Isabella Beecher Hooker

 

 

[Note: Much of the following narrative is in quotation marks because it is taken from an article written by Isabella Beecher Hooker in Connecticut Magazine, IX (May 1905) entitled "The Last of the Beechers: Memories on my Eighty-Third Birthday."]

"I was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, February 22, 1822, and when four years old my father [Lyman Beecher] moved to Boston, and we lived there until I was eleven, when we went to Cincinnati, in 1833, where my father became pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church and President of the Lane Theological Seminary, on Walnut Hills, three miles from the city. There were nine of us going at once - viz.: my father and mother, and Aunt Esther, who was the beloved aunt of the eleven children of my father....Our names were Catharine, born in 1800, the oldest child; Harriet and Isabella, George, Thomas, and James - the latter born in Boston and the youngest of the family....At last we were settled in a comfortable house on Fourth Street, Cincinnati, and my father began to preach, and my sisters organized a school for girls, and soon had teachers from the East of great tact and ability. I remember that every Monday morning the whole school were required to give a report of some sermon we had heard on Sunday, and my sister Harriet conducted the service with a quiet fervor that was most attractive. I have still a charming little English edition of the Bible which she presented me on my twelfth birthday - a sacred relic....

"Soon my two brothers, Henry and Charles, came from college and entered the (theological) Seminary, and we were a big and happy family, till the anti-slavery discussions began by the students, became so serious that a body of them were determined to leave because the faculty, fearing they were negligent of their studies, said they must abate their zeal. This broke my father's heart, for he loved the young men as if they were his own sons, and had great hopes of what they were to do in evangelizing the West; especially Theodore Weld, and Henry B. Stanton, whom he declared to be the most gifted young men he had ever known....

"At sixteen I was sent back to New England, on account of the death of my mother, and that is the last of my living at home with my father, and I knew him only through letters and his occasional visits to the East. But I date my interest in public affairs from those few years between eleven and sixteen, when our family circle was ever in discussion on the vital problems of human existence, and the United States Constitution, fugitive slave laws, Henry Clay and Missouri Compromise, alternated with free will, regeneration, heaven, hell and "The Destiny of Man," as John Fiske would have it.

"In the home of my sister, whose husband, Thomas C. Perkins, was an eminent lawyer in Hartford, Connecticut, I soon became acquainted with a young law student in his office, by the name of John Hooker. He was sixth in descent from Thomas Hooker, author of the first written constitution of the world, and founder of the Connecticut Colony. Before I was seventeen, I became engaged to him with the understanding that if either of us found we had made a mistake we were at liberty to choose elsewhere. But at nineteen I married him and went to live with this parents in the village of Farmington, August 5, 1841, where we remained till the year 1853, when we moved to Hartford and established the colony of Nook Farm....

"My interest in the woman question began soon after my marriage when my husband, a patient young lawyer waiting for business, invited me to bring my knitting work to his office every day, where he would read to me from his law books, and in the evenings I might read literature to him, whose weak eyes forbade his ever using them in the evening. For four years we kept on this even tenor of our way, and to it I owe my intelligent interest in public affairs and a certain discipline of mind - since I never attended school or college after my sixteenth year.

"Our first book at the office was Blackstone, of course, and on the flyleaf was written, in that clear round hand, so significant of the man, the wonderful quotation from Richard Hooker, 'the judicious' (so called by his contemporaries 1553-1600): 'Of Law there can be no less acknowledged than that her seat is the bosom of God, her voice the harmony of the world; all things in heaven and earth do her homage, the very least as feeling her care, and the greatest as not exempt from her power.'

"This was to be the key-note of his whole life, and with great enthusiasm we read chapter after chapter till we came to that on the Domestic Relations and the reciprocal duties of husband and wife. I shall never forget my consternation when we came to this passage: 'By marriage the husband and wife are one person in law, that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband under whose wing, protection and cover, she performs everything....The husband also by the old law might give his wife moderate correction. For as he is to answer for her misbehavior, the law thought it reasonable to entrust him with this power of restraining her by domestic chastisement, in the same moderation that a man is allowed to correct his apprentices or children....The civil law gave the husband the same or a larger authority over his wife: allowing him for some misdemeanors, flagellis et fustibus acriter verberare uxorem (By whips and cudgels vigorously to punish a wife); for others, only modicam castigationem adhibere (to use moderate whipping).'

"Looking up to my young lover's face, I said; 'And this is your code that is to bring peace on earth, good will to men and harmonize the universe.'

"Then followed discussion after discussion, till the subject was cropped as a hopeless mystery. The domination of man, the subjection of woman. My prevailing thought was contempt for that half of the human race that should submit to such degradation, and it was not till John Stuart Mill unfolded the evolutionary process in his noble book on 'Liberty and the Subjection of Woman' - first that which is carnal and then that which is spiritual - that I began patiently to work with our great leaders, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony - women to whom the civilized world owes an unceasing debt of gratitude.

"My mind had long been disturbed with the tangled problem of social life, but it involved so many momentous questions that I could not see where to begin nor what to do. I could only. protest in my heart, and leave the whole matter for God to deal with in his wisdom." I had a great deal to do raising our three children, and I was not in the best of health, suffering from periodic attacks of neurasthemia. My sister Catharine's advice in her numerous books on household management was helpful, but I still required frequent retreats to Massachusetts and New York for "water cures." I was determined, however, not to become the "delicate invalid," a role assumed by many women who were, in fact, suffocating to death from the drudgery of household tedium and society's refusal to recognize that women have minds of their own. "Thus matters stood until the year 1861, when Anna Dickinson, then a girl of nineteen, came to Hartford to speak in behalf of the Republican party, particularly on its hostility to the extension of slavery. I shall never forget the dismay - I know not what else to call it - which I felt at the announcement of her first speech in one of our public halls, lest harm should come to the political cause that enlisted my sympathies, and anxiety about the speaker who would have to encounter so much adverse criticism in our conservative and prejudice city. It was certainly a most startling occurrence that here in my very home, where there had been hardly a lisp in favor of the rights of women, this girl should speak on political subjects and that, too, upon the invitation of the leaders of a great political party. Here was a stride, not a mere step; and a stride almost to final victory for the suppressed rights of women. My husband and I, full of anxiety and apprehension, but full, too, of determination to stand by one who so bravely shook off her trammels, went to hear this new Joan or Arc, and in a few minutes after she began we found ourselves, with the rest of the large audience, entranced by her eloquence. At the close of the meeting we went with many others to be introduced and give her the right hand of fellowship. She came home with us for the night, and after the family retired she and I communed together, heart to heart, as mother and daughter, and from this sweet, grand soul, born to the freedom denied to all women, except those known as Friends, I learned to trust as never before the teachings of the inner light, and to know whence came to them the recognition of equal rights with their brethren in the public assembly.

"It was she who brought me to the knowledge of Mrs. John Stuart Mill and her remarkable paper on the 'Enfranchisement of Women' in the Westminster Review. She told me, too, of Susan B. Anthony, a fearless defender of true liberty, and woman's right of public speech; but I allowed an old and ignorant prejudice against her and Mrs. Stanton to remain until the year 1864, when going south to nurse a young soldier, who was wounded in the war, I met Mrs. Caroline Severance, from Boston, who was residing in South Carolina, where her husband was in the service of the government, who confirmed what Miss Dickinson had told me of Miss Anthony, and unfolded to me the whole philosophy of the woman suffrage movement.

"She afterwards invited me to her home near Boston, where I joined Mr. Garrison and others in issuing a call for a convention, which I attended and aided in the formation of the New England Woman Suffrage Association. At this meeting, which I will not attempt to describe, I met Paulina Wright Davis, whose mere presence upon the platform, with her beautiful white hair and her remarkable dignity and elegance, was a most potent argument in favor of woman's participation in public affairs. I sought an introduction to her, and confessing my prejudice against Mrs. Stanton and Miss Anthony, Whom I had never yet seen, she urged me to meet them as guests at her home in Providence; and a few weeks later, under the grand old trees of her husband's almost ducal estate, we went over the whole subject of man's supremacy and woman's subjection that had lain so many years a burden upon my heart, and, sitting at their feet, I said: 'While I have been mourning in secret over the degradation of woman, you have been working through opposition and obloquy to raise her to self-respect and self-protection through enfranchisement, knowing that with equal political rights come equal social and industrial opportunities. Henceforth, I will at least share your work and your obloquy.'"

Frances Ellen Burr had already introduced a bill to the Connecticut legislature in 1867 to allow women the right to vote, but it was defeated by a vote of 111-93. "I became so interested that in 1868 I wrote 'A Mother's Letters to a Daughter on Woman's Suffrage,' which was published anonymously in Putnam's Monthly. They seemed to be of some interest and it was popularly believed they were written by some one of the Massachusetts clique." It was at this time that Rev. Dr. Horace Bushnell, a longtime acquaintance and neighbor of ours, presented me with a copy of his book, Women's Suffrage: The Reform Against Nature. While I am sure he meant no ill-will by giving me this token, its arguments seemed so illogical to me and its conclusions so entrenched in myth, that I was even more determined to enter the fray on behalf of woman's rights.

"Still bright in my memory are the days back in 1869 when I had the honor of calling the first convention in the State of Connecticut for discussing the questions of women in government, and organized a state society under this title: 'The Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association and Society for the Study of Political Science,' paying all the expenses of a two days' convention, in our then new and elegant opera house, all the speakers and the noble Hutchinson family of singers, out of the receipts." John wrote the resolutions which were adopted by the convention, and after it was over we all were received by Governor and Mrs. Marshall Jewell, and even breakfasted at our house, where both the New York and Boston wings of the movement amicably discussed the suffrage question together. "This practical organizing ability has stood me in good stead...these intervening years, and has enabled me, with the help of my husband, to work...for the enfranchisement of the women citizens of the United States....

"I was much interested in the abolition movement, and with my sister, Harriet, enjoyed the friendship of those grand men of the times of which William Lloyd Garrison was a leading power, but I felt that the emancipation of women must be the next great step in national progress and that it was as serious a problem as the Negro question.

"My sister's book, 'Uncle Tom's Cabin,' Which first appeared as a serial in an anti-slavery paper published in Washington, had such an influence in the abolition cause that it gave me an incentive to do the best I could to emancipate women....

"In 1870 I presented a bill to the Connecticut Legislature making husband and wife equal in property rights and have persisted in its passage without avail." Caroline Severance and other leaders of the American Woman Suffrage Association in Boston have tried to dissuade me from associating too much with Miss Anthony and Mrs. Stanton, but I am increasingly impatient with the lack of tolerance this group has for these fine courageous leaders. I am hoping that my contacts with both groups will help to heal the divisions within the movement so that we can present a united front against the tide of ignorance and antiquated social custom.

"In the year 1871 I organized a National Convention in Washington, at my own expense, for the purpose of calling the attention of Congress to the fact that women were already citizens of the United States under the Constitution, interpreted by the Declaration of Independence, and only needed recognition by that body to become voters. I opened a large volume for the signatures of women willing to sign the following Declaration:

Declaration and Pledge of the Women of the United States concerning their right to and use of the Elective Franchise: We, the undersigned, believing that the sacred rights and privileges of citizenship in this Republic have long been guaranteed to us by the original Constitution of the United States, and that these are now made manifest in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, so that we can no longer refuse the solemn responsibilities thereof, do hereby pledge ourselves to accept the duties of the franchise in our several states so soon as all legal restrictions are removed.

And believing that character is the best safeguard of national liberty, we pledge ourselves to make the personal purity and integrity of candidates for public office the first test of fitness.

And lastly, believing in God as the Supreme Author of the first American Declaration of Independence, we pledge ourselves in the spirit of that memorable Act to work hand in hand with our fathers, husband and sons, for the maintenance of those equal rights on which our Republic was originally founded, to the end that it may have what is declared to be the first condition of just government - the consent of the governed.

"And during the winter hundreds of autograph signatures, on little slips of white paper, came from all parts of the country, and were pasted into the volume, while with tearful eyes we whispered:

A weapon that comes down as still
   As snowflakes fall upon the sod,
But executes a freeman's will
   As lightning does the will of God.
-Lowell

"Under this interpretation of the Constitution, which was well received by Congress, Miss Anthony, having been duly registered by the inspectors of election in her state, voted in 1872 for President and Members of Congress, and in 1873 was arrested and held to trial before Judge Hunt of the Supreme Court of the United States, and fined $100 and costs. This decision became a precedent, of course, and our new hopes and holy enthusiasm being blasted, we were obliged to fall back upon a Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution, for which women had been petitioning ever since the year 1848."

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