Embattled maiden: The life of Anna Dickinson

One book sends me scurrying down rabbit holes to find more information about bits I hadn’t previously known. Reading about the suffrage movement, I came across this quote in Sisters:

During the war Anthony had discovered… a golden-voiced, new star of the abolitionist movement and the Republican party, Anna Dickinson. Those who heard Anna Dickinson lecture never forgot her combination of authenticity and magnetism, as well as her spontaneous interchanges with audiences… She became a national phenomenon.

National phenomenon! I had to know more. Sadly, there are very few extant books about Dickinson, and I had to bother the page desk at the library to unearth a copy of this book. (Sidenote: “bother” because it always seems as if my request is very tiresome to them. “Are you sure it’s here?” they always ask and sigh, double checking my call numbers. I got particular pleasure out of sending them back to gather four books at once, two of which were oversized, and having the attendee wheeze his way back to the desk to unceremoniously dump my tomes.)
At age 21, Anna Dickinson received a request from Congress to come to the House of Representatives to address the congressmen on a topic of her choosing. So in January of 1864, she spoke for nearly ninety minutes about the war to an assembly of Senators, Representatives, and President Lincoln. By this time, she’d been speaking publicly for four years, honing her craft and becoming a widely-sought-after speaker. Her style was to have an overwhelming array of facts, examples, and testimony intertwine with dramatic effect, vivid expression, winding the speech to a climactic point, and carried off with a “rich voice.”
Before she made her living as a speaker, she was a teacher, and then worked at the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia until she made a speech accusing General McClellan of treason for his poor judgement in the Civil War battle raging at the time. She was then fired for these comments, which propelled her into needing to speak for money, and upped her exposure immensely. She spoke her mind on any topic under the sun, from slavery to women’s rights to Grant’s corrupt administration, even vilifying gambling and drinking on a tour out West to less-than-agreeable audiences. She was notorious for handling hecklers so well that they felt as if lightning bolts had smote them.
Speeches entitled “Demagogues and Workingmen” and “Things Hoped For” contain Anna’s views on the economic and political problems of new industrial America. She was an enemy of sprawling business corporations, “So much for the beauty of the monopoly, and the benefits of the Pa. Central. What fools and worse people are to submit to such tyranny, and help build it up.” She condemned the gigantic industrial combines that were plundering the country. “I contend a dead corporation has no right to control the lives of living men.”
Times were changing, and the demand for lecturers was waning. As business dried up, Anna had to deal with reducing her household expenses and giving up the house in Philadelphia that her mother and sister resided in. She had invested in Chicago real estate that was now worthless after the 1871 fire. Scraping the bottom of the barrel, she decides to reinvent herself. In 1876 she writes, produces, and stars in her play about Anne Boleyn, launching the debut in Boston to great acclaim except in the New York papers (disdain for a newcomer’s audacity to put herself as star and to launch in Boston). The New York treatment poisons the success of the venture, and Dickinson takes the bold move of announcing that she will address her critics from the stage after a Monday night performance of the play. From 11pm to midnight that Monday, she addresses point by point the attacks made on her. “I was almost crushed, but I struggled on as I will struggle on because, having taken up my work in life to do, I put it not down until I utterly fail!”
This appeal did little to help the success of her play, and penniless Dickinson anxiously awaited her next incarnation, that of solely focusing on playwriting and giving up acting. After a tiff with the diva (Fanny Davenport) acting in a play she’d written, Dickinson again fades into the background. But soon she is bursting forth into the spotlight again, this time acting in male roles in Shakespearean plays. A Philadelphia director decides there is money to be made in parading this Quaker woman around in tights, which ultimately ends up yet again in disaster when Anna refuses to open in Philadelphia because the cast hadn’t had a chance to rehearse and she suspected she was being set up for failure yet again.
Desperate for cash to pay for her medical expenses, she asks the 1888 Republican campaign for $5000 for a single lecture. They agree to $100 for 20 lectures, with a bonus if they win the campaign (which is never paid). Retreating to the home where her mother was dying and to repair her own health, Anna dips into madness, shutting herself in her room to read clippings of her old successes. On the afternoon of February 25, 1891 a group of people burst in on her and scurry her off to the state hospital for the insane. This serves to reawaken her senses, and she writes letters to her attorneys about her forced imprisonment. Upon being transferred to a different facility, the intake doctor realizes she is not insane and releases her. Then Anna releases her fury via court cases against her sister (for having her committed), the newspapers (for libel saying she was insane), and against the Republican party for not paying that promised bonus.
After the cases, she’s left once again destitute. She retires to the home of friends where she lives out her life regaling people with tales of meeting President Lincoln (which no one believes). Upon her death, a probate judge had to deal with disposing of several trunks of documents and letters which luckily were offered to the Library of Congress. Otherwise, this tragic figure’s life would have faded even further from history.

Sisters: The Lives of America’s Suffragists

Woefully uneducated about the tremendous struggle that went into gaining the vote for women in the United States, I picked this terrific primer off the shelf and devoured it. While it’s difficult to narrow the field down to five, I agree with the choice of Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frances Willard, and Alice Paul.
Lucy Stone (1818-1893) worked and saved for nine years in order to attend Oberlin college, one of the few educational institutions open to women. She actively spoke out for women’s rights and abolition of slavery during a time when it was not acceptable for ladies to talk in public. She splintered from Anthony/Stanton’s suffrage party and created the American Women Suffrage Association along with its paper, Woman’s Journal. Stone is also the first publicly recorded woman to not take her husband’s last name, and their unique wedding vows reject the iniquity of marriage and make no mention of “obey”.
Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), now replaced by Sacagawea on the $1 coin, morphed from abolitionist activism to a laser focus on obtaining the right for women to vote. She was arrested and jailed for voting in the 1872 election for Ulysses Grant. The Nineteenth Amendment is known as the Susan B. Anthony amendment, although she called it the sixteenth amendment, not realizing that the government would prioritize income tax, prohibition, and direct election of Senators over women’s rights.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) was considered the movement’s Jefferson to Anthony’s Napoleon. Saddled with seven children, Cady Stanton wasn’t free to roam the lecture circuit like her compatriots, so she fired off her words via pen. She was a powerful writer, coining several of the catchphrases the cause would use: “male-marriage”, “satellites of the dinner pot and cradle”, ” aristocracy of sex.” She moved to Seneca Falls to help her husband’s health, and there invited Lucretia Mott and a handful of other women to have the famed 1848 conference believed to be the first women’s rights convention. Not satisfied for pushing for just the vote, she also wanted divorce reform and women’s rights over their bodies. In later life she penned The Woman’s Bible, which explores the sexist mindset of Genesis via commentary, and her own autobiography, Eighty Years and More.
I found the description of Frances Willard (1839-1898) fascinating. The media portrait of her has always been a very negative busybody intent on outlawing alcohol. Instead, she was incredibly savvy in using the temperance movement and the “Trojan horse of domesticity” to push for the vote and gain acceptance for the idea from more conservative voters. As always, the real story is more complex than the watered down tidbits we’ve been force-fed.
Which is a nice segue to Alice Paul (1885-1977) who was force-fed in jail during hunger strikes in both England and the US. We just celebrated the centennial anniversary of the 1913 march on Washington scheduled for a day prior to Wilson’s inaugural parade. Unprotected by police, the drunken onlookers got violent and things descended into the usual chaos. After Wilson’s re-election, she organized pickets outside the White House, which were the first ever protests of their kind in DC. After a very scary year (1917) which included the Night of Terror when the arrested protestors were beat, kick, dragged and choked by their jailers, the amendment was finally passed in 1919.
I’m haunted by the overall thought that Joan Hoff argues, “women’s suffrage was so long delayed that an unequal class got the right to vote when the ballot was no longer the key to equality. During the nineteenth century politics was in the air everywhere. Male participants established themselves as virtuous, civic-minded residents of the new republic by casting a ballot. But by the twentieth century, party politics was less important. Moreover, such a retarded pace meant that supposed progress, such as obtaining the vote or access to birth control, rarely corresponded to the contemporary needs of women.”

Silhouette in Diamonds: the Life of Mrs. Potter Palmer

Tipped off about this enigmatic woman at a lecture on Mary Cassatt, Women’s Suffrage, and the 1893 Colombian Expo, I was eager to read this decidedly dated tone (published in 1960). Bertha¬†Honor√© Potter Palmer… well, where do you start? Her fortune secured by marrying the Chicago millionaire, Potter Palmer, she was a force of nature herself. Lavish society entertainments balanced by sincere dedication to progressive organizations. Bold proclamations (“Even more important than the discovery of Columbus, which we are gathered together to celebrate, is the fact that the General Government has just discovered woman.”) mixed with more conservative activism. At her insistence, the 1893 Colombian Expo in Chicago included the Women’s Building which highlighted the accomplishments of female authors, artists, architects, and inventors. Mary Cassatt was commissioned to create a large mural on the theme of “Modern Woman” for the building. BPP sweeps through Europe and Newport, creating valuable ties to the global elite. After her husband’s death, she invests heavily in real estate in what is now Sarasota, Florida, and sparks the “wintering in Florida” craze that strikes the wealthy snow-bound. It appears that no journals have been found, so her inner life can only be pieced together by correspondence, which is no substitute for the honesty of writing for private consumption. I feel like there is more to this woman that is begging for discovery. If I had years to spend in the stacks at the Chicago Historical Society, I may be able to find more.

Up in the Old Hotel

I love Joseph Mitchell for many reasons, including his declaration that on his way back to the office (New Yorker magazine) after lunch on a sunny day, he may just wander past the door, hop on a bus and explore the city instead of returning to his desk. His writing style elevates true stories of the under-reported denizens of the city to high art. It has been joyous to read (or re-read) the stories collected in this complete collection, especially as I poked around the Bowery, Chinatown, South Street seaport, Staten Island, and the Village, decades after the time he recorded. He breathes life into a stunning array of characters, from fish market bosses, to retired old men living near the South Street seaport, to oystermen, clammers, circus freaks, members of a deaf club, fortune tellers, movie ticket takers, restauranteurs, preachers, drunk poets and hobos. He describes mouth-watering clam-bakes and turtle stew and boiled lobster breakfasts aboard pre-dawn boats and beefsteak dinners where you pay $5 for all you can eat and drink. It’s chock full of boozy philosophers, fights, jokes, and life lessons. Mitchell migrated from North Carolina to NYC, and includes a story about growing up with the Klan, painting them as buffoons with little to do except terrorize the town, but who fall apart when citizens begin to protect themselves. In NYC, his friendship with police detectives gives him access to the extensive backstory of gypsies in the US. He covers the skilled Mohawk Indians dancing on skyscrapers as welders and uncovers the stories of rivermen working on the New Jersey shore directly across from Manhattan. A map of his peregrinations would have a high concentration of lines across lower Manhattan, with arcs all around the waters of Staten Island, Jersey, Connecticut. Fantastic, setting the bar high for stories of all kinds.

Why I am reading less and living more

Frequent visitors (?) to this site will notice a discernible decline in the number of books consumed since January 2013, or perhaps earlier. My personal shift has been geographic, I am a sponge, inhaling lectures, concerts, panels, discussions that NYC throws at me. My reading time has been quarantined to VERY long subway rides (otherwise, not worth it), or stints in the library where I’m sheltered from the snow/rain until my next event. So my reading consumption has declined significantly, yet I feel that my brain activity has increased exponentially. Which is better?
While the classics have their merits, my money is on the benefit of the real-time education I’m luxuriously exposed to right now. I’ve toured the Federal Reserve, walked in the footsteps of Melville, ogled the tasteful hoarding of Frick and JP Morgan, been knocked over by the Gutai exhibit at the Guggenheim, gotten lost in the Met, overflowed my ears at the opera and local jazz venues, sampled the various libraries, tasted culinary delights, volunteered on the High Line, brainstormed about creating a school, gone on boozy art walks with a local artist, peeped at the UN, had in-depth chats with incredibly interesting people about everything from art, history, local flavor, how to make it as an artist in NY, etc.
New York, I love you. Your denizens are over-the-top friendly and open to discussion. No one feels their opinion isn’t valid. My vocal chords are benefiting from your training wheels.
Various articles I’ve churned about this experience, although many more are sure to follow:
*Mary Lou Williams
*LES art walk
*Amazing vocal stylings
* Flatiron district