When Mary Livermore died in 1905 at age 84, a Boston newspaper praised her as “America’s foremost woman.” A leading figure in the struggle for woman’s rights as well as in the temperance movement, she was as widely recognized during her lifetime as Susan B. Anthony, and for a time the most popular and highly paid female orator in the country. Yet aside from Civil War historians familiar with her service as a wartime nurse, few today remember even her name.
In this book, Wendy Hamand Venet reconstructs Mary Livermore’s remarkable story and explores how and why she became so renowned in her day. Born and raised in Boston, Livermore left home at age eighteen to become the private schoolteacher to a wealthy tobacco planter’s children in Virginia, an experience that afforded her an intimate look at slave-based society in the 1840s. Returning to New England, she married and lived a conventional life as the wife of a minister and mother of three daughters. With the coming of the Civil War, however, Livermore’s life changed dramatically when she became active with the United States Sanitary Commission, an organization that would propel her into the public limelight and cause her to challenge society’s traditional view of the role of women.
After the war Livermore became deeply involved in the woman’s rights movement, serving as editor of the newspaper Woman’s Journal and later as president of three major suffrage organizations—the American, New England, and Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Associations. She was also founder and president of the Massachusetts Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and became active in the Society of Christian Socialists in Boston. Her frequent speaking appearances on behalf of these causes eventually earned her the nickname “Queen of the Platform.” Although she may not have been as radical as some other early feminists, Livermore’s ideas resonated with thousands of middle-class women whose experiences paralleled her own. For that reason alone, Venet shows, her life and legacy are worthy of our attention.