Saturday, October 29, 2005

Anna Elizabeth Dickinson: Feminist of the Day?

Anna Elizabeth Dickinson
Orator, abolitionist, suffragette
" every intelligent and respectable person, black and white, man and woman, a ballot and a freedom of government, and...this country will stand stronger and stronger amidst the ruins of dissolving empires and falling thrones."

I have always kind of wanted to be a Quaker, this has been hampered in that I've never had a single spiritual thought, feeling or inclination. It's partly because I'd like to have that sense of history behind me and then because I watched Before Sunrise at an impressionable age and Ethan Hawke made Quaker weddings sound romantic and sexy. I do plan to become a Quaker at the first glimmering of spirituality (as long as Marian Hobbes is no longer in Wellington - worst Quaker since Richard Nixon), but it's not looking very likely.

Anyway so I'm pleased, and not surprised, to have my first Quaker feminist of the day. Quakers are a recurring feature of most protest movements over the last few centuries, particularly in America.

Anna Elizabeth Dickinson is everything you'd expect a 19th Century Quaker to be. Her father was an abolitionist, and she wrote her first article for the Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper, at the age of 13. She went on to become one of the most successful orators of the abolitionist movment while in her early 20s.

There is no doubt about her feminist creditials, and the importance of remembering her. As well as being an abolitionist, she also spoke on women's rights, prison reform, and Labour reform.

But her story is actually more interesting, and sad, than that. After the civil war her popularity waned and her speaking engagements dried up. She briefly tried to become a playwrite and actress, but was unsuccessful. Then at age 49 she was committed to a mental hospital. After a brief struggle she managed to get herself out, and committed into the care of a New York couple.

That short sentance asks so many more questions than it answers, and probably tells us more about women's lives in 19th century America, than the part where she was called America's Joan of Arc.

Had the society that she was fighting driven her crazy? Was she classified as crazy because she was fighting? Was it when she stopped fighting, when she was insignificant that she became unstable? Was she frustrated at the life she'd been denied? Was it all brain chemsitry, can we call her bipolar, like so man other brilliant figures from history?

And finally, what about all the other women, and men, who were not respected abolitionists, who were not able to get themselves out?

Conclusion: A feminist and a fighter, but also a woman in a society that hates women, unfortunately that often takes its toll.

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