Adventures in Feministory: Anna Elizabeth Dickinson

If you think politics today is a boy's club imagine 1860s America. The Civil War was beginning, slavery was not yet illegal, and women were still a good eighty years from receiving the right to vote. Yet one fiery young woman was able to become a national celebrity through her impassioned speeches on social reform. Anna Elizabeth Dickinson had her first anti-slavery piece published at the age of fourteen. As an advocate for black suffrage in addition to emancipation, and equal opportunity and pay for women in addition to the vote, Dickinson was one of the best-known reformers of her time.


Raised in a Quaker household, Dickinson was fired from one of her first jobs for her outspoken criticism of General George McClellan. She began speaking out and became a regular lecturer at the American Anti-Slavery Society meetings at the Cooper Institue in New York. Much like many of today's brightest women cast in the spotlight, critics of Dickison would focus on her appearance, dressing style, and femininity as point of contention over her actual skills.

Although some of her popularity was due to the fact that she was one of the few women (and a young one at that--she is often referred to, and saw herself as, the American Joan of Arc) to be so well known for their political allegiances, there was more to Dickinson than her novelty identity. Her speeches had no small impact on the Republican party, and put her in great demand as a speaker. At the age of 21 Dickinson spoke in Washington DC and criticized Lincoln's lazy approach to emancipation, unfair treatment of black soldiers, and the lack of legal protection offered to freedmen--with Lincoln himself as well as most high-ranking Republican politicians in the crowd.

Other progressive organizations of the time vied for her support as her name carried so much celebrity. But rather than casting allegiance with a specific organization such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton's American Equal Rights Association, Dickinson acted more as an independent advocate, and rallied for more than just women's right to vote. Her speech "Woman's Work and Wages" argued that women should receive the same pay as men for the same work. "A Struggle of Life" was about working women and focused on the tragic story of Hester Vaughn, an English immigrant who became pregnant from rape, lost her job because of the child, and then lost her child due to poverty and consequently arrested and charged with infanticide. Showcasing the intersection of gender, class, and the law, Dickinson's rally against the injustices poor working women faced under the legal system moved the Workingwomen's Association to call for a retrial for Vaughn, who was eventually acquitted.

Besides deploring the immense lack of opportunities for opportunistic women in America, other major themes of her work included recognizing those members of society disenfranchised and overlooked. Dickinson was on one of the first transcontinental railroad trips to California, and along the way wrote in defense of Mormon women by attacking polygamy and denounced the inhuman treatment of Chinese railway workers.

Dickinson hung up her orator hat early on and wrote three books, all with political undertones. She also tried her hand at acting but found even harsher critics than before. She died in relative obscurity.

So do yourself--and Anna D--a favor and learn more about her! I recommend America's Joan of Arc by J. Matthew Gallman for a great biography on Dickinson and the era she first commanded and quickly lost. It's filled with awesome little details too: an avid horseback rider, Dickenson found riding side saddle to be dangerous, uncomfortable, and sexist! "Dickenson took pride in riding—astride—where no other white women had ventured, and she gleefully scandalized some of the locals by donning men's trousers for the task." Susan B. Anthony also wrote her some pretty steamy notes! (Not a joke!)

by Kjerstin Johnson
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Kjerstin Johnson is a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. She is the former editor in chief of Bitch. She tweets at @kajerstin

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