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March 6, 2023

Lydia Maria Child

By 1833, Lydia Maria Child was a popular author, having published both fiction and nonfiction, including the wildly successful advice book The Frugal Housewife: Dedicated to those who are not ashamed of Economy. And she had been editing a beloved monthly periodical for children called Juvenile Miscellany for seven years. But her popularity crumbled precipitously when she published An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans, arguing for the immediate emancipation of enslaved people. Child never stopped writing or fighting for the causes she believed in, but she never again reached the literary heights to which she’d seemed poised to ascend.

Joining me to help us learn more about Lydia Maria Child is Dr. Lydia Moland, Professor of Philosophy at Colby College and author of Lydia Maria Child: A Radical American Life.

Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. The poem mid-episode, read by Teddy, is “The New-England Boy's Song about Thanksgiving Day,” written by Lydia Maria Child and originally published in 1844 in Flowers for Children, Volume 2. The image is of Lydia Maria Child, from “Representative Women,” by L. Schamer, produced by Louis Prang Lithography Company, in 1870; the image is available courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution and is in the public domain.


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Kelly Therese Pollock  0:00  
This is Unsung History, the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. And please, tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen too. This week, as we launch a series of episodes for Women's History Month, we're discussing the life of abolitionist Lydia Maria Child. Lydia Francis was born in Medford, Massachusetts, on February 11, 1802, the youngest of seven children born to Convers, and Susannah Francis, owners of a bakery that produced the famous Medford crackers. Susannah died in 1814 when Lydia was just 12 years old, at which point she moved to Norridgewock, Maine to live with her sister Mary. When Lydia was 19, she left Maine to move in with her brother Convers, a minister in Watertown, Massachusetts, with whom she shared a love of reading. Around that same time, she chose to be rebaptized, selecting the baptismal name, Maria, and from that point on, she asked to be referred to as Maria. Always a voracious reader, at the age of 22, Maria published her first book, a novel about interracial marriage between a white woman and a Native American man. The novel was called "Hobomok, a Tale of Early Times." In September, 1826, Maria published the first issue of a periodical for children, called "Juvenile Miscellany," which was designed both to amuse children and also to provide them with moral lessons and principles for life. In 1828, Maria married journalist and abolitionist, David Lee Child, and moved with him to Boston. They would remain married for the next 46 years. Though they deeply loved one another, their marriage was sometimes rocky, and they spent years physically apart from one another. Maria's most successful publication was initially published in 1829, and was called, "The Frugal Housewife: Dedicated to Those who Are Not Ashamed of Economy." In it, she included recipes and tips for women without large incomes to support their households, drawing on her own financial struggles for inspiration. The Frugal Housewife was so popular that in the next 25 years, it was reprinted 33 times. Maria's life changed forever in 1830, when she met abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison in Boston. Maria's writing was well known enough, that Garrison sought her out and requested their meeting. He set about converting her to the abolition cause. Maria later recalled, "It is of no use to imagine what might have been, if I had never met him. Old dreams vanished, old associations departed, and all things became new. I could not be otherwise, so help me God." Maria felt called to help the cause in the best way she knew how: by write writing. In 1833, she published, "An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans," advocating the immediate emancipation of enslaved people and warning northerners that they needed to do more. As she wrote, "Let us not flatter ourselves that we are in reality any better than our brethren in the South. Thanks to our soil and climate, and the early exertions of the Quakers, the form of slavery does not exist among us. But the very spirit of the hateful and mischievous thing is here in all its strength." Backlash to the book was immediate and bitterly hostile, so much so that she was forced to resign from editing her beloved Juvenile Miscellany. Despite the vitriol and shunning, though, Maria's words did break through for some. Wendell Phillips, Charles Sumner, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson all claimed that it was Maria Child, whose words introduced them to the cause. In 1838, David and Maria left Boston for Northampton, Massachusetts, where David, who had studied sugar beets on a trip to Europe, planned to farm beets. There he produced the first beet sugar in the United States in 1839. His hope was that beet sugar could replace cane sugar, which was produced by large plantations that relied on enslaved labor. Unfortunately, no matter how noble the cause, David's undertaking was not a financial success. While David stubbornly refused to leave Northampton, Maria moved to New York City in early 1841, to edit the weekly "National Anti Slavery Standard," for which she was promised a salary of $1,000 a year. The Standard was deeply in debt, and unable to pay her even the small salary they'd promised. The work was grueling, and Maria, despite her passion for abolitionism, hated the work. She especially hated the infighting among abolitionists. And by spring of 1843, she resigned and left. And she left not just The Standard, but active participation in the movement as well, at least for a while, needing a break to recover. In 1844, she wrote what would become her best known work, and one you almost certainly know. Maria called it, "The New England Boys' Song About Thanksgiving Day," but you probably know it as "Over the River and Through the Wood." In 1856, Maria and David moved to Wayland, Massachusetts, which Maria called a drowsy village, to care for her aging father. As the country erupted in the lead up to the Civil War, Maria was pulled back into the abolition movement. In 1861, she agreed to write the preface for and edit the memoir of Harriet Jacobs, a Black abolitionist, who had escaped slavery in North Carolina, by hiding in a tiny crawlspace for seven years before fleeing to the north. In 1865, Maria published an anthology that she intended as a primer to help African Americans learn to read now that they had been freed from slavery entitled, "The Freedmen's Book." The work included pieces written by Black Americans, along with her own biographical sketches of famous African Americans. In 1874, David died in Wayland at the age of 80. 6 years later, Maria died on October 20, 1880, at the age of 78. She is buried next to David in the North Cemetery in Wayland. But her words live on. "Joining me now, to help us learn more about Lydia Maria Child is Dr. Lydia Moland, professor of philosophy at Colby College, and author of, "Lydia Maria Child" a Radical American Life." First though, here's my son Teddy reading "The New England Boys' Song About Thanksgiving Day."

Teddy  9:38  
Over the river and through the wood, to grandfather's house we go. The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh through the white and drifted snow. Over the river and through the wood to grandfather's house away. We would not stop for doll or top for 'tis Thanksgiving Day. Over the river and through the wood oh how the wind doth blow. It stings the toes and bites the nose as over the ground we go. Over the river and through the wood was a clear blue winter sky. Dogs do bark and children hark as we go jingling by. Over the river and through the wood to have a first rate play. Here the bells ring tingling ding, hurrah for Thanksgiving Day. Over the river and through the wood, no matter for winds that blow or if we get this layup set into a bank of snow. Over the river and through the wood to see Little John and Ann, we will kiss them all and play snowball and stay as long as we can. Over the river and through the wood truck fast my dappled gray, spring over the ground like a hunted hound for 'tis Thanksgiving Day. Over the river and through the wood and straight through the barnyard gate. We seem to go extremely slow it is so hard to wait. Over the river and through the wood Old Jowler hears our bells. He shakes his pow with a loud bow and thus the news he tells. Over the river and through the wood when grandmother sees us come she will say, "Oh dear, the children are here. Bring a pie for everyone." Over the river and through the wood. Now grandmother's cap I spy. Hurrah for the fun! Is the pudding done? Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!"

Kelly Therese Pollock  11:11  
Hi, Lydia, thanks so much for joining me today.

Dr. Lydia Moland  11:14  
It's such a pleasure to be here with you.

Kelly Therese Pollock  11:16  
This was just a fantastic book. I'm really excited to talk to you about it. I'd like to start by talking just how you first got interested in the life of Lydia Maria Child. You've written other books about Hegel, for instance. So how did you come to write this biography? 

Dr. Lydia Moland  11:34  
Yes, it was one of those things that was a combination of a real personal moment for me and a completely serendipitous discovery. So it was after the 2016 election when I thought it was time for me to come home to my own country and think about my own history. And after a couple of decades of writing about German philosophy, all of the philosophers I wrote about were all men, I decided it was time for me to do something with women. And I had this idea that women, I knew vaguely that women had been really important in the abolitionist movement, but I didn't know any names. And I had this intuition that in order to fight an entrenched injustice, like slavery, you would have to think philosophically, you would have to ask big questions like, What is justice? Or what is equality? What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to have a, uh, to have freedom in a political sense, or just in a personal sense? And so I thought, if I could find a female abolitionist, who was seriously confronting those questions, I would have found a female philosopher. And so I went to the Schlesinger Library for the History of Women at Radcliffe, which is part of Harvard, and asked a librarian to help me find such a person; and they didn't have any names immediately, but they produced a box of letters. And among those letters, were lots of people whose names I recognized: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Booker T. Washington. But this one letter just electrified me. It was clearly written by one activist to another, it clearly had a lifetime of experience of fighting entrenched evil behind it. And it had exactly the kind of clarity and energy that I craved at that moment, right after the 2016 election where I think many of us were just flailing around trying to figure out how to address what was happening. And so I thought that when I then realized who I was and started reading about her, I just couldn't believe what I was seeing, how much she had done, how little she was known. Lydia Maria Child wrote biographies and histories and religious treatises and novels and children's fiction and self help books. But I think her life's work was fighting racial injustice. And she wrote, I think, some of the most seminal documents by a white person on that topic of the entire 19th century.

Kelly Therese Pollock  14:11  
Yeah, the volume of writing that we have from her is shocking, that we have so very much. Can you talk some about the process of having to synthesize? So you've got letters from her, to her, you've got all this stuff that she wrote.  How do you synthesize all of that into a biography that's also talking about, as you note, her philosophy?

Dr. Lydia Moland  14:35  
I think I was lucky in so far as I very early read what I still think is the most important thing she wrote, which was something she published in 1833, called, "An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans." And this was the book in which she outed herself as an abolitionist. And your listeners might know this, but really to be an abolitionist in the 1830s was to be a complete radical. I often quote Kelly Carter Jackson, who is a historian, who says that it was a little bit like calling yourself a communist in the 1950s. It meant that people ostracized you, that you lost your income and your friends, your family would stop talking to you, you'd become a social pariah, essentially. But this was a this book was a kind of fire hose of arguments against all of the arguments people were using, white Americans were using to keep from caring about slavery. And so once I had that as a real model of the way she argued, and the kinds of arguments that she used, then it felt straightforward to me to peg everything else of hers that I read on to that, because I could just tell that this was one of the most important things that she felt like she ever wrote at all also. So yes, she wrote 1000s of letters, she corresponded kind of with anyone who has anyone in the American 19th century. She was famous enough, young enough, she was very famous already in her 20s, that people started saving her letters very early, so we have an incredible record of her correspondence. And that was intimidating, especially because many of them are only available on microfiche, believe it or not. So I spent weeks in the Boston Athenaeum, reading these letters on microfiche, but the letters give a wonderful image of who she was as a deeply sensitive and formidable human being. And then again, once I felt like I had a good sense of that from the letters, then so many of her novels and her self help books, and her histories, just made so much more sense. So I would say it started with the appeal, really delved into the letters, and then the rest of it fell into place.

Kelly Therese Pollock  16:55  
So it you talk in the book about how she, she has this moment where she becomes an abolitionist, and she says she, she could never live the same way again. Could you talk a little bit about that? It's almost like a conversion experience. And then how she sort of sparked that same kind of moment in other people.

Dr. Lydia Moland  17:14  
Yeah, that's beautifully put. I think, for her, she had grown up a reader, she was a voracious reader and a very early writer. So by the time she was in her early 20s, she had already published a novel. The first novel that she wrote was about a Native American warrior who married a white European settler. And that marriage actually ends when a European comes and claims her instead. And so it's a very complicated kind of love triangle. But that just to say that she her very first forays into fiction were about social justice, and about a people that she knew right away had been grievously wronged, and had and were suffering, really untold evil at the hands of the American government and European settlers. So I think that both that and her early awareness of enslavement, made her open in a way to the kinds of arguments that William Lloyd Garrison, who was the white abolitionist who converted her used. So Garrison was ingenious at making arguments that people had a very hard time withstanding, let's put it that way. And I think it's important for us to realize that most white Americans had entrenched reasons for wanting to withstand those arguments, political reasons, economic reasons, religious reasons, social reasons, all of which kept them from being able to just hear what people like Garrison, were saying. And of course, what people like Garrison, were saying, Black abolitionists had been saying for decades. So Garrison was really building on Black abolitionist movements already. But he knew that part of his purpose in life really was to try to reach white northerners. And so those were the kinds of arguments that he apparently used with Child, and then Child, I think, discovered that she had a really remarkable capacity for formulating arguments, and also deconstructing arguments that people would use to keep from caring about slavery. So the appeal, as it's often called, is, again, it just sometimes she describes herself as kind of clearing the underbrush of bad arguments, with the hope that your average white northerner and American extrapolating from that, once those arguments were defeated, would get in touch with their inner goodness, and recognize that slavery had to be an atrocity. And I think she was a little naive. I think they all were, the Garrisonians in the early 1830s. I think they believed that once they pointed out to northerners, how evil slavery was, most white people would say, "Oh, yeah, actually, we have to change this." But instead, the arguments got more and more ingenious and hampered the abolitionists' goals in really kind of diabolically clever ways.

Kelly Therese Pollock  20:20  
So much of the story of the abolitionist movement, and then the early feminist movement is about different groups of people, essentially having the same goal but not being able to coalesce around the way to do it. And so much infighting. And it seems like so much of what Child wanted to do was, you know, she, she had ideas, she she had strong opinions, but she wanted all of these groups to see that they all had a role, that they could learn from each other, that they could complement each other. And obviously, that was a very difficult thing to do. Could you talk a little bit about that? And of course, anyone who follows modern politics probably sees lots of parallels in what often happens now.

Dr. Lydia Moland  21:02  
Yeah, I'm afraid that is it's sort of heartbreakingly familiar. And it is heartbreaking to read about these schisms within the abolitionist movement. Again, you just find yourself wanting to say, "Come on, we have the same goal, you can, you know, surely you can see past some of these differences." But exactly as you say, Child was allied with William Lloyd Garrison insofar as she also was a non resistant abolitionist, which meant that she did not think that force should ever be used to fight slavery. So certainly not violence, but also not even politics. And then there were abolitionists, both Black and white abolitionists who thought the opposite, who thought that first of all violence was justified, and even short of violence, that politics was an important way to fight enslavement. And so that became one of the issues that really ripped the movement apart. And another, sadly, was the question of whether women should be allowed to speak against slavery. So early on in the abolitionist movement, there were a couple of women who started speaking right away, which was not, women weren't supposed to speak in public, there was a biblical reference forbidding that. And at the beginning, I think the abolitionists were radical enough in general that that didn't bother them. But as the movement grew, and more conservative members started joining, they didn't want the women to speak anymore. And Child herself didn't like speaking in public, so they weren't, you know, going after her in particular. But people like Angelina and Sarah Grimke, and Abby Kelley, and Maria Weston Chapman, and also Black abolitionists, like Sarah Mapps, Douglass and Maria Stewart, this became more and more contentious. And there were plenty of more conservative women who weren't comfortable with this either. So exactly as you say, Child, even though she knew where she stood, she thought women should be allowed to speak. And she thought that abolitionism should be non resistant, especially when she was editing The National Anti Slavery Standard, which is another one of those things when you realize that she was the first woman to edit a major political weekly newspaper, it's just astonishing. But so she was in New York editing The National Anti Slavery Standard, she was trying very hard to bring these groups together and to show that abolitionism could happen in many different ways. And for that, I'm afraid she was essentially ousted from her position by some of her former allies who, who objected to her being that open to other ways of fighting slavery. I'll say one, one more thing about that, which is, it's so easy for me too, writing about these people to feel like, "Oh, their egos just got in the way. And they couldn't like just see the greater good," but I think it's so important to remember the immense pressure being put on them from people who were oppressing them, and also supporting slavery, right. So it's not that they were just intolerant egotistical people. It's that that kind of infighting was so advantageous to anti abolitionists, that there were lots of easy ways to set them against each other and for pro-slavery people to profit from that.

Kelly Therese Pollock  24:33  
There seems to be this thread in her life. And it relates in some ways to this idea that she wants different groups to sort of see the good in each other, that she's able to take in new information and change her mind or slightly alter how she's thinking about things in a way that is really difficult for humans sometimes. Can you talk a little bit about that how we use see that playing out for her and and why that's important? The 19th century is momentous. There's a lot going on. And so there's a lot of times in there that new information comes, and you have to be able to synthesize it.

Dr. Lydia Moland  25:13  
Yes. That's a wonderful question. I'm gonna mention two things. One is again on the subject of violence. So I think in the early 1830s, she and other Garrsonian abolitionists thought that slavery could and should end without violence. And it wasn't, it was sort of in the 1840s, that she started to say things like, "I think it's going to take violence." And she continued to deplore that. But she would say very clearly, "This kind of injustice, if unaddressed will end in violence. And so those of us who care about, who don't want violence, must fight injustice. Otherwise, when the violence comes, it's our fault as well." You know, those of us today who think, "Oh, we like to be non violent," I think she would say to us, too, "Well, then what are you doing to address the systematic evils in our society such that that violence doesn't happen?" And so I think once the war started, she was very clear that more violence was actually necessary in order for the war to come out the way she wanted it to. So Lincoln was very clear at the beginning of the war, that if the south came back into the Union, he would leave slavery alone, he would not emancipate any enslaved people, which left people like Child in this horrific position of having to hope that the north would continue to lose long enough that Lincoln would be forced to emancipate enslaved people. So that's an example of a case where it taking in more information, I think, unfortunately, just about how they're sort of entrenched evil and human nature made her change her mind. And the other one, I'll just say briefly, she didn't start out as a young woman really committed to gender equality, or what we now call gender equality. She was somewhat ambivalent about that. And sometimes in her early writings, she'll say things like, "You know, men and women are different, and women aren't, you know, are better suited to the domestic sphere," which was ironic, given the fact that she was striding out of that sphere with everything she wrote. But by the end of her life, she was unequivocal about that and supported women's suffrage. I will say that she supported not the Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony version, once that version turned to in this terrible racist direction. So then she sided more with people like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Lucy Stone. But in short, by the time she died, she had really changed her mind about that issue.

Kelly Therese Pollock  27:59  
So let's talk about her marriage to David, which is just this fascinating relationship. He he's an interesting person, in his own right. And she, there's various moments where she sort of gives up what could be really amazing career,still had an amazing career. But you know, this moment where she outs herself as an abolitionist, but then also in sticking with David for so long, and really letting so much of his struggle dictate her life. Can you talk about that she clearly loved him, you know, but what's going on with this relationship?

Dr. Lydia Moland  28:36  
It's such a complicated story. And I think anyone who admires Child has very complicated feelings about David. So he was a lawyer and a journalist. He was very talented, he was idealistic. She often said that he was awake before she was both on the topic of slavery and on the topic of gender equality. So he was radically progressive for his generation. But he was wildly impractical, and he was terrible with money. And that was paired with this idealistic commitment to righting the wrongs of the world, which made it very hard for her to object to. So when he would say, "Okay, I have this new idea. I'm going to represent these, these Black people," and I'm going to get then she'd say, "Okay, but you know, who's going to pay you?" and he wouldn't want to hear that. And she wouldn't want to have to ask it because she, you know, in an ideal world, that wouldn't matter, but he drove them further and further into debt. At one point with the incredibly inspiring but too idealistic scheme in which they moved to Northampton, Massachusetts, in the center of the state to farm sugar beets in the hope of undermining the plantation sugarcane trade. So, you know, the idea was if you could make sugarcane less valuable, then enslaved labor would be less valuable. And then slavery would not be as entrenched. Unfortunately, it failed. They went bankrupt. There's a heart rending image of the bankruptcy sale in my, the newspaper announcement of it in my book, in which it's clear that the copyrights to several of her books were also in the bankruptcy auction. And she, I think, after, well, after a couple of decades of struggling with this, finally, in the 1840s, told him, that she wouldn't follow him anymore is the way she put it, wouldn't follow his schemes wouldn't follow him physically. So they separated for about 10 years; they lived apart. He would show up again, occasionally, usually when he needed money and was sick, and she would heal him and provide for him, and then he'd head off on another scheme. But then finally, when she was in her 50s, they reconciled and they moved to Wayland, Massachusetts, which is just a few, well, like 20 minutes out of Boston now. And he promised her that he would not spend another dollar without her permission. And as I say, in the book, the first time I read that I just, I'm afraid I rolled my eyes, I thought, people just don't change that much. There's no way those old habits didn't resurface. But in the end, I think she was he was, he did it, he changed and he didn't drive them into debt anymore. At that point, she'd also separated her finances from him. So she was a little insulated from that. But she said that they were, the last 20 years of their life together, there in Wayland were the happiest years that they spent together. And all of the evidence is that that's true. Also, like evidence from neighbors and from the letters they wrote to each other. He died in her arms. And after he died, she tried very hard to reach him through a spiritualist medium. And she believed that she had at a certain point, and one of the messages that he gave her was, "You think us dead. We are not dead. We are truly living now." And those are the words that are on her tombstone.

Kelly Therese Pollock  32:20  
So continuing on this money topic, she separates their finances. And of course, this being the 19th century, there has to be another guy who's in charge of her finances. And time and time again, she's embarrassed that they don't have more. She has lots of really wealthy friends, doesn't want to invite them over. They'll see what her house is like. And yet it turns out that she is just socking money away. What's going on?

Dr. Lydia Moland  32:50  
Yeah, another just fascinating piece here. So she one of the things I love about Child, to be honest with you, is that she complained a lot, like she she wasn't a kind of saintly, I'll put up with all of this without saying anything. So there's lots of evidence in her letters that she that being poor was really hard for her. And yes, the only thing they could really afford, and the only thing that would keep David out of mischief was for them to live in this out of the way place in Wayland that wasn't well serviced by transportation, when exactly as you say, had these very wealthy friends that she just isolated herself because she didn't want to embarrass them or her by seeing the poverty that she lived in. And she was also very clear in her letters in a couple of places that she was giving everything they didn't need away. So she would say things like, "I keep what we have to have for our own sustenance. Everything else I give to what were known as the "freedmen," which were newly emancipated, formerly enslaved people, so Black people in the South who had been, you know, now had nothing. They were no longer enslaved, but they didn't have clothing or food or so she every every book she published during that period of her life, all of the proceeds would go to them. And then when she died in 1880, and people looked at her will, it turned out exactly as you say that she had just been saving everything else that she didn't need, and had also a couple of friends, and I think this is interesting, had left their money to her, I think both in recognition of the fact that they knew she was very poor, but also in recognition of the fact that she would use it well. And sure enough, when she died, as I say in the book, she had the equivalent of today's in today's money, about three quarters of a million dollars. And her will gave it all to the causes that she cared about. So homes for Black women, schools for Black students, some for women who were impoverished just generally. Also she gave to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. So yeah, she was the sort of person who just felt like what she had didn't really belong to her. And she was just a vehicle through which to give it to others.

Kelly Therese Pollock  35:10  
And you're, of course, doing that with this book as well.

Dr. Lydia Moland  35:15  
I did decide to do that I, I am in such a different position than she was. I have a stable job, I'm very fortunate to be financially stable. It felt so wrong to me to keep any proceeds from this book, both because this is exactly what she would have done, she would have made sure that the profits from anything went to someone else. But I also felt very clear that for a white woman like myself, who's privileged in all of the ways that I am to make money on a book that is about enslavement would be grotesque, really. So I'm in a fortunate position that I could do that. And so I am.

Kelly Therese Pollock  35:54  
We should mention that for as progressive as she was, and she absolutely was, she still had certain prejudices, certain things that she was not completely enlightened about. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Dr. Lydia Moland  36:08  
Definitely. And thank you for bringing that up. But if there's one thing I don't want to do, it's to give an image of her as a saint. And I think there's a lot that that we can learn from about the things that she got wrong, because so many of them, we inherit, especially those of us who are white in this culture. One thing that I she never could let go of was what was sometimes called "uplift suasion," or respect, what we now sometimes call respectability politics. And that was the claim that white people would lose their prejudice, just as soon as Black people dressed nicely, spoke softly, didn't rock the boat, had nice yards, cleaned it, you know, whatever. Part of what is especially hard about that hearing that from her is that she was also very clear that it wasn't true. She knew, as we should know, now, that it was often and still is often exactly when Black people did well, that white people would get violent. So that was part of what happened in reconstruction, that whenever a Black person like actually did what Child wanted them to do, they would then be seen as a threat. And she was assimilationist in some ways, not in all ways, but I think especially as regards Native Americans, which continued to be a cause that she cared a lot about. One of the later things that she wrote was specifically again, about Native Americans. And it's another one of these fantastic pieces in which she is just just she just assails the United States government for what it's doing to Native Americans. And she's blunt about it. She discloses all of these atrocities that were going on, mostly in the western United States at that point. But then she says something like, you know, "Native Americans are just our younger brothers and sisters. And if we just educate them in the right ways they can join proper society," or something like that. And what's specifically heartbreaking about that, is that this was right around the time that boarding schools for Indigenous children were being constructed. And as many of your listeners will know, some of those boarding school programs were compulsory, which meant that Native American children were were forcibly taken out of their families, put into these schools where they were forbidden to speak their languages and stripped of their culture and their haircut and all of that, which was a kind of cultural genocide. And in Maine, where I live, there's a wonderful organization that's really been uncovering that history, and especially its long term effects in the child welfare system. So it's, it was still the case until very recently, that native children were taken out of homes and put into white foster families at a just horrifically high rate. And so I guess that like, that's the kind of thing that you can see even a very progressive and even radical person, like Child, with wonderful intentions, can have that kind of effect. It shouldn't surprise, especially those of us who are white Americans, it should not surprise us that our good intentions often have bad effects. So I think one thing I sometimes talk about Child as having as a kind of fierce humility, insofar as she knew that sometimes she was part of the problem, and she wanted to do better. So I tried to take that as a model for my own thinking about this as well. I'll also just say she never really she was tolerant of Judaism. That was about it. Like she she did think that Jews should be treated equally and  you know, allowed all kinds of, you know, whatever other people were allowed, but she she never warmed to Judaism as a religion. She was very negative about Catholics, which many Protestants in the North were around that time, and also said some fairly disparaging things about immigrants generally. So those are another couple areas where you can see that she didn't always have the full vision herself, either. We don't either. So, near enough.

Kelly Therese Pollock  40:16  
I, of course, read a ton of biographies. And it's fairly rare for the author's voice to be in the biography. And you have made a choice that, especially at the very beginning, and the very end, that you are present in the story. And I love that. But I want to talk a little bit about that you're, of course, a philosopher, by training, you know, what, how did you make that decision? What does that mean in writing this kind of book?

Dr. Lydia Moland  40:42  
I think, for me, it just came very organically out of the way the book started for me. And I, as you say, I'm very upfront about that in the preface that I went looking for a life that could help me learn to live my own. And I realized that there are many biographers who think that's not something that biographers should do, and I respect their choices. But for me, I really wanted to hold her up to my own life as a mirror, and make make me really think hard about places where I know I fall short, in places where I can see my own society, replicating the kinds of bad arguments that she was trying to draw our attention to. And also just to be really frank about myself as someone trying to think philosophically about my own life, and using her example to do that. So that that just came very organically to me. It wasn't something that I wrote the book and then decided to interpolate in backwards. So people who read the book will see that I sometimes just pause in the book and ask, you know, "How is this relevant to us?" or "How, what am I learning from this?" or "What am I responding to?" And that's made me feel very connected to her in a way that's very rewarding to me anyway.

Kelly Therese Pollock  42:04  
So the question of this podcast is always why do more of us not know about Lydia Maria Child? She is she's prolific. We haven't even mentioned she wrote "Over the River and Through the Wood." Why is she somewhat forgotten as we're thinking about the 19th century and important women in American history?

Dr. Lydia Moland  42:26  
Yes, there are a lot of reasons for this, I think. And of course, part of what I love about your podcast is that you're so good at helping us sing these unsung songs. And before I get to that answer on Child, I'll just say that, insofar as this is a problem for someone like Child, it's a much deeper and worse problem when it comes to Black abolitionists. And your show your podcast has been so good at bringing so much of that history to light as well. But I just ask, I humbly ask your listeners, "If you're interested in this topic at all, please go and read about some of these other unsung heroes of the abolitionist movement who were Black." Again, people like Mary Ann Shad Cary and Sarah Mapps Douglass and I already mentioned Maria Stewart, but David Walker and Peter Paul Simmons. I mean, there's so many of them who were so powerful, that are erased even in ways that Child wasn't. And I will say too, again, one little like sub point, one thing I admire in Child is that she wanted to sing some of those unsung songs herself. So in a couple of her publications, she went out of her way to to publish Black authors, to tell the stories of fugitive enslaved people, to try to make very clear to all Americans but especially Black Americans, all of the leaders that they had in their own culture: politicians and military leaders and poets and historians. So I think she was attuned to that, that there are some people who get written out of history. As far as her own fall from fame goes, there's no question that some of that was gendered, that even, quote unquote, "even" at the end of the 19th century, people were still uncomfortable with a political writer who and she wrote about economics and history, who was a woman. And since history is not an upward trajectory, but there are moments where things fall back again, I think by the end of Reconstruction, there was some real backsliding on many progressive topics, including gender. But I think in her case, it was also she had a deep discomfort with heroism. So she was on record saying that she didn't want to be lionized and that there was something dangerous about lionizing. She doesn't put it this way, but I'm so I'm putting some words in her mouth here, but especially for white abolitionists, for white abolitionists to act like they were the heroes and that none of this would have happened without them was to perpetuate a racial injustice of the kind that she was trying to fight. So when William Lloyd Garrison died, 1500 people came to his funeral. The flags flew at half mast up and down the eastern seaboard, people made speeches. I mean, it was a kind of national event. And she was happy about that for Garrison, but she did not want it for herself. So she left brutally Spartan instructions for her own funeral. She didn't want journalists, she didn't want newspaper articles, she didn't want speeches, you know, she just she wanted, as she put it, to shed her mortal body, so she could continue working in spirit. But I think she saw that as her legacy rather than wanting to. So there were people who wanted to write, you know, biographical sketches of her. She usually was very negative about that. And I think that was principles on her part. I also think it was part of a very complex psychology. That meant that I think she thought that she had failed in many ways. She had so hoped that her writing would not just end enslavement, but would change the hearts and minds of white Americans so that a war would not be necessary, and once the war was over, so that there would be real racial reconciliation. And when she saw that, that was absolutely not happening. I think she really suffered over that. And so also for that reason, and she wasn't wrong about that, right, that the the story that came down from that period is usually about white abolitionists, and it is usually a story that makes it sound like the problem ended when the Civil War ended. And so insofar as she worried that that was a risk, she was right.

Kelly Therese Pollock  46:52  
So I have a whole page of questions, and we're clearly not going to get to all of them, because this was a long life that stretched through most of the 19th century. So people need to just go read this book, learn about the whole scope of the 19th century, learn why the civil war started, it's all in there. How can people get your book?

Dr. Lydia Moland  47:11  
Well, it should be either in or easily orderable, from any local bookstore. So I always encourage people to do that first. And it's definitely available on any online service that you get your books from also.

Kelly Therese Pollock  47:25  
Is there anything else that you wanted to make sure we talked about? 

Dr. Lydia Moland  47:28  
Well, I think maybe the one thing that I said a little bit about, but I'll just emphasize, again, is her desire to keep working in the world. So when she died, I sometimes say she had envisioned death in many different ways. But one of them was that she wanted to continue working. And she thought that once her mortal body was gone, she could do that. So when I think about what her legacy is, now, I very much think of her still at work in the universe, in part through her writings. But also insofar as she can encourage any of the rest of us to think hard about our role in perpetuating racial injustice if we're white, or in the trying to address the other kinds of issues that she cared about. And I guess part of my training as a moral philosopher means that I'm always looking for those kinds of questions and those kinds of answers. And I'm just very grateful for the opportunity to talk about them.

Kelly Therese Pollock  48:28  
Well, thank you so much for speaking with me. And thank you for introducing me to Lydia Maria Child. I just I love this book. I loved learning about her, but not just her. It really is a story of the 19th century for good and bad.

Dr. Lydia Moland  48:44  
Thank you. And thank you for all of the wonderful work that you do and for your wonderful questions today.

Teddy  48:50  
Thanks for listening to Unsung History. Please subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app. You can find the sources use for this episode, and a full episode transcript To the best of our knowledge, all audio and images used by Unsung History are in the public domain or are used with permission. You can find us on Twitter or Instagram @Unsung__History, or on Facebook @UnsungHistorypodcast. To contact us with questions, corrections, praise, or episode suggestions, please email If you enjoyed this podcast, please rate, review, and tell everyone you know. Bye! 

Transcribed by

Lydia MolandProfile Photo

Lydia Moland

I am a Professor of Philosophy at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, where I teach courses on moral philosophy, aesthetics, and the history of modern philosophy. For most of my career, I have written on nineteenth-century German philosophy, including two books on G.W.F. Hegel and an edited volume on the philosophy of humor in the nineteenth century.

In early 2017, I decided it was time to turn my attention to my own country and to women. Thanks to an obliging librarian at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute, I discovered the work of American abolitionist Lydia Maria Child: a woman whose philosophical thinking and moral courage made her one of the most important voices among white Americans fighting to end slavery. My biography of Child, entitled Lydia Maria Child: A Radical American Life, was published by the University of Chicago Press in fall 2022. It has been reviewed in the New York Review of Books and the Wall Street Journal. You can find some of my writing and speaking about Child, including in the Wall Street Journal, The Paris Review, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, The American Scholar, and on National Public Radio, here.

I am the grateful recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the German-American Exchange Service, and the American Academy in Berlin. In 2019 and 2022, I had the honor of interviewing Michael Schur, the creator of the NBC sitcom “The Good Place,” at WBUR’s CitySpace in Boston.

I live in Maine with my husband, the historian James Johnson. The best thing I did on my last sabbatical was to take trapeze lessons.