Three Sisters Who Showed The Way


But what of the women of the young Republic? By most standards, women were passed over by these waves of reform. Their husbands and sons and fathers had gained the vote. They had not. Even some rights that had been theirs under the old colonial governments, such as the right to represent themselves in court, were written out of the new legislation. Then, as industrialism gained momentum, women were left behind in the home as their men went out to work. How was a woman supposed to find time for self-examination now that she had full responsibility for rearing her children and running a household? How could she feel important when, despite her hard work, her husband’s was the voice that would be heard in all legal matters?

Yet history can never be fully told by simply tallying gains and losses. American women of the nineteenth century were pioneers in a domestic wilderness, and what mattered to them was their performing to the utmost a “civilizing” role for the men and children in their lives.

For Mary Peabody the first task was to find the right man. She and her sisters had grown up in what has been politely called genteel poverty. Both their parents had been schoolteachers when they married, and for as long as the Peabody girls could remember, they had lived in houses with one parlor set aside for a schoolroom. But Mrs. Peabody, the granddaughter of a wealthy Revolutionary War hero whose businesses had failed during the postwar years, had higher hopes for her husband. She urged him to become a doctor, and he trained for several years in the profession. But the young Dr. Peabody, the only member of an obscure rural branch of the famous New England clan “who stepped out of the furrow into a gentle profession,” preferred to experiment with the new science of dentistry. By some accounts, he spent more hours writing tracts on the care of teeth and testing herbal remedies than attending patients, and he was always willing to take time off to teach his older daughters Latin and Greek or lead them on nature walks. Mrs. Peabody continued as a main support of the family until her girls were grown.

The young Mary Peabody could not afford to bide her time attending cotillions and teas. Every bit as bright as her older sister, Mary moved to Boston in her late teens to teach in Elizabeth’s schools and was drawn along with Elizabeth into the highest intellectual and reform circles. It must have seemed to them that the most exciting men of their time were already married—William Ellery Channing, Alcott, Emerson. This didn’t stop Elizabeth from forming close platonic relationships with each of these men. Looking back on this phase in an article she wrote in the 1870s defending women’s right to higher education, Mary wrote sympathetically of the “noble army of unmarried women, who are often in the respectable ranks of ‘spinsterism’...out of self-respect....”

In their mid-twenties Elizabeth and Mary moved into a boardinghouse that ran on the combined intellectual wattage of some of the brightest minds of their day. At Mrs. Clarke’s the sisters met their landlady’s son, James Freeman Clarke, soon to become an outspoken Unitarian minister; the historian Jared Sparks, at work on The Writings of George Washington, which eventually would land him the president’s chair at Harvard; the up-and-coming lawyer-editor George Hillard; and the recently widowed politician Horace Mann.

Elizabeth asked Emerson to tutor her in Greek, he told her that she already knew as much as he did.

Both Peabody women were immediately attracted to the grieving thirty-six-year-old widower, whose young wife, Charlotte, had died of tuberculosis. Because he had been a married man, Elizabeth felt it proper to invite Mann to the sisters’ private parlor unchaperoned. In the name of sympathy she held his hand, combed his hair, massaged his forehead, and more than once allowed him to embrace her.

But it was Mary who finally won Mann’s heart, though the couple were not to marry for ten years. Mann was deeply in debt, having taken responsibility for a widowed sister’s large family and a ne’er-do-well brother’s business failures. But most important, he was too brokenhearted to think of starting a new family. Never certain of her beloved’s feelings until he proposed to her the month before their wedding, Mary survived those years believing “it is far better for the soul to live in an ideal union with a possible twin-soul than to enter marriage upon a low plane of thought or feeling.” For from the first time Mann smiled at her, Mary felt “here was life and something to do....It was to make that smile perpetual.”