Civil War orator draws attention

History: Philadelphian became known as "America's Joan of Arc" for her youth, charisma and combative leadership in the causes of abolition and women's rights.


GETTYSBURG, Pa.- Though it would be nearly sixty years before women won the right to vote, Republicans chose Civil War orator and abolitionist Anna Dickinson to tour the country and speak on their behalf in 1863.

Despite her fame - after the Civil War, she earned more money per talk than Mark Twain - few today know much about Dickinson, who was once known as "America's Joan of Arc."

"Anna Dickinson was compared to Joan of Arc because she was young, charismatic and combative, and came out of nowhere," according to Gettysburg College professor Matt Gallman. The Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era, Gallman has been researching Dickinson for several years and is writing her biography.

Through newspaper clips and her correspondence and scrapbook, he has pieced together the chronology of her travels, visiting the sites and combing through newspapers for accounts of her speeches and public reaction to them.

Dickinson's father died when she was an infant, hours after speaking at an anti-slavery meeting in their hometown of Philadelphia.

Following in his footsteps, she published an essay on "Slavery" in William Lloyd Garrison's Liberator when she was only 14. Her career was launched at the age of 17, when she spoke at two public meetings on "women's rights and wrongs."

Dickinson later developed a reputation in the Philadelphia area as a fiery young orator, speaking largely on abolitionism and women's rights, according to Gallman.

After a year of campaign appearances for the New Hampshire Republicans, Dickinson accepted an invitation from more than 100 senators and representatives to speak before them in the nation's capital in January 1864. "Dickinson's fame presented challenges to a society that had little experience with women speaking in public before mixed audiences and almost no sense of women in the political arena," Gallman said.

After the Civil War ended, Dickinson was among important women, including Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who fought for voting rights. While Anthony and Stanton supported voting for women, Dickinson broke ranks and sided with suffrage for African- American men.

"This decision to support voting rights for black men put her at odds with Anthony and Stanton," Gallman said. In addition, Anthony wanted her to step up and speak for the women's movement, and Dickinson refused. "Dickinson wasn't an organization person; she didn't do the `institutional thing,'" according to Gallman.

Although she had a successful theater career after the speaking circuit dried up in the 1870s, Dickinson's later years were tainted with claims of insanity, according to Gallman.

Her sister, Susan Dickinson, led efforts to have her placed in an insane asylum as her behavior grew erratic. "People threw fame at Anna Dickinson when she was 22," Gallman said, "rallying around her in great numbers. Eventually, her voice and power dwindled, and that was difficult for her."

Gallman believes that little notice has been given to Dickinson's contributions to women's history for several reasons, including her break with the suffragist movement and questions about her mental health.

"Anna Dickinson had a consistent agenda for women that was broader than suffrage, and for this reason, she was ahead of her time in pursuing agendas like prostitution and prison reform, and the rights of women workers," he said.

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