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Anna Dickinson Essay, Research Paper

Perhaps more well known then the recipient of her letter, Susan B. Anthony wrote to her fledgling prot?g? orator, Anna Dickinson, that ?your mission will brighten and beautify every day if you will but keep the eye of your own spirit turned within? [where] that precious jewel of truth is to be sought ? and formed ? and darling ? you will find it & speak it, and live it ? and all men and women will call you blessed.? (Faderman, 96) Dickinson?s skill and ability carried her throughout the country, speaking about such topics as slavery, women?s rights, and the right?s of workers. Molded and perfected by the heroes of the day, Dickinson soon gained the tag of being America?s Joan of Arc (Luce, 5).

Anna Elizabeth Dickinson was called a lecturer extraordinaire, a feminist heroine to thousands of women across the country. However, she began life with every disadvantage, having been born into poverty. Dickinson was born in Philadelphia on October 28, 1842, one of five children. Her father, John Dickinson, was greatly devoted to the abolitionist movement, and died of a heart attack after giving a speech when Anna was two (Polsky). The fact that he died fighting against slavery probably inspired her to work for the same cause early in her life. Much of her education took place at the Friends? Select School of Philadelphia, where she was an avid reader and quickly took to speaking in public. Due to the poverty her family experienced, especially after the death of her father, Anna worked as a copyist when she was just fifteen and while still in her teens became a school teacher (Chester, 45).

William Lloyd Garrison helped the young student along, and much of her public speaking career is owed to him. Garrison favored an immediate abolition of slavery, and was impressed with her fervor on the subject (Polsky). While the importation of slaves from Africa to the United States had become illegal in 1808, the number of slaves had increased from about 1.5 million in 1820 to more than 2 million (or almost one-sixth of the population in the United States at the time) by 1830. In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Law, which required federal agents to find escaped slaves in the North and return them to their Southern owners, was passed (Weatherford, 254). Dickinson had vowed at a young age to fight the injustice she saw in slavery. Although her most impassioned feelings concerned abolition, Dickinson began her public speaking campaign with talks on women?s rights (Owens,10). When she was 14, Garrison published her article in his Liberator journal. In 1860 her profession took off and she was asked to speak to the Pennsylvania Anti-slavery Society. Only a year later she shared the platform with Garrison when they lectured in Philadelphia (Luce, 115).

Garrison was impressed with her capability, and told her that, should she ever be interested, he would find her speaking engagements, and she started accepting several invitations to speak throughout New England, especially in the Boston area. While there, the excitement of the rising Civil War called to Dickinson, and she commented in a letter to an acquaintance that ?I am at present exceedingly interested in the work of raising colored regiments?. She became intensely popular, hailed as one of the greatest speaker?s of the time (Faderman, 200).

The impending Civil War took attention from any other social movements. While Dickinson spoke on many topics, primarily abolition and equal rights, her speeches were not able to surpass the excitement of war, and the possible repercussions of the fighting. Work waned after a while, and she was forced to take a job at the U.S. mint in Philadelphia. Soon after taking the job, however, she was fired for publicly accusing General McClellan of treason in the loss of the battle of Ball?s Bluff (Macksey, 210). Dickinson decided the working life was not for her, and attempted to rise above the stirrings of war to become famous once more. Her purpose in life became to lead both slaves and the women of America of this country to freedom and equality.

She began to find it increasingly difficult to make ends meet, as she was supporting not only herself but her mother and sister as well (Luce, 191). Her financial burdens were assuaged when, remembering her force and eloquence in public speaking, the Republican Party started to ask her to speak for them in various gatherings. Benjamin Prescott, chairman of the New Hampshire State republican Committee, invited her to speak in 1863. Following this invitation, she was asked to do as many as twenty lectures throughout the state, and her campaign tour eventually took her to Connecticut where her speaking brought much needed publicity to the Republican Party. Her speeches were credited as giving Republicans the upper hand in congress, and winning the hotly debated election of 1862. She thus enabled them to continue the war with the south, and she became the Joan of Arc of the Union states (Polsky). Dickinson was one of the first women to ever speak in front of congress, and in 1864 she addressed an assembly which included Abraham Lincoln at the White House. Her speech ?was marked by fiery passion and remarkable vituperation? [and] with the novelty of her sex and youth? helped to make her an enormously popular speaker once more (Greenspan, 95). Some historians believe that Dickinson might have been the first to propose an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) (Goldstien, 5).

Dickinson worked in circles that included, the now more well known, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who called Dickinson part of the ?long list of bright men and women [who] were constantly on the wing?, and with whom she ?occasionally managed to spend Sundays together, at a good hotel in some city, to rest and feast and talk over our joys and sorrows, the long journeys, the hard fare in the country hotels, the rainy nights when committees felt blue and tried to cut down our fees.? (Stanton) Some writers have insinuated that Susan B. Anthony and Dickinson may have been romantically involved, but most historians agree the insinuation is ridiculous and born of misunderstanding the customs of the times (Faderman).

Dickinson?s tremendous increase in income from public speaking went as quickly as it was gained. When her popularity once more began to dwindle, she decided to turn her skills as a public speaker into an acting and writing career. Dickinson published several books, including the 1868 What Answer? concerning interracial marriages, and the 1876 A Paying Investment, on needed social reforms including compulsory education, better treatment of prisoners, assistance for the poor, and training for workers. She wrote several plays, and in May 1876 she appeared in her own play, A Crown of Thorns. Critics destroyed both her plays and her performances. The pinnacle of her career as a playwright came with An American Girl in which Fanny Davenport starred in 1880 (Unknown).

In 1888, after dropping from public view completely, Dickinson was invited, once again, to speak for the Republican National Committee. Her zeal for topics now seemed to be more of an embarrassment than a help for the group, and she was quickly let go (Macksey). Three years later, in Danville, Pennsylvania, she was admitted to the Danville Psychiatric Hospital with growing signs of mental instability, and after her release, she sued for a nominal amount of money (Unknown). By 1910, twenty-two years before her death, she had so dropped out of the public eye that ?someone wrote to a New York newspaper asking whether the great Anna Dickinson, women?s rights advocate, abolitionist, and orator, was still alive. The newspaper?s editor replied that she had been dead for ten years.? (Polsky) A New York couple gave her financial support, and the once fiery American Joan of Arc then spent the rest of her life quietly in New York where she died October 22, 1932, just six days shy of her 90th birthday (Luce).

Due to the death of her father, Dickinson took up the cause he died fighting for. Dickinson would not have been the speaker she was, if those around her had not been charmed by her youth and intensity. William Lloyd Garrison led her though the speaking circuit, arranging various public appearances, without which, Dickinson would never have gotten a start. This led her to Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who further led her along and molded her in their own image. Most information on the internet about Dickinson concerns various allegations about her sexuality, and letters written to and from Susan B. Anthony. These claims are ridiculous, and after examining the letters, seem simply to be taken out of context and read with a modern day eye, instead of with amore accurate understanding of the times. Much has also been read into the fact that she never married and often stayed with women, but this seems more due to the fact Dickinson was worried about making a name for herself than finding love.

Dickinson?s speeches may have been impassioned, heartfelt sermons, but these sentiments came from the death of her father and the excitement she was caught up in when she stood at the podium, not from a scrutiny of her own feelings. She rode on the backs of the superior men and women of her time, hoping that they would carry her to fame and fortune, only to find that when the times changes she was not able to change with them, and found herself alone in New York to die, left by the fickleness of fame.

Author Unknown. Biography of Anna. E. Dickinson. (1997)


Chester, Giraud. Embattled Maiden: The Life of Anna Dickinson. Putnam, 1951

Faderman, Lillian. To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done for America.

New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999.

Goldstein, Leslie Friedman. The Constitutional Rights of Women. Wisconsin:

U of Wisconsin Press, 1988.

Greenspan, Karen. The Timetables of Women’s History. New York: Touchstone Books,


Luce, Henry R. Biography of Anna E. Dickinson. San Francisco: Page Wise, 2000.

Macksey, Joan & Kenneth. Book of Women’s Achievements. New York: Stein & Day,


Owens, Jennifer. ?Shoulder to Shoulder: Kansas Women Win the Vote?. A Moment in

Time: Kansas State Historical Society. March 1997: 10 ? 12.

Polsky, Sara E. ?Anna Elizabeth Dickinson.? History?s Women: An Online Magazine.

(1998) http://www.historyswomen.com/AnnaElizabethDickinson.html

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. ?Chapter XVII: Lyceums and Lectures?. Eighty Years and

More: Reminiscences 1815 ? 1897. 1898.

Weatherford, Doris. American Women’s History. New York: Prentice Hall, 1994

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