On a cold, snowy January evening in 1874, Anna Elizabeth Dickinson became one of the first women of national prominence to speak on women’s suffrage in Clinton County, NY. Those gathering to hear her at the Palmer Hall, located upstairs at 60 Margaret Street in downtown Plattsburgh, were described as the most intellectual and cultivated in the community.
The crowd that night would have known her reputation.
Dickinson was born in 1842 into a Philadelphian Quaker family. Her father was an abolitionist. She was educated at the Friends’ Select School in Philadelphia and acknowledged as a gifted speaker and prodigy.
Her first speaking engagement was in 1860 at age 18 when she addressed the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. In early 1861, when she spoke in her native city on “Women’s Rights and Wrongs,” her career on the speaking circuit began.
By 1863 Dickinson’s reputation had grown and her name appeared around the country for her anti-slavery stand during the Civil War. She was a staunch supporter of the Republican Party, though not always of Abe Lincoln, whom she felt was too moderate. Because she was a young phenom, she was elevated by some as the “Joan of Arc” of the United States’ ongoing battle to end slavery in the South.
In 1864 she was the first woman to speak before Congress and after the war she resumed her speaking career, equality for African-Americans and women’s rights. The speech was attended by Lincoln.
By 1874 she had been on the speaking circuit for nearly 15 years. During the 1871-72 lecture season she spoke almost every night from October to April commanding from $150 to $400 a night, a very large sum for its time. At her peak, she earned more than Mark Twain.
Dickinson’s spoke on “The Rights and Wrongs of Women,” Reconstruction, “Women’s Work and Wages,” and “Between Us Be Truth,” on the social evils of venereal
disease. Before arriving in Plattsburgh, she had started an acting career, climbed Pike’s Peak, and traveled the nation to give her orations on African American and women’s suffrage. (is is believed to be the first white woman to summit Colorado’s Longs Peak, Lincoln Peak, and Elbert Peak, and the second to climb Pike’s Peak.) It is unclear which organization in Plattsburgh sponsored her lecture or if admission was charged.
She entered the Palmer Hall stage not as the audience expected a radical, nonconformist to appear. Her rich brown silk dress included a train. There were diamonds on her ears, neck, and fingers. Her passport described her as 5’ 2” with large gray eyes, a fair complexion, a large Grecian nose, full lips, a round chin, and a round face. Her voice was rich, deep, and mellow, with a style betraying her Quaker training using biblical words.
Her stage presence was not that of a petite woman, and she used the entire stage to deliver her speech. She was a dramatic actress with a message. The title of her address was “What’s to Hinder Women from Helping Themselves?”
She began with the premise women are weak and dependent and need to understand how to overcome their “disabilities.” Women are their own worst enemy, she said, due to their typically gentle upbringing, women are not toughened for real work as their brothers are. Further, in order for women to do men’s work they needed to have the same training.
There would be no free ride, she argued. One will not get something for nothing. If all women are waiting for is marriage, they are not fitting themselves for good work and will not receive rewards for good work.
“The key of a woman’s success is in the brain and in the skill and cunning handle craft that come only with practice,” the Essex County Republican quoted. The reporter felt she did far more than other female orators in the country to create “a correct public sentiment for the best interests of her sex.”
After Dickinson’s 1874 lecture, Plattsburgh organizations started to host lectures by other noted suffrage supporters such as Wendell Phillips and Susan B. Anthony. But it would be 43 years before the city’s women would win the right to vote in state and federal elections.
Also a writer, Dickinson published the radical novel What Answer? (1868), supportive of interracial marriage. She made arguments for worker training, prison reform, assistance for the poor, and compulsory education for children in A Paying Investment, a Plea for Education (1876).
In the meantime, Anna was committed to against her will by her sister Susan Dickinson to the Danville State Hospital for the Insane in Pennsylvania, before being transferred to a private hospital in Goshen, Orange County, NY, where she quickly began giving lectures. She sued newspapers who claimed she was insane and those who had her committed, winning the case against her kidnapping and three libels suits in 1898.
Once released, she lived with George and Sallie Ackley in Goshen for more than 40 years. According to letters between them, and confirmed by George Ackley and his sisters, Dickinson and Sallie Ackley were lovers. When Sallie died, she left a large portion of her estate to Anna.
Anna Elizabeth Dickinson died in 1932 at the age of 89 and was buried in Slate Hill Cemetery in Goshen. A marker at her grave (next to that of the Ackleys) reads “America’s Civil War Joan of Arc,” and quotes her: “My head and heart, soul and brain, were all on fire with the words I must speak.”
Illustrations, from above: A Mathew Brady photo of Anna Elizabeth Dickinson, taken between 1855 and 1865; an Anna E. Dickinson photo and autograph; and a lecture poster from 1891.
John Warren contributed to this article.