Sunday, 5 June 2011

Writers and Fighters

It's been a while since I studied my list of 100 influential women and so I want to pick that up again.  In the next batch of five, as they come in chronological order, we have

Jane Austen (1775 - 1817), ranked 13th by the author Deborah Felder in her book, The 100 Most Influential Women of All Time.  

I won't write about Jane as I've written about her before.  If you are big a fan - and that club is quite large - I'm guessing you'll already know quite a bit about her.

Dorothea Lynde Dix (1802 - 1887), ranked 31 out of 100.  

She was an American activist who lobbied Congress and state legislatures on behalf of the indigent insane.  She was responsible for the establishment of the first mental asylums in the US.  Prior to this any insane person who had no family to look after them was placed in the care of an individual who received money from the town funds.  With no regulation and poor funding, there were many instances of abuse and neglect.  Prior to becoming an activist she wrote a book, Conversations on Common Things, a sort of comprehensive text book for your 1824 student.  You can read it yourself here.  I have a graduate degree and I don't know half those things!  Dix also served as Superintendent of Army Nurses during the Civil War.  It could be argued how successful she was in this role, as she was often in conflict not only with the  doctors, but with the nurses she managed as well.  Her unstinting care for both Confederate and Union soldiers alike did however earn her the respect and admiration of the Confederate South.

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) was ranked number 20. 

Originally named Isabella Baumfree, she renamed herself around 1843.  Born into slavery, her last owner promised her freedom a year before the New York legislature abolished slavery there, if she worked hard for him in the meantime, but changed his mind later.  She did the work she felt owed, spinning 100 pounds of wool, before she walked away to freedom.  She said she didn't run, feeling that was dishonest, but walking away was acceptable.   When later, after the abolition of slavery had passed, she learned the former owner had illegally sold her 5 year old son to an owner in Alabama.  She took her case to court to get custody of her son and was the first black woman to win a case against a white man.   Sojourner is best remembered for a speech, "Ain't I a Woman", for which there are different versions, depending upon the recorder.  Truth's own account of her life can be found here.    She helped recruit black soldiers for the Civil War.  She did a lot of public speaking - at a time when this was highly unusual for women - supporting abolition, of course, but also women's rights.

I nearly titled this post, The Sisters Grimke, for Sarah Grimke (1796-1873), ranked 25th, and

Angelina Grimke (1805-1879), ranked 24th.  

These sisters were among 13 children born to a judge, an Episcopalian and plantation owner in South Carolina.  The sisters were very close and both found slavery abhorrent.  They were also frustrated at not being able to pursue the educational opportunities granted to their male siblings.  They rebelled, first against the Episcopal church, then left the Presbyterian church to join the Quakers.  Even the Quakers, however, found their public speeches about abolition to be inappropriate activities for women and they did not support Sarah's intention to train as a minister.  When they attended the Convention of the American Anti-Slavery Society, they were the only women present.  Angeline addressed the Massachusetts State Legislature in 1837 concerning abolition, and was the first women in the United States ever to address a legislative body.  She pointed out that the North abetted slavery by buying products grown or made in the Southern slave states.  Both sisters seem to have spent a large part of their lives fighting the establishment of the day on behalf of themselves and others, though in their later years they each settled down to quieter personal life due to ill health.

Though Truth was illiterate, her story has been published a number of times and all the other women were writers of speeches and letters as well as books.  Jane Austen, of course, wrote anonymously, as well bred women of her time were not supposed to publish books.  All of these women pushed the boundaries on issues we recognise today as important, but they were highly unique in their own time.  Reading about them is really quite humbling, not to mention exhausting!  I'm not cut out to be a fighter myself, and my writing is pretty much limited to this blog, but if nothing else, I can pay homage by reminding you as well as myself about what amazing things they accomplished.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I discuss Sojourner Truth in my American Literature I course. I had not known about her winning court case. There is a legend about her that she once bared her breast to an audience in order to PROVE that she was she was an imposingly tall woman.