Meet Anna Dickinson: Trailblazing orator and political firebrand

On a Saturday evening in January 1864, abolitionist Anna Dickinson stood inside the Hall of Representatives looking out into the U.S. House’s packed floors and overflowing galleries. Two thousand members of the public, senators, representatives, cabinet members, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln—and even President Abraham Lincoln himself—were crammed into the hall to witness her speech, which would later be dubbed the “sensation of the season.” For over an hour, she held her audience spellbound, assailing the institution of slavery and rarely looking down at her notes.

Anna Dickinson in her twenties, seated
Portrait of Anna Dickinson, 1863. Courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery

At only 21 years of age, Dickinson cemented her status as one of the most famous abolitionists in the nation. But it was a shocking news article that sparked her first foray into public activism when she was just 13 years old.

In 1856 Dickinson read an article about a teacher from Kentucky who was tarred and feathered for speaking out against slavery. Outraged by this injustice, she wrote a letter to one of the nation’s leading antislavery newspapers, The Liberator, calling out Northern men who prayed change would come but did not actively fight against slavery. Patience, she argued, was not an effective tool for change.

Pamphlet of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, titled An Address Delivered Before A Meeting Of The Members And Friends Of The Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society During The Annual Fair December 19, 1849 By W.H. Furness
Pamphlet of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, an abolitionist organization that sponsored many of Anna’s lectures. Courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture

Even in her early childhood, Dickinson was surrounded by activists who encouraged her to stand up against injustice. Born to a Quaker family in Philadelphia in 1842, Dickinson was raised by parents who were ardent abolitionists. They hosted the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass in their parlor and even housed fugitives from slavery. After her father passed away, her family continued to socialize with Douglass and other notable abolitionists, including Wendell Phillips, Lucretia Mott, and William Lloyd Garrison—the editor of The Liberator who would later become Dickinson’s mentor.

Shortly before the Civil War broke out in 1861, Dickinson began delivering lectures on slavery and women’s rights across the North during a time when it was unusual for women to speak publicly about politics. In the 1800s, the “cult of domesticity” defined middle- and upper-class women’s virtues as piety, chastity, and submissiveness and women’s space as the home—not the lecture stage. However, Black and white women abolitionists, like Sojourner Truth and Lucretia Mott, helped pave the way for Dickinson to claim space in the public discourse.

Lithograph showing illustrated portraits of seven women aboltionists, including Lucretia Coffin Mott,  Sara Jane Clarke Lippincott,  Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Anna Elizabeth Dickinson, Susan Brownell Anthony, Mary Ashton Rice Livermore, Lydia Child
Anna Dickinson, featured in the center, with other prominent 19th-century women reformers who frequently lectured to public audiences. Courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery

Coming of age in the wake of the 1848 Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention, Dickinson diverged from traditional arguments espoused by women to justify participation in public conversations. She rejected the claim that women's supposed benevolence and morality permitted them to condemn slavery. Instead, Dickinson developed arguments that appealed to the minds of her audience, leveraging historical and legal research, as well as their hearts, by exposing them to the evils of slavery and oppression of Black Americans. She also frequently incorporated her biting sarcasm into her speeches to drive home her points.

Even as Dickinson broke traditional gender norms, as a woman on the lecture circuit she often received criticism from journalists who questioned her intelligence and right to voice her arguments. “We were sorry to hear the lady damaging her cause by claiming intellectual equality with men,” wrote a journalist from The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin who saw her speak.

Oval medallion with figure of kneeling African American man in chains, emblazoned with the words “Am I Not A Man And A Brother?”
Medallion emblazoned with the words “Am I Not A Man And A Brother?” This image was a symbol of the abolitionist movement. (CE.68.150)

Although newspapers scrutinized Dickinson through a stereotypically gendered lens, her admirers were roused by her compelling antislavery arguments and magnetic stage presence. They called her eloquent, brilliant, witty, and a modern Joan of Arc. She captivated the leaders of Lincoln’s Republican Party. Even though she did not have the right to vote, in Pennsylvania and Connecticut she campaigned for Republican Party candidates who faced Confederate sympathizers in elections for governor, and she was credited with securing their victories.

By the time Dickinson arrived in the Hall of Representatives in 1864, she had delivered dozens of lectures across the North. During her speech, she bravely criticized Lincoln, who was sitting in the audience, for not having a plan to adequately protect the rights of newly freed African Americans and for the unequal treatment and pay of Black U.S. soldiers. When the president was asked for a few words after, he said he was too embarrassed to speak.

While Dickinson’s speech in Washington, D.C., was a pivotal moment in her career as an orator, it wasn’t the last time she would stand up for the causes she believed in. Later in life, Dickinson continued to fight for social justice issues, including Black male suffrage, women’s rights, and workers’ rights. She became a novelist, playwright, and actor—often taking on traditionally male roles—and climbed mountains in Colorado. Although her celebrity faded and her years of activism took their toll, Dickinson broke boundaries as a political orator and expanded opportunities for other girls and women to engage in the public sphere.

You can learn more about Anna Dickinson in the Learning Lab resource Anna Dickinson: Orator and Political Firebrand.

Jennie Miller is a former intern in the museum’s Education and Impact department and a graduate of Georgetown University with a degree in American Studies.

Posted in Women's History