This week’s woman of peace is author Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880). One of the most influential American women writers from the 1820s through the 1860s she was a prolific author, a literary pioneer, and a tireless crusader and champion for America’s excluded groups. With words, she made a difference.
Born on February 11, 1802 in Medford, Massachusetts, she was the youngest of six children. Her father, Convers Francis, was stern and religiously orthodox. Susannah (Rand) Francis, her mother, was ill and distant. Her mother died when Lydia was twelve.
After her mother’s death, they sent Lydia to live with a married sister in Maine. Norridgewock, a frontier society, exposed Lydia to a small community of impoverished Abenaki and Penobscot Indians.
Lydia moved back to Massachusetts at nineteen. She lived with her brother Convers, a scholarly Unitarian minister. Her brother guided her education in literary masters such as Homer and Milton.
She reportedly hated the name Lydia. So when she converted to Unitarism and was re-baptised, she gave herself the name of Maria. She chose to go by Maria (Ma-RYE-a) from then on.
Lydia read an article in the North American Review discussing the field offered to the novelist by early New England history. That inspired her to start her first novel. She finished it in six weeks.
Her debut novel, Hobomok, A Tale of Early Times published in 1884 was the first New England historical novel written. She turned the usual view of the Puritans on its ear with a female protagonist who lived in early Salem and rebelled against the religious and racial bigotry of the time. The character first married “an Indian by whom she has a son, and later an Episcopalian.” Initially, the scandalous interracial marriage earned fire from the critics, but due to a patron from Boston, she became an overnight success.
Her first children’s book, Evenings in New England. Intended for Juvenile Amusement and Instruction, appeared in 1824. Written as a series of educational conversations between Aunt Maria and her two children, it focused on American issues and values. It was critically acclaimed and an instant success.
Her second novel, The Rebels, or Boston before the Revolution(1825), tells a pre-revolutionary story of women from Boston. “The North American Review described the author as overwhelmed by her imaginative powers and accused her of filling the pages of her short book with enough plots to serve a dozen novels.” (Read more.)
In 1826, she edited and published the first American children’s magazine, The Juvenile Miscellany.
She wrote several novels, poetry, and an instruction book for mothers, The Mothers Book.
In 1829, she published her most successful book: The Frugal Housewife. Dedicated to those who are not ashamed of Economy. It was the first book of its type aimed at women who did not have the money for housekeepers and leisure activities.
A brilliant but erratic Boston lawyer and journalist, David Lee Child caught her eye with a kind review of her second novel. His idealism and his enthusiastic promotion of her writings in the columns of his Whig newspaper, the Massachusetts Journal, charmed her.
They married in 1828 and moved to Boston. But David’s writing was so fast and loose he earned the nickname of David Libel Child.
Their lives were a constant struggle to pay his legal costs and debts. Lydia wrote and also took in boarders and taught school to support them.
In the early 1830s, Lydia and her husband met William Lloyd Garrison and joined his band of antislavery reformers.
She published An Appeal for that Class of Americans called Africans in 1833. In it, she portrayed the evils of slavery and blamed both the North and the South for its existence. She argued in favor of the emancipation of slaves without compensation to slaveholders. And she defended interracial marriage again. “The book was influential in winning recruits to the anti-slavery cause.” (Read more).
“She is often identified as the first white woman to have written a book in support of this policy.” (Per Wikipedia)
While abolitionists extolled the wonders of her book, the general public did not. Sales of all her books suffered. Cancellations of subscriptions to her children’s magazine, The Juvenile Miscellany forced her to give up her editor position on the magazine.
She published four more antislavery books, including The Oasis (1834), a gift book. The purpose of the book was “to familiarize the public mind with the idea that colored people are human beings–elevated or degraded by the same circumstances that elevate or degrade other men.” (Read more.)
A social outcast, she continued writing and editing the Anti-Slavery Standard. By 1842 she had “transformed it from a dry partisan organ into a first-rate “family newspaper.”” Its circulation now doubled that of The Liberator, and even Child’s severest critics admitted that the paper was converting many people to the abolitionist cause.”
Life After the Civil War
After the Civil War, Lydia worked on behalf of the rights of freed slaves. She published a collection of slaves’ experiences in The Freedman’s Book (1865). She also returned to her early interest in the rights of Native Americans. Appeal for Indians (1868). She wrote collections of poems, biographies, histories, and more. (see her bibliography.)
In 1844, she wrote a poem of twelve stanzas. The poem, “The New-England Boy’s Song about Thanksgiving Day” expressed memories of Lydia’s childhood visits to her grandfather’s house. We know a portion of the poem today as the song, “Over the River and Through the Woods.”
She died in Wayland, Massachusetts, on October 20, 1880, at age 78.
Lydia Maria Child was a woman with a mission. She wrote the first New England historical novel, the first comprehensive history of American slavery, and the first comparative history of women. In addition, she edited the first American children’s magazine, compiled an early primer for the freed slaves, and published the first book designed for the elderly.
Lydia Maria Child did not use violence and did not advocate for the Civil War. She was one of the first people to influence political and societal changes through stories and poems. With words, she made a difference.