Pilgrimage: A long journey, especially one undertaken as a quest.
This article by Olivia Twine is a journey into the past to meet Isabella Beecher Hooker, the half sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Our goal is to understand and appreciate generations of activists on whose strong shoulders we stand today. Books like this one enrich our experience when we visit historic homes, museums, and cultural heritage sites as part of upcoming women’s suffrage centennial celebrations from now through 2020, the nation’s suffrage centennial.
Olivia Twine introduces us to Isabella Beecher Hooker by highlighting Susan Campbell’s new book, Tempest-Tossed, The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker (Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 2014).
Olivia recommends visiting the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Connecticut in the heart of the Nook Farm neighborhood that was developed by John Hooker and where John and Isabella Beecher Hooker resided. http://www.harrietbeecherstowecenter.org/ The Connecticut History website provides information about Nook Farm and its famous residents. http://connecticuthistory.org/?s=nook+farm Information about Isabella and her times can also be gleaned from a visit to the Harriet Beecher Stowe House in Cincinnati, Ohio. http://stowehousecincy.org/.
Many of us heard in school about Harriet Beecher Stowe, but most likely little or nothing about Harriet’s sister, Isabella. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Susan Campbell has opened the door to an extraordinary story in her book, Tempest-Tossed, The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker. This work focuses on the most radical, enigmatic, and unappreciated member of the Beecher family, Isabella.
Campbell engaged a spiritualist medium to contact her subject, who believed in communication with the dead and practiced it regularly. The author shines a light on Isabella’s complicated character, however, without any discernible help from beyond the grave.
The ninth child of the controversial minister Lyman Beecher, Isabella grew up in a household where freewheeling political debate took place at the kitchen table. Although her mother was bedridden and died young, Isabella learned how to present strong views. This was in spite of numerous disagreements with her older half-siblings, who included the later novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, education advocate Catherine Beecher, and the renowned minister Henry Ward Beecher.
Isabella ran counter to Beecher family sentiment regarding the “scandal of the 19th century” involving Henry Ward Beecher, the popular preacher at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. Free-love advocate Victoria Woodhull accused Henry Ward Beecher of having an affair with the wife of a parishioner. Woodhull was infuriated by what she viewed as the hypocrisy of Henry’s pious sermons against her own free love position.
ISABELLA STOOD ALONE IN THE CONDEMNATION OF HER BROTHER EVERYONE CALLED “HENRY WARD”
Isabella believed her brother Henry Ward Beecher was guilty and said so publicly. She urged Henry to admit his wrongdoing. Her advice was imparted with love, but it wasn’t appreciated by Harriet, Catherine, nor sister Mary Beecher Perkins, all of whom denied Henry’s guilt and regarded Isabella as traitorous. The case went to trial and ended in a hung jury, nine to three in Henry’s favor.
Henry Ward Beecher’s charm was legendary. President Lincoln described him a great orator. Even divorce proponent Elizabeth Cady Stanton retreated from Isabella when she maintained her allegiance to Woodhull. It wasn’t because Stanton disagreed with Woodhull, but because she believed the controversy would hurt the suffrage movement cause. Isabella wouldn’t back away from the ever-controversial Woodhull and her unconventional views, including Spiritualism.
Isabella married John Hooker, a lawyer, in 1841. At home, the couple read law books aloud and discussed politics. The laws that kept married women from controlling their own money and property were unfair, Isabella insisted, and must be changed. John supported her activism. Later in life, after the death of their daughter Mary, John joined her in the practice of Spiritualism.
Isabella believed wholeheartedly in abolition and universal suffrage, and she fought for both by taking a leading role in the National Woman Suffrage Association spearheaded by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Isabella founded the Connecticut Woman’s Suffrage Association and organized the first woman’s rights convention in Connecticut. She was a prolific public speaker and lobbied for the Married Woman’s Property Bill that she introduced to the Connecticut state legislature. It passed in 1877. She also addressed the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on the subject of women’s suffrage.
SISTER HARRIET BEECHER STOWE OVERSHADOWED ISABELLA, AN ACTIVIST IN HER OWN RIGHT
Nevertheless, Isabella felt insignificant next to her sister Harriet. The author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was certainly sympathetic to the plight of those in bondage, but the ending of her novel indicated that former slaves should be sent to Africa, a place where most had never been. Isabella disagreed. Her sister Catherine was unmarried but lectured that a woman’s place was to “rule the world by ruling the household.” Isabella loved her own children but admitted that caring for them proved to be exhausting. Between speaking engagements, she took frequent water cures at distant resorts and worried about her parenting skills.
Spiritualism was popular during and after the Civil War when so many young men died in combat. Campbell relates Mark Twain’s description of a holiday party at the Hookers when a séance was underway upstairs. Isabella emerged brandishing an ax and charged downstairs in such a threatening manner that family members questioned her sanity and carved out a distance from Isabella. Despite her family’s opprobrium, Isabella continued to work with the Connecticut Woman’s Suffrage Association. She died January 25, 1907, two weeks after suffering a stroke.
Susan Campbell paints a revealing picture of the Beecher family that she says represented a fascinating journey during her eleven-year journey as a researcher. The Beechers were prolific writers and once the code of their handwriting was cracked, Campbell says an amazing world opened up to her.
Isabella caused quite a commotion in her own family which sadly led to her marginalization. Campbell points out how other early activists, like Isabella, have also been overlooked in the waves that Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony created. Susan Campbell does us an enormous service of not only bringing Isabella to our attention, but also filling in our understanding about the deeds and misdeeds of yet another early suffrage activist whose tireless dedication and persistence led to the opening up of opportunities for women today.
I knew nothing about Isabella Beecher Hooker before I read Susan Campbell’s book. I’m ready now to explore the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Connecticut and the Harriet Beecher Stowe House in Ohio with a new appreciation. This is a tremendous contribution because Susan Campbell has succeeded brilliantly in informing us about this extraordinary activist as well as bringing Isabella’s spirit to our awareness from The Other Side.
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