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The Emergence of a Suffragist: Mary Livermore, Civil War Activism, and the Moral Power of Women

From: Civil War History
Volume 48, Number 2, June 2002
pp. 143-164 | 10.1353/cwh.2002.0024

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Civil War History 48.2 (2002) 143-164

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When suffragist Mary Livermore died in 1905 at age eighty-four, her close friend and woman's rights comrade Julia Ward Howe eulogized her in a newspaper tribute. Describing Livermore's emergence as a public figure and political activist, Howe spoke of the centrality of the Civil War in that process. The war, Howe said, gave Mary Livermore a new sense of the moral power of women. As an activist, organizer, and spokeswoman for the U.S. Sanitary Commission, Livermore came to regard women's contributions to public life as both patriotic and appropriate to their sphere. Moreover, her wartime experiences convinced her that women should have legal and political rights for themselves. "It was not [feminist] Lucy Stone who converted me to Woman Suffrage," she told an audience of woman's rights activists in 1870, "nor even my own husband, who had been talking it to me for fifteen years. It was the war and the strength of character which it developed in our women. . . . Knowing, then, the qualities of woman and her courage and bravery under trials, I can never cease to demand that she shall have just as large a sphere as man has."

Scholars of the nineteenth century woman's rights movement have tended to focus on its radical members, those who embraced the crusade quickly, often after working in temperance and antislavery. To name a few, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Angelina and Sarah Grimké espoused both abolitionism and woman's rights before the Civil War. Stanton and Anthony also crusaded against alcohol. Nancy Hewitt, however, has reminded us that the path from benevolence to woman's rights was not "straight or singular." While the temperance movement had mass appeal, relatively few American women became what Hewitt has called "ultraists" before 1860, even though the number of women to endorse female suffrage in the late nineteenth century would grow substantially. Those women who embraced reform more slowly have been under-represente143d in scholarly literature, especially among biographical studies. Mary Ashton Rice Livermore (1820-1905) was one of those women. Her life and public career provide insights into why many women may have rejected political activism before the Civil War and why the war helped change the outlook of some individuals about the role of women in public and political life.

Livermore had much in common with the early vanguard of feminist abolitionists. She was part of their generation, a few years younger than some, but born in the same year as Susan B. Anthony. Like most of them, she grew up in a stable middle class household in the Northeast, in Boston's North End. Like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, she received a first-rate education and graduated from a female seminary at the top of her class. She taught school, as did Susan Anthony and the Grimké sisters. Like Lucretia Mott, she had a happy and unusually egalitarian marriage. Although she had been raised in a conservative Baptist home, where religious learning was valued but religious questioning was not, her marriage to Universalist minister Daniel Parker Livermore led to a new religious outlook and a belief in universal salvation. She later recalled, "I had ceased to believe in endless punishment, which had been the horror of my life, had darkened my childhood, and made me old before my time." Mary and Daniel Livermore shared both a religious outlook and a philosophical perspective on reform. During the 1840s, both worked in the temperance movement. Mary wrote temperance stories and a novella, Thirty Years Too Late, which won a prize. She also wrote short stories and poems exploring a variety of themes, including nature, religion, virtue, and marriage, which she published in women's periodicals such as the Universalist monthly, Ladies Repository.

During the mid-1850s, married ten years and the mother of young children, Mary Livermore and her family moved to Auburn, New York, when Daniel Livermore became Universalist pastor there. In Auburn, Livermore met Martha Wright, a prominent reformer and a sister of Lucretia Mott. Wright had been a founder of the woman's rights movement, attending its first convention at Seneca...