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Sunday, October 24, 2021

The Agitators by Dorothy Wickenden

Reprinted from the Citizen:

As someone who lived in Auburn most of my life, I was aware of how historic the city is but author Dorothy Wickenden brings the Civil War years in Auburn front and center in her new book, The Agitators that I learned so much more.

“The Agitators- Three Friends Who Fought For Abolition and Women’s Rights” highlights the lives of Frances Seward, Harriet Tubman, and Martha Wright, and how they often defied society’s conventions about women to work for the causes they believed in.

Frances Seward, wife to William Henry Seward, a United States Senator, New York State Governor, and Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln, wanted to become more involved in the cause of abolition of slavery.

Seward’s home was a stop on the Underground Railroad, hiding slaves who had escaped from their bondage in the southern states. She also helped found schools for Black children, and sold land to free Blacks.

Martha Wright and Frances became friends because their husbands were both lawyers, and the wives were both considered “outliers”. They grew up as Quakers, had young children, “a passion for reading and an antipathy to pretentiousness, and a burgeoning interest in social reform”.

They met Harriet Tubman after she escaped from slavery and was taking other people on their way to freedom in Canada. Harriet had little money, and Frances sold her land at a reduced cost to build a house, where Harriet eventually brought her parents to live, a place that is now a National Park Historical site on South Street. 

Martha helped organize the first women’s rights meeting in 1848 in Seneca Falls. Wright became active in the suffragette movement along with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. “She rarely encountered an institution she didn’t question, and although convention dictated most of the circumstances of her life, she liked breaking rules.”

While Frances had a fairly large household staff, Martha, mother to six children, did not. Martha did the housework, cooked meals, cared for the children, sewed their clothes, made soap, and canned fruit.

Because Frances’ husband was a prominent political figure, she couldn’t break as many rules as Martha could. Frances felt very strongly that slavery should be abolished everywhere and quickly, but her husband had to be more politic. If he wanted to make changes, he had to compromise. It put a great strain on the marriage.

Frances and Martha each had sons who fought on the front lines of the Civil War. While they were proud of their sons for fighting the evil of slavery, as mothers they worried about their safety and health as many people who died during the war perished due to illnesses like tuberculosis and dysentery.

For Civil War buffs, there is plenty to keep their interest as battles and strategies are related in riveting detail. Wickenden studied under prominent Abraham Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald, and readers interested in the 16th President will find much to satisfy them here.

Many of us know Harriet Tubman served as spy and nurse for the Union Army, and Wickenden shines a new, more detailed light on her service here. It is shameful that Harriet Tubman, who served her country so bravely, had to fight so hard to get the pay that was due to her.

We learn about the struggles within the Women’s Right movement. During the Civil War, many of the suffragettes turned their attentions to the abolition of slavery, while some of the women felt that if they stopped fighting for women’s suffrage, the movement would lose valuable momentum. It caused a rift between the two closely aligned causes, as they had to decide if they could fight for the right to vote for women and Black men at the same time, or if preference should be given to suffrage for Black men first.

The Agitators is a must-read book for people who enjoy learning about Civil War-era history, the history of the women’s movement, and especially the history of the city of Auburn through these three remarkable women. A tour of the Seward House, Harriet Tubman’s home, Fort Hill Cemetery, the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, and other local historic sites will be on your list of things to do. Dorothy Wickenden brings our small historic city to vivid life here in her fascinating book.

The Agitators by Dorothy Wickenden- A+

Published by Scribner

Hardcover, $30, 384 pages

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