By Tricia Patterson
Well-known abolitionist, activist, and author Lydia Maria Child was born in Medford, Massachusetts on February 11, 1802. She was the youngest of six children born to baker and real-estate operator David Convers Francis and his wife, Susanna Rand Francis. Growing up, her parents’ anti-slavery convictions and altruistic attitude towards the poor community surrounding them greatly influenced the young Maria. Intellectually, her older brother, Convers, made the greatest impression. However, the youngest child, she soon found herself alone in the house as her brothers and sisters moved away to marry or go to school. While her father was well-respected in Medford-on-the-Mystic, her mother was the real source of affection in Maria’s life, and when Mrs. Francis passed away from tuberculosis after Maria’s twelfth birthday, Maria found herself alone in the house with her emotionally distant father.
The neighborhood knew her as a portly little girl who spent most of her time reading instead of running around and playing. Her father was busy working and was not sure how to place the young Maria, as she seemed unfit for the seminary and also for a traditional lady-like upbringing. But it was not long before this solitary life with her father ended and her life changed again. In 1814, her father, worried about the financial pressure the War of 1812 had put on him, sold his bakery and their house, and Maria was sent to live with her sister Mary and her husband in Maine.
In Mary and Warren Preston's home, she once again found happiness. She spent the next six years there attending school, helping them host parties, and assisting to raise her cousins. Meanwhile, she maintained her intellectual and literary correspondence with her elder brother, Convers, who had graduated from Harvard and become a Unitarian minister. At the age of eighteen, Maria left to teach in Gardiner, Maine. After three years of teaching, her brother Convers invited her to move in with him and his wife, Abby, and Maria made her way back towards Boston and Cambridge, where she would cultivate her intellectual career.
In Convers’ home, Maria enjoyed frequent visits from well-known intellectuals such as Ralph Waldo Emerson. Invited to participate in discussions, she nevertheless felt relegated to the role of a conversational ornament. In order to take action, in 1824, she opened up a girls’ school in Watertown. Then, soon after she had enrolled her first students, she published her first notable achievement: Hobomok.
Completed in six weeks, this book was initially noted as being written by “an American,” because women were not often openly publishing at the time. However, word quickly spread that Lydia Maria Francis was the author, and she found herself in the spotlight, quickly becoming Boston’s darling and a trend-setter for young females inclined to step outside their traditional roles. Within a year, she had written and published her second work, The Rebels, and solidified her position in the literary landscape of Boston.
Never regarded as an exceptional beauty, Maria did not lack for admirers during this period of her life. In 1826, she met idealistic lawyer and journalist David Lee Child, whom Maria found kind and gentle compared to some of the blue-blooded fops she had been socializing with. For over a year, she vacillated between her resolution to live a single life and her admiration for Child. In her diary, she wrote that, “he [was] the most gallant man that has ever lived since the sixteenth century and need[ed] nothing but a helmet, shield and chain armor to make him a complete knight of chivalry.” In September 1827, Child proposed to her, and after four hours of debate and discussion between the two lovers, she finally accepted. They were married one year later, in October of 1828.
Maria continued to publish regularly, and in 1832, she was given permission by the Trustees of the Boston Athenæum to use the library for free, a privilege Mrs. Child enjoyed for three years. It is not clear why this offer was not extended; the trustees’ minutes simply state: "Voted that the general permission heretofore given to Mrs. Child to use the Athenӕum be henceforth considered as terminate." Many years later, Mrs. Child claimed her abolitionist views were the reason; however, the Boston Athenæum's membership included many active abolitionists at that time.
In 1833, Maria published An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans, one of the first major anti-slavery books in America. Her husband, David, was fiercely committed to the cause and supported her efforts, even though the infamy she incited with this publication severely damaged both his business and her own reputation. Not long after, in 1835, she published the History of the Condition of Women in Various Ages and Nations.
With their activist spirits in full swing, David Child travelled to Belgium to research the potential of beet sugar to change labor practices in the agricultural industry and thus end slavery. Maria remained in Massachusetts and lamented his absence for a year and a half. Their finances reduced by her unpopularity and his failing business, they had gone into debt to support his travel abroad and lost their house in Roxbury which forced her to live with relatives during his absence. They were homeless and virtually penniless upon his return.
In 1839, with financial help from Maria’s father, David bought a farm in Northampton, Massachusetts in order to enact what he had learned about sugar beet farming. Her father soon regretted his offer and complained often to friends and neighbors. Disturbed by this uneasy situation, Maria also found running a farm an unchallenging occupation for her intellect. She could occasionally afford trips to hear her contemporaries Margaret Fuller or Emerson speak, but she regretting having to decline opportunities to be part of the delegation to the World’s Anti-slavery Convention in London because she could not afford to attend.
David was surprised in 1841 to be offered the position of editor for the National Anti-Slavery Standard in New York with a salary of $1,000 a year. This would have alleviated their financial troubles, but David would not abandon his beet venture. Then, a few weeks later, the same position was offered to Maria instead – at the same salary. The thought of financial freedom and intellectual stimulation – and no more beets – outweighed her reluctance to leave her husband’s side. While in New York, Maria published her popular Letters from New York. She also contributed articles and short stories to other magazines.
After the failure of his farming venture, David moved to New York but soon returned to Massachusetts to revive his law career. She and her husband were not reunited under one roof until she moved back to Massachusetts in 1852, and they settled in Wayland. She spent the rest of her career writing prolifically and pursuing her goals to promote abolition and women’s rights. Her husband passed away in September of 1874.
Six years later, on October 20, 1880, Maria died after suffering from rheumatism. She was buried in North Cemetery in Wayland, Massachusetts next to her husband. On her tombstone is written:
Lydia Maria Child
You Call Us Dead
We Are Not Dead
We Are Truly Living Now
American Frugal Housewife: Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy. Rare books, appointment required: F 75 no. 2
Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans. Library of Congress Classification: E449 .C532 1996
Hobomok and Other Writings on Indians. Library of Congress Classification: PS 1293. A6 1986
Letters from New York. Cutter Classification: VE5 .C43
Philothea: a Romance. Cutter Classification: VEF .C4363 .p (offsite storage)
Baer, Helene G. The Heart is Like Heaven: the Life of Lydia Maria Child. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press (1964).
Hebard, Barbara Adams, "The Role of Women at the Boston Athenӕum." In The Boston Athenæum: Bicentennial Essays. Boston: Boston Athenæum (2009).
Osborne, William S. Lydia Maria Child. Boston: Twayne Publishers (1980).