Anna Elizabeth Dickinson | Pennsylvania Civil War 150
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Pennsylvania Civil War 150

Pennsylvania Civil War 150

Women

Anna Elizabeth Dickinson

Today she'd have a talk show.

Remarkable for both her abolitionist convictions and gift of oratory, Anna Dickinson was the first woman to address congress - which she did at the tender age of 21. Dickinson earned a standing ovation on January 16, 1864, for "The Perils of the Hour," a powerful talk about ending slavery. In that speech, Anna criticized President Lincoln severely for his too-moderate war goals, even as she urged continued support for him.

She did not temper her biting criticism, even though Lincoln was in the audience.

The youngest of five children from a middle-class Philadelphia Quaker family, her father was an abolitionist who died when Anna was just two years old. But her mother raised her and her siblings, carrying on their father's anti-slavery convictions. At age 13, Dickinson published a letter in William Lloyd Garrison's newspaper The Liberator. Just two years later, Anna went to work at the U.S. Mint to support the family. She began speaking about slavery and women's rights as a 17 year old.

Anna drew crowds. People in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and Chicago were drawn to hear the young woman spout unabashed, radical criticisms of the war. Her popularity grew steadily, and the press began calling her "America's Joan of Arc."

After the war, Anna's topics had broader reach. She spoke to crowds across the country about immigration, prison reform and labor issues. But one of her strongest convictions was also one of her most controversial. Although she supported the 15th amendment, she only spoke about its importance in terms of giving black men the right to vote. Women suffragists felt the amendment should grant the right to vote to all people. Though Anna Dickinson stood for women's rights, she never fully aligned herself with the women's movement of the time.

Like many celebrities and public figures today, Anna Dickinson's private life was fodder for the newspaper gossip column. While she never married, she did have intense relationships with female friends throughout her life. Speculation about her sexuality was inevitable and today, historians concur that there is inconclusive evidence from her letters that she may have been a lesbian.

In the 1870s, Anna wrote a popular novel called What Answer?, an interracial love story set against the backdrop of the Civil War. She also penned several plays. She acted, performing in the title role of Hamlet, and in the midst of these pursuits, she continued to campaign in several presidential elections.

Sadly, the end of Anna's career was marred by alcohol and psychological issues that led to her temporary confinement in a mental health facility. The trailblazing young woman, who addressed the nation's leaders, spent her last years in obscurity.

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Information for this section was contributed by Dana Kellogg Repash.

Dana Kellogg Repash is a graduate student studying history at Villanova University.

Image Courtesy of Library of Congress

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