Women and men alike owe much to an obscure maternal feminist who died 150 years ago.
In language that sounds almost quaint, E.B. Huntington wrote the following tribute to a woman named Lydia Sigourney, on the occasion of her death.
Were any intelligent American citizen now asked to name the American woman, who, for a quarter of a century before 1855, held a higher place in the respect and affections of the American people than any other woman of the times had secured, it can hardly be questioned that the prompt reply would be, “Mrs. Lydia Huntley Sigourney.”
Lydia Huntley Sigourney (1 September 1791 – 10 June 1865), née Lydia Howard Huntley, was an American poetess and author extremely popular in her own time but nearly forgotten today.
Lydia’s parents were Ezekiel and Sophia (Wentworth) Huntley. Little is known of her parents except that the family was very poor. Ezekiel Huntley was a handy man and gardener.
As a child, Lydia was fascinated with words. She spent much of her time journaling and writing essays and poetry. She was influenced greatly by her childhood relationship with her father’s employer, the widow Lathrop.
Sometimes, Madam Lathrop would invite the little child from across the hall into her parlor…. Seated in her cushioned armchair … the old lady would … hand [Young’s Night-Thoughts] to Lydia, who would read in a clear voice from ‘The Consolation,’ while Madam Lathrop … indulged in mournful reverie…. Hours like these fostered in the girl the sentimentality that was to be her principal recourse in later years (Haight, 4-5).
After her friend Madam Lathrop died in 1805, Lydia was sent to visit Mrs. Jeremiah Wadsworth, one of the widow’s old acquaintances, in Hartford, Connecticut. This visit put her in contact with Daniel Wadsworth. Daniel helped her set up a school for girls, arranging for his friends’ daughters to attend (Haight, 9). In 1815, he also helped her publish her first work, Moral Pieces in Prose and Verse, arranging the publishing and performing the initial editing himself. Sigourney described Wadsworth as her “kind patron” and said that he “took upon himself the whole responsibility of contracting publishers, gathering subscriptions, and even correcting the proof sheets” (325). She went on to say that “He delighted in drawing a solitary mind from obscurity into a freer atmosphere and brighter sunbeam” (325-6).
When her formal education ended she continued her studies, being tutored in Latin and Hebrew. She was a tutor to less fortunate children, including African-Americans who had very little formal education.
In 1814, she started a school for girls that focused more on knowledge and moral development than the typical girls’ school that focused on skills.
On June 16, 1819, she married Charles Sigourney, a wealthy widower businessman with three children. They eventually had two children of their own. Like so many of the era, the family knew much tragedy. Only two of their five children reached adulthood. Charles Sigourney’s business took a nose dive and he lost much of his fortune. The financial crises forced Lydia to begin to use her writing to help support her family.
When she first married, Lydia chose to write anonymously in “leisure” time (Haight, 33-34). When her parents became in dire need and her husband lost some of his former affluence, she began to write as an occupation. When she was referred to as the probable author of the anonymous Letters to Young Ladies, she admitted authorship and from then on began to write openly as Mrs. Sigourney (Haight, 35).
Mrs. Sigourney wrote over fifty books for general consumption. In addition she wrote poetry, hymns, and pamphlets for causes she believed in. She dealt with public subjects and real-life events. The public subjects included slavery and the treatment of Native Americans by white people as well as travel literature and history. She wrote about contemporary events, and real-life events such as the death of family members. She composed meditative prose to speak to the needs of the soul. She published an advice column. In addition she maintained personal correspondence of up to 2000 letters a year … in a day of writing in longhand! This alone speaks of her commitment to support and encourage others.
Perhaps more significant than her actual works was the philosophy behind them. She wrote from the perspective of a Judeo-Christian worldview. She was compassionate. She was a socially activist Christian and one of the first maternal feminists, i.e. women with a Biblical perspective of womanhood. Sigourney shared the perspective of the conservative (small r) republicanism of the founding fathers whose thoughts and public policy were organized around:
- The dignity of human life
- Unalienable rights granted by God
- Liberty under law (Christian internal self-government based on moral law)
- Traditional family
- Limited central federal government
- Wholism – calling people to live in the presence the Eternal
- The fundamental significance of motherhood and the education of children
I’m writing especially to highlight her maternal feminism and the fundamental significance she placed on motherhood and the education of children. Her influence was tremendous. She inspired many young women—in the domestic sphere as well as the public arena—to the high calling of motherhood. She helped create a space for young women to become writers and poets and thus contribute to beauty in the home and influence in the public square.
In tribute to the impact of her life, Rev. E.B. Huntington wrote a brief eulogy to Mrs. Sigourney’s life. He pointed out that her success was not necessarily due to her prowess as a writer but more perhaps because with [her] gifts and [her] success, she had with singular kindliness of heart made her very life-work itself a constant source of blessing and joy to others. Her very goodness had made her great. Her genial goodwill had given her power. Her loving friendliness had made herself and her name everywhere a charm (85).
John Greenleaf Whittier penned the poem etched on her gravestone.She sang alone, ere womanhood had known The gift of song which fills the air today: Tender and sweet, a music all her own May fitly linger where she knelt to pray.
A concise summary of her life is found here.
While she was very popular during her lifetime, her name and legacy is largely forgotten today. This is why I’m writing about her here.
May a new generation of men and women learn from this voice of another generation, another world of thought!
May God raise up more women like her! May her legacy continue to impact future parents and families that the strength of our nations may be restored!
– Darrow Miller
This post is the first in a series on maternal feminism.