Born in 1802, the daughter of a hard-working baker in Medford, Massachusetts, Lydia Francis (who had herself rebaptized Maria in 1821) grew up before colleges for women existed, but she did not let restricted opportunities prevent her from educating herself. She also learned at a youthful age to identify with other groups excluded from the “inalienable rights” America’s founding creed promised to “all men.”
The first such group to awaken young Lydia’s sympathies were the Abenaki Indians she encountered in Maine, where she lived for six years after her mother’s death (1815-21). Driven off their land and reduced to destitution, yet blamed for their own plight by the very white settlers who occupied their territory, the Abenakis opened Lydia’s eyes to her country’s plundering of the Indians. She would agitate for a fair and humane Indian policy throughout her life, beginning in 1829 with her protest against the forced “removal” of the Cherokees from their native Georgia to Oklahoma–a protest she carried on jointly with her newly-wed husband David Lee Child–and ending in 1870 with her outraged denunciation of the brutal war being waged on the Plains Indians.
Championship of the Indians led Lydia Maria Child naturally to the crusade against slavery and racism that became her greatest contribution to transforming US history. Sought out in 1830 by the radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who admired her writings and wanted her to dedicate her literary talents to the antislavery cause, Child undertook the research that bore fruit in her Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans (1833), the abolitionist movement’s earliest full-scale analysis of the slavery question, an analysis never surpassed in comprehensiveness. The book’s eight chapters examined the institution of slavery from every angle–historical, legal, economic, political, racial, and moral. Looking beyond slavery to the imperative of incorporating African Americans into US society as equal citizens, Child also refuted the myth of African inferiority, condemned racial prejudice as incompatible with American values, and called for abolishing all forms of discrimination, whether in jobs, schools, public facilities, civil rights, or laws against interracial marriage. The Appeal’s ambitious scope, meticulous thoroughness, intellectual depth, and rhetorical power won it enormous influence as an antislavery tract and enduring renown as a work of pioneering historical scholarship. It recruited into abolitionist ranks a formidable array of opinion makers and future political leaders, emboldened women to assume public roles in a bitter political controversy, and encouraged literary figures who had been keeping aloof from abolitionists to join them in speaking and writing against slavery. The commitment to eradicating racism that Child expressed in the Appeal and acted on in her life inspired African Americans as well, giving them hope that an alliance with progressive whites could overcome obstacles to equality. In the segregated world of nineteenth-century America, the abolitionist movement provided the first forum in which African and European Americans could mingle socially and work together toward a common goal, and Child played an instrumental part in breaking down racial barriers both within and outside that forum.
Challenging white Americans’ prejudices cost Child a flourishing literary career, along with the social standing she had gained through it. When she published the Appeal, she stood at the apex of the literary popularity she had earned by producing works that filled broadly recognized cultural needs: two novels illuminating aspects of colonial history and thus helping to create a distinctively American literature, Hobomok, a Tale of Early Times (1824) and The Rebels, or Boston before the Revolution (1825); a children’s magazine that molded a generation of New England youth, the Juvenile Miscellany (1826-34); a pair of best-selling domestic advice books oriented toward women of modest means, The Frugal Housewife (1829) and The Mother’s Book (1831); and a series of women’s biographies that offered readers a range of role models suitable for an era of social change. In tackling the explosive issues of slavery and racism, Child was filling an even more urgent cultural need, but this time her hitherto adoring audience reacted with fury. A prominent Massachusetts politician hurled the Appeal out of the window with a pair of fire tongs, the Boston Athenaeum rescinded her free library privileges, former patrons slammed their doors in her face, readers boycotted her books, parents cancelled their subscriptions to her children’s magazine, publishers rejected her manuscripts, and Child lost her sole source of revenue. Yet she never looked back.
Over a career of advocacy that lasted until her death in 1880, Child published countless other works promoting racial justice and equality–tracts, biographies, newspaper articles, letters to politicians, stories, a novel presenting intermarriage as the solution to America’s race problem (A Romance of the Republic, 1867), and a primer for the emancipated slaves featuring readings by and about people of African descent (The Freedmen’s Book, 1865). In addition, she edited a major abolitionist newspaper, the National Anti-Slavery Standard (1841-43), and a slave narrative now considered a literary classic, Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). While polishing Jacobs’s manuscript and maximizing its sales, moreover, Child forged a warm friendship with its author that lasted into the Reconstruction era. She and Jacobs collaborated in raising the consciousness of white northerners, publicizing the heroism African American troops displayed during the Civil War, advancing the education of the former slaves, agitating for the distribution of plantation land to the freedpeople, and campaigning for Black Suffrage.
Child’s prodigious record as an activist for racial equality represents only part of her legacy, however. Like many abolitionist women, Child confronted severe restraints on her own freedom as she militated for the freedom of the slaves. This issue began engaging her as early as 1835, when she published a two-volume History of the Condition of Women that ranged from ancient to modern times and covered every known culture. By the 1840s, Child was writing angry articles attacking the double standard and exposing the fallacy of claims that the liberation of women would destroy feminine delicacy. She was also writing stories that covertly celebrated women’s sexuality. After the Civil War, Child turned toward formulating cogent arguments for woman suffrage. Simultaneously, she censured those feminist leaders who pitted white women against African American men in a competitive quest for enfranchisement.
Many of the other causes Child embraced likewise resonate strongly for our own time. Her lifelong search for a religion that could satisfy her spiritual hunger, social conscience, and rational mind impelled her to combat doctrinal bigotry and sectarianism and to plead for religious tolerance. At a time when even many liberals considered it heretical to deny the status of Christianity as the only true faith, Child longed to “become acquainted with some good, intelligent Bramin, or Mohammedan,” so that she could “learn, in some degree, how their religions appeared to them.” She fulfilled that dream vicariously through research that culminated in two major works: a three-volume comparative study setting Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam on an equal footing, The Progress of Religious Ideas, Through Successive Ages (1855); and an anthology of extracts from the sacred texts of these and other religions of the ancient and modern worlds, Aspirations of the World. A Chain of Opals (1878).
Of Child’s vast body of writings, the ones twenty-first century readers may find most relevant to our society’s persistent social problems are her articles on urban poverty, immigration, the prison system, and capital punishment. Child began addressing these issues in the 1840s, when she moved to New York to edit the National Anti-Slavery Standard. New York then teemed with desperately poor European immigrants, who often subsisted on hawking, begging, and prostitution; slept on the pavements; and crowded the prisons. Child movingly described their plight in her weekly column for the Standard, “Letters from New-York,” placed alongside her editorials on slavery. The juxtaposition invited readers to extend their sympathies from African Americans to Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants and to connect southern slavery with the forms of oppression that prevailed in the North. Child’s vignettes of ragged urchins “fighting furiously” for pennies, emaciated mothers and children with “hungry eyes,” drunken paupers lying in the gutter, and homeless women harassed by the police put a human face on poverty. “If we can abolish poverty, we shall have taken the greatest step towards the abolition of crime,” Child argued. Building “penitentiaries and prisons” did not help, she insisted, for the “whole system tended to increase crime.” Child also condemned capital punishment as “legalized murder,” warning against “the danger of convicting the innocent.” These words sound timelier than ever as economic policies drive more and more people into poverty, homeless indigents swamp our cities, descendants of European immigrants persecute a new generation of immigrants from Latin America, the US incarcerates more prisoners than any other country in the world, capital punishment still victimizes innocents as well as criminals (though it has been abolished in all western democracies except our own), and only China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan exceed the US in the number of executions.
A century and a quarter after Child’s death, her legacy remains vital to those who share her vision of a society in which people of all races, religions, and national origins can live harmoniously together as equals. The interracial solidarity that she and her abolitionist comrades modeled achieved the overthrow of slavery and the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments, but the racial equality for which they and their successors in the 1960s’ Civil Rights movement fought has not yet been completely attained. Nor has the even thornier problem of justice for America’s dispossessed Indians come close to resolution. Women have made enormous strides since Child’s day, but they continue to face some of the difficulties she contended with in her life and wrote about in her fiction and journalism: sexist stereotypes, double standards, unequal marriages, economic barriers, sexual exploitation and violence. Despite the diffusion of secularism–or perhaps in reaction against it–our era has seen a worldwide resurgence of fundamentalism and religious warfare that makes Child’s call for tolerance as urgent now as in her time. Amid the looming challenges of the future, Child’s self-sacrificing life, her courage in braving public ostracism to stand up for her principles, and her brilliant insights into the dynamics of slavery, racism, sexism, religious bigotry, poverty, crime, and punishment will inspire activists to continue the struggle for a better world.