Lydia Maria Child, 1802 - 1880
A Harbinger of 19th Century Feminism
by Trudy Mercer
When abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison's 1830 homage to Lydia Maria Child named her "the first woman in the republic," it was a tribute to genius "as versatile as it is brilliant," and praised the remarkable contributions of her activism and intellect.
Child's writing championed the rights of African Americans, Native Americans, and women, producing [in] numerous articles, short stories, novels, and gift books. She was a remarkable innovator in American Letters. Juvenile Miscellany (1826-34), the first American children's periodical, made her name a household word in many American families. She pioneered the self-help genre with TheFrugal Housewife (1829) and The Mother's Book (1831), unique resources for middle and lower-class women that brought her fame and popularity. Her five volume work, The History of the Condition of Women in Various Ages and Nations (1832-35), preceded and laid the foundation for the nineteenth-century women's movement.
Child grew up in a white, middle-class family of modest means, the youngest of six children. Like so many women in the nineteenth century, her brother's education was the family priority, and Child's formal education was brief and unremarkable. She was twenty-two when she wrote her first novel, Hobomok (1824), in six short weeks. Its early sales were poor, and prompted Child to write famed literary magnate, George Ticknor, for help promoting her book. Ticknor not only solicited positive reviews but invited her to attend his Boston salon, where she met many famous writers.
In 1833, she published An Appeal in favor of that class of Americans called Africans, the first full scale analysis of the political, economic, and cultural foundations and consequences of slavery. The controversial nature of the work was accented by the fact that a woman wrote with authority on a hotly debated topic. Booksellers, afraid to be seen carrying it, sent their copies back to the publisher, only to discover that it was in such demand that they requested the return of those copies and asked for more.
An Appeal was credited for changing the minds of prominent slavery supporters, but it forced Child to sacrifice her popularity for the cause. The outrage among slavery advocates, and those who felt she had stepped outside her place as a woman, caused so many people to cancel subscriptions to Juvenile Miscellany, that she resigned as editor to keep it from failing. The Boston Athenaeum withdrew the library privileges crucial to her research for The History of the Condition of Women. Ticknor turned his back on her and she was barred from Boston literary society. Family and friends berated her and ostracized her from their company. Although dismayed by the public and private rebukes, Child remained firm in her convictions and worked for the rights of the oppressed throughout her life. That she was a woman who chose to write rather than speak publicly has made Child less visible historically than many of her contemporaries, and it is only right that her work is now being aggressively reclaimed by feminist scholars. Lydia Maria Child was a tremendous influence on the politics, literature, and culture of the nineteenth century. Her magnitude of spirit and talent are a legacy for us all.