Three Sisters Who Showed The Way

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Other men,” Ralph Waldo Emerson told an admiring crowd in Boston’s Odeon Theater toward the end of 1845, “are lenses through which we read our own minds.” The eminent philosopher then went on to tell his audience of the importance in their lives of “Representative Men,” such as Plato, Shakespeare, Napoleon, and Goethe. “These men correct the delirium of the animal spirits, make us considerate, and engage us to new aims and powers,” Emerson concluded. “Thus we feed on genius....”

Emerson’s lecture series “Representative Men” became one of his most famous, for Emerson spoke directly to his listeners’ need for new models of action in the tumultuous decades before the Civil War. To this day his phrase “Representative Men” reverberates, reminding us not so much of the heroes Emerson identified in 1845 as of Emerson himself and the men he inspired during New England’s flowering: Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, and many more.

There were women, too, among Emerson’s listeners. In his audience, no doubt, was the forty-one-year-old Elizabeth Peabody, one of the few female members of Emerson’s elite Transcendental Club. She was the printer and publisher of his literary journal The Dial and the oldest of three sisters who could well be called the “Representative Women” of their time. Elizabeth’s thirty-nine-year-old sister, Mary, might also have been in Emerson’s audience that day, for she, too, attended his lectures whenever she could. Or perhaps she had stayed home that night, for three years earlier Mary had at last, after a long, secret courtship, married Horace Mann; now she was pregnant with their second child. Elizabeth’s youngest sister, the thirty-six-year-old Sophia, was a talented painter who had studied Emerson’s writings on nature and art and gratefully received his praise of her work. But she most likely never attended his lectures, because severe migraine headaches had confined her to bed through much of her young adulthood. Now the beautiful Sophia was a recovered invalid, married to Nathaniel Hawthorne and living in Salem while her husband served the apprenticeship at the customhouse that would lead to his writing The Scarlet Letter.

 
 

What must Elizabeth Peabody have thought, listening that day to the revered Emerson, whose only explicit reference to women was the offhand remark that women learn “by sympathy...as a wife arrives at the intellectual and moral elevations of her husband”? Those words probably rankled Peabody, who never married and who had proved herself every bit as able a scholar as Emerson. After all, more than twenty years before, young “Waldo” himself had told her when she came to him for private tutoring in Greek that she already knew as much as he did. Ever since then Elizabeth Peabody had been earning a living as a teacher, writer, and lecturer, exploiting her extensive knowledge of languages, literature, and history as best she could in a city that still forbade women entrance to its institutions of higher learning, both as students and as teachers. Whose genius could she “feed on”? What lessons could she learn from “Representative Men”?

Nonetheless, the same words that to a modern ear sound condescending were heard as compliments by most nineteenth-century women. When Emerson addressed a women’s rights convention in Boston, he joined the women in calling for female suffrage but based his support for the cause on a view of women as special creatures, very different from men. “Man is the will, and Woman the sentiment,” he told this audience. “More vulnerable, more infirm, more mortal than men...[women] lose themselves eagerly in the glory of their husbands and children....Women are, by this and their social influence, the civilizers of mankind.”

In 1855 this speech brought applause, not catcalls, from feminists. A new age for women was dawning, in which they might ask for voting rights but also take pride in their role as “civilizers” within the home. Elizabeth Peabody, with her hardwon career as a writer and educator; Mary Peabody Mann, with her joy in motherhood; Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, with her illness, her art, and her transfiguring love for her husband—each of the three Peabody sisters in her turn lived out a new pattern for womankind. Their lives can be the lenses through which we may read the minds of America’s women.

The American Revolution had brought a sense of heady freedom and exhilarating responsibility to American men; no other modern nation had promised its citizens self-rule. By the 1830s and 1840s men in the established urban centers of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia were already working toward a second revolution—one that was both social and personal. Reformers like Horace Mann, Samuel Gridley Howe, and others founded schools and hospitals for the blind, the deaf, the insane, and launched a great national campaign to improve public education. Crusaders for personal liberty like Emerson, Henry Thoreau, and the more radical Bronson Alcott and Orestes Brownson set up a cry for independence of mind and style of living such as had not been heard since the Pilgrims left Leiden for the New World. Their programs included communes, pacifism, pantheism, simplicity in dress and food, and, above all, self-examination.