- The Weston Sisters: An American Abolitionist Family by Lee V. Chambers
With The Weston Sisters: An American Abolitionist Family, Lee V. Chambers provides a significant addition to the growing bodies of work examining female abolitionists and the roles siblings played in American life. She meticulously details the ways in which their sisterhood shaped the political identities of the Weston sisters and allowed them to contribute to the cause of ending slavery. Despite its many strengths, however, Chambers’s rejection of a biographical, chronological model for a volume arranged thematically at times leads to repetition and confusion.
The six Weston sisters—Maria, Caroline, Anne, Debora, Lucia, and Emma—were born in Weymouth, Massachusetts, between 1806 and 1825. Maria, Caroline, Anne, and Debora, all of whom worked as teachers for at [End Page 591] least a time, were four of the twelve founders of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society (BFAS) in 1834. Lucia and Emma, the youngest siblings, soon were involved in abolition as well; at the age of fourteen, Lucia was president of the Massachusetts Juvenile Anti-Slavery Society. The sisters organized fund-raising fairs, and Maria wrote the annual reports for the BFAS, among other works. In the 1840 abolitionist schism, the Westons sided with the Garrisonians. Maria, the eldest, married Henry Grafton Chapman in 1830; the only sister to wed, she had four children.
Chambers argues that the “Westons exemplify a sororal model of female social activism in antebellum New England. The more general model features sisters—though seldom so many—who remained single, lived and worked together in or from the same household, and committed their lives and resources (time, money, and labor) to social reform or benevolence” (8). She divides the book into eight thematic chapters, which explore different aspects of the Westons’ lives and work and their relationships with one another. Money, faith, childcare, housework, and, of course, politics and abolition are all topics that Chambers examines. The sisters left a large cache of correspondence, primarily in the Anti-Slavery Collection of the Boston Public Library, which provides Chambers with ample material on which to draw. She uses this evidence to develop a portrait of how the sisters’ support of one another made their activism possible. Some of the most fascinating parts of the book, perhaps surprisingly, are the ones that delve down into the daily work of keeping the family going, from remaking each other’s dresses to spice up their wardrobes, to the attempts to control Maria’s difficult children, to their careful accounting and sharing of their funds. These diurnal responsibilities are not seen as separate from the sisters’ activism but critical to it.
Chambers’s attention to her sources is a strength of the book. The regularity of the sisters’ correspondence, as well as the information their letters contain, becomes central to the analysis. Chambers explores the role of correspondence in keeping the family ties strong as circumstances moved the sisters apart. These letters “proved key to the construction and maintenance of the Weymouth sisterhood” (100). An appendix lays out the provenance of the correspondence that has been saved, speculating on material that might have been kept back or edited out in the name of propriety. Given the breadth and depth of the archives, the Weston sisters’ papers may be a ripe subject for an annotated edition, joining the Selected Letters of Lucretia Coffin Mott and The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers in documenting the lives and work of female abolitionists through their correspondence.1 [End Page 592]
The Weston Sisters is an important contribution. It is the first major work to focus primarily on the Weston family since Clare Taylor’s Women of the Anti-Slavery Movement: The Weston Sisters (1995). Passages of the earlier book have aged badly, such as the description of Maria as a “hysteric.” The sisters’ work has also served as evidence for monographs on reform work, including Debra Gold Hansen’s Strained Sisterhood: Gender and Class in the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society (1993), Lori Ginzburg’s...