas" was a 3 volume encyclopedia of comparative religion, written not to prove one as better or true but to see the similarities and differences. This was sacrilege! How dare she put Hindu or Confucian works on the same level as the holy Christian scriptures! Child herself had attended different churches, without finding a home. She wrote "The Unitarian meetings here chill me with their cold intellectual respectability. Mr. Barrett, the Swedenborgian ( a faith she had followed for a while), has only transferred the padlock of his chain from St Paul to Swedenborg. He is so narrow and bigoted. At the Calvinistic meeting, the preacher says "We thank thee, O Lord, that there is a hell of despair!" At the Episcopal churches, the minister, with perfumed handkerchief, addresses ladies in silks and satins, with prayer-books richly gilded, and exhorts them to contribute something toward building a chapel for the poor; it being very important that the poor should be taught sufficient religion to keep them from burning the houses and breaking open the stores of the rich. Now what can a poor sinner, like me, with such an intense abhorrence of shams, do in such places? I assure you that it is hard work to keep from rushing out of the nearest window, through the painted glass, at the risk of demolishing the image of St Paul or breaking Peter's sword in my exit."

The hero always has a descent into darkness and a rebirth. At this time Maria went through a period of Depression not helped by David's further failure in tobacco, peat and carting businesses. She and David occasionally lived together for short periods, and in 1853 they both moved in with her ailing father to care for him. But the increasing urgency of the slavery question, with The Fugitive Slave Act and the fight over slavery in Kansas kept her involved and active.

Finally the whole country was forced to confront slavery on October 17, 1859 with John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry. Although Maria and David deplored the use of violence, they commended Brown's dedication and willingness to die for the cause. Maria wrote to Brown offering to nurse him, and sent a similar letter to Henry Wise, the governor of the state of Virginia (West Virginia did not exist). He responded with gentlemanly courtesy yet told her that she was as guilty as Brown of having "whetted knives of butchers for our mothers, sisters, daughters, and babes. His attempt was a natural consequence of your sympathy." Feeling confident in his reply, he sent copies of the correspondence to the press. Maria quickly sent the letters and an explanation to the New York Tribune.

The conversation widened with Brown himself replying that although he no longer needed nursing and was being well treated, that he would appreciate help for the support of his family and the families of the other participants. Margaretta Mason, wife of Virginia senator James Mason, published a "vituperative letter, beginning "Do you read your Bible, Mrs. Child? If you do, read there 'Woe unto you, hypocrites'. She accused Child of ignoring the poor in her own cities while defending a criminal. She declared that the slaveholders were the true models of Christian charity in their concern for the wellbeing of their dependents. Maria quickly countered with Bible passages of her own as well as facts well supported by her own research on slavery. The entire exchange fascinated and energized her supporters while receiving scorn in the South. The correspondence was printed as a pamphlet and the amazing number of 300,000 copies were sold for five cents apiece.

Child still hoped to achieve emancipation without war or secession. She published "The Right Way The Safe Way", which she described as a "business-view" of the slavery question, omitting moral appeals. She also wrote a tract called "The Patriarchal Institution, as Described by Members of Its Own Family". Here she used satire by juxtaposing claims Southerners made (Slaves are Happy and Contented, Slavery is a Parental Relation) with fugitive slave advertisements and laws stating the methods allowed for punishing slaves. This is the same method we see on The Daily Show, just showing the hypocrisy of a position in its own words.

She followed this with the tract "The Duty of Disobedience to the Fugitive Slave Act: An Appeal to the Legislators of Massachusetts". In 1861 she edited and helped publish the book "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" by Harriet A. Jacobs. Maria was optimistic about the new president Lincoln. Many abolitionists had preferred Seward, but Maria commented that he had dropped his strong antislavery stance as soon as he started "baiting for a nomination".

Throughout the Civil War, Maria battled her ambivalence. She hated bloodshed and she hated slavery. She continued to send "paragraphs and collections of facts to the newspapers, to help public opinion on in the right direction." She was frustrated with Lincoln's delays in proclaiming emancipation and published an open letter to him in July 1862, unaware that Lincoln already planned to announce it and was just awaiting the strategic moment of a victory.

Maria was now 60 years old, which was considered an advanced age. She started collecting articles "peculiarly likely to be cheering, consoling, or strengthening to an old person", which were to become the book "Looking toward Sunset". For herself, she didn't slow down. She listed "Employments in 1864" filling 3 pages. On the first page she has "Wrote 235 letters; wrote 6 articles for newspapers; wrote 47 autograph articles for Fairs; wrote my Will; Corrected proofs for Sunset book; Read aloud 6 pamphlets and 21 volumes; Read to myself 7 volumes. Then followed charitable activities such as "Made 25 needle books for freed women" and "Gathered and made peck of pickles for hospitals", and at the end "Cooked 360 dinners; Cooked 362 breakfasts; Swept and dusted sitting-room and kitchen 350 times; Filled lamps 362 times; Swept and dusted chamber and stairs 40 times, Besides innumerable jobs too small to be mentioned".

With the slaves freed and the Civil War finally over, Maria's concerns shifted. In 1865 she published The Freedmen's Book, "Primer, anthology, history text, and self-help manual rolled into one (it) anticipates the twentieth-century progressive educators in conceptualizing the teaching of literacy as a process that starts with the cultivation of students' pride in their own identity. Accordingly, all of the selections relate to African peoples' struggle to liberate themselves from slavery in the New World."

Around this time Maria wrote "They say people grow more conservative as they grow older but I grow more radical." She denounced American interference in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. She was disappointed in the corruption of Reconstruction. She ardently supported extending the vote to both blacks and women. (She had been championing women's right to vote since at least 1856.) In 1869 she wrote "Though tired of battling, I cannot keep my hands off 'the woman question'. It is decidedly the most important question that has been before the world. She wrote articles explaining that sociocultural factors and not biology were responsible for differences in men's and women's place in society. She had also never lost her concern for native peoples, publishing in 1869 "An Appeal for the Indians", pointing out that cruelties inflicted by white citizens and armies far outweighed any claims of barbarity (mostly untrue) on the part of the Indians.

In the myth, the hero returns home. Maria's homecoming was rather sad. In the period 1871-2, Maria lost her brother, several friends and finally her husband, who she nursed in his last illness, cooking, cleaning, hauling water (she was then 70 years old). In spite of the rocky relationship they had had all those years, she devoted herself to publishing his writings after his death, as well as going to spiritualist and mediums hoping to hear a message from her life's companion.

As her last work, Child published "Aspirations of the World: A Chain of Opals" where she returned to comparative religion. She had been studying Buddhism and other non-Christian religions and was convinced that "there never has been in the world but one religion; which is the aspiration of man toward the Infinite." And that through all their sacred texts" all the great human family have contributed somewhat to the family jewels and left their precious legacies as heirlooms to posterity. She chose the opal as a symbol because "different colors glanced (from it) as the light varied" (representing the varying perception of truth). She included texts from the world's religions arranged in categories such as "Moral Courage", "Benevolence" and "Conscience". Maria's friends praised the book but generally it got very little attention.

In her last months, Maria insisted on living in a cottage with just one woman to help her rather than in a rooming house in Boston. She died of a heart attack on Oct 20, 1880 at the age of 78, having seen most of the 19th century. The funeral was small and private in accordance with her instructions, and the local Unitarian minister took the text from Child's own "Aspirations of the World". She had outlived much of her original fame, and her reputation continued to decline in the following century. Perhaps because she was involved in so many areas, others who were more prominent got the glory. Maybe because she wrote for children, housewives and mothers, as well as on national subjects, she was considered a lesser figure.

She has been somewhat rediscovered as a result of this biography from 1994 and a fairly recent (though not widely available) documentary. I'll close with the concluding section of Karcher's book.

Child's long career of activism continues to resonate with meaning as new groups come forward to carry on the struggle for a just world. Her legacy embodies the best of the American heritage. It reminds us that a national history tarnished by Indian genocide, black slavery, and white supremacy has also been contested by progressive Americans of all races, committed to translating the inspiring words of the Declaration of Independence into practice. Child's heroic fidelity to the vision of a multiracial, egalitarian America and her tenacity in the face of obstacles and defeats challenge her successors to emulate her example. We who inherit Child's unfinished revolution can take courage from the watchword that encapsulates her indomitable idealism: "Men's highest aspirations are prophecies."