• Author of America’s first anti-slavery book
• Co-founder of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society and planner of anti-slavery fundraising fairs
• Early advocate for Native American rights
• Co-founder of Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Society
• Author of the first historical novel in the United States
• Prolific and successful novelist, editor, journalist and scholar
• One of the earliest women to earn a living through her writing
Read her story, and I offer some thoughts at the end – lessons you can adopt for yourself right now!
One of Child’s biographer’s, Joan Goodwin, once wrote, “Lydia Maria Child was a novelist, editor, journalist and scholar who produced a body of work remarkable for its brilliance, originality and variety, much of it inspired by a strong sense of justice and love of freedom.” Indeed, by the time Child passed away in 1880, having helped to bring about an end to slavery, she was one of the most successful, courageous, and prolific women writers in American history – and someone who risked income and fame to take the stands she did. As Carolyn Karcher wrote about her, “she boldly tackled problems of racial, sexual, and economic justice that our society has yet to resolve – problems she never allowed cynics to dismiss as insoluble.”
Born in Medford, Massachusetts, in 1802 to Susannah Rand Francis and Convers Francis, a successful baker and businessman, “Maria,” as she later chose to be called, was heavily influenced by her older brother, also named Converse, who attended Harvard. Maria was allowed to read books from the library of the family’s Congregational minister and developed a life-long love for literature, ideas, and education. She assumed her first teaching job at the age of eighteen in Maine, which had just become a free state through the Missouri Compromise allowing Missouri to become a slave-holding state. In Maine, Maria became a member of the Boston Society of the New Jerusalem (Swedenborgian Society), initiating a life-long fascination with, and tolerance for, world religions.
Maria published her first book in 1824, Hobomok, A Tale of Early Times, which was the first historical novel published in the United States and presented a strong defense of Native America rights. She continued to write in this genre in the 1820s, and also began to publish children’s stories (although she had none of her own), became the editor of a children’s magazine, opened a school at her home in Watertown, Massachusetts, and wrote the first book of domestic advice geared toward lower income women – The Frugal Housewife. By 1829, the year after her marriage to David Child, the leading abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was referring to Maria Child as the “First Woman in the Republic.”
Maria Child met Garrison in 1830, and soon after began writing for his anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator. She co-founded the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1831 with Maria Weston Chapman, the same year Nat Turner’s Rebellion set pro-slavery whites on edge, and became a leader within Garrison’s New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1832. That same year, Maria began to publish a series of biographical sketches of accomplished women in history titled The History and Condition of Women in Various Ages and Nations. Women’s history was a theme she pursued throughout her literary life. Then, in 1833, with the publication of An Appeal in Behalf of that Class of Americans Called Africans, Maria Child had written the first anti-slavery book in America. In the book’s introduction she wrote, "I am fully aware of the unpopularity of the task I have undertaken, but though I expect ridicule and censure, it is not in my nature to fear them."
Maria Child paid a high price. “Fans” of her children’s magazine pulled their support and she had to close it. Her books stopped selling. The Boston Athenaeum suspended her library privileges. As Jone Johnson Lewis wrote, "Her popularity plummeted.” Previously, it had been enviable.
During the latter part of the 1830s, Maria planned anti-slavery fundraising fairs, attended conventions, and continued calling for an immediate end to slavery. She also published the History and Condition of Women to further her work for women’s rights.
For Maria Child, along with her colleagues including Maria Weston Chapman, Mary Livermore, and Lucy Stone, their work was about justice and equality for everyone – women, African Americans, and Native Americans. It was all connected.
In 1841, after years of contending with her husband’s failed business dealings, Maria (who provided the bulk of the family income) moved to New York City where she served as the editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, the weekly newspaper of Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society. Eventually, she was able to separate her finances from David’s, and after an editorial disagreement with Garrison she left to write Letters from New York about her experiences. Luckily the book was quite popular and Maria regained some of the fame and admiration she had lost earlier. In 1844, she returned to writing for children and published the work she is best known for: “Over the River and Through the Woods.”
With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, under which Northerners were legally bound to return escaped slaves to the South, Maria kept up her anti-slavery writing. She wrote pieces for the progressive New-York Tribune when the abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner was nearly caned to death by a Southern colleague on the Senate floor, and when “civil war” raged in Kansas over the issue of allowing slavery. In 1859, as John Brown sat in prison after his raid on Harper’s Ferry, she wrote to him and offered to nurse him back to health. She sent copies of these letters to the Governor of Virginia who published them in a local newspaper. Later, the letters were published as a pamphlet and widely distributed. After John Brown’s death, Maria helped plan a service for him in Boston.
In 1861, with the outbreak of the Civil War, Maria Child edited Harriet Jacobs’ autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave-Girl and made sure it was published. Harriet Jacobs’ book caused a sensation. More of Maria’s anti-slavery tracts followed, and by 1864, the year after the Emancipation Proclamation, she joined others in calls for education and the redistribution of land for African Americans in the South. She also took on President Jackson’s racist Reconstruction policies.
Maria kept on writing, about world religions and tolerance, about Native Americans, and about growing old gracefully. She became involved with the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association, and the Free Religious Association founded by a group of Unitarians in Boston. She had been a woman of faith and theological inquiry throughout her life as a Congregationalist, Swedenborgian, and Unitarian. As Dorothy Emerson wrote about her, there was a “constant crossing of boundaries between religion and social action”– an example of ‘lived religion’ that acted and didn’t wait for things to change.”
Maria Child died in Wayland in 1880 and was buried there next to her husband. She died childless, despite the dozens of articles, books, and magazine issues for children she had generated. Her works for anti-slavery, women’s rights, and Native American rights numbered in the dozens. In her eulogy, the abolitionist Wendell Phillips noted that she was "ready to die for a principle and starve for an idea ... We felt that neither fame, nor gain, nor danger, nor calumny had any weight with her."
Every single one of these is something we can apply today!
Know what you stand for, and have the courage to defend it
In Maria’s case, she lived at a time of extreme social upheaval and it took great courage, especially for a woman, to stand up and be counted.
Play to your strengths
In Maria’s case her strength was her writing, and she used her talents brilliantly to further her causes. She was not a particularly good speaker, nor a skilled organizer as others were. She stuck to what she was good at.
Never stop educating yourself
Especially if you’re a writer who people view as an expert on a particular subject, you must keep up with “the latest” and constantly expand your knowledge.
Establish a strong support system
Especially if you are going to express controversial views, you must have people around you who will support and defend you. This can also mean creating organizations to support your cause. You don’t want to be “out there” alone.
Know how to use the media and reach the public
Maria published dozens of articles in The Liberator and New-York Tribune, two widely read newspapers, as well as widely distributed political pamphlets.
Associate yourself with the right people
Maria’s support system included her associations with William Lloyd Garrison, Maria Weston Chapman, and others who formed Boston’s impressive social reform community.
Thanks to Maria Chapman, Harriet Jacobs was able to publish the account of her experience as a “slave girl.”
Be open minded to other ideas
Maria was a lifelong student of world religions, and preached tolerance.
Watch over your own finances
David Child, Maria’s husband, was constantly in debt or terminating failed business attempts. She often had to lend him money to bail them out.
2012 © Bonnie Hurd Smith
Bonnie Hurd Smith, the President and CEO of History Smiths, is an expert on using history in new and innovative ways. She is a marketing, PR, event planning, and cultural tourism professional who also happens to be a respected historian (especially women's history), author, and public speaker.