Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A Very Dangerous Woman by Sherry H. Penney and James D. Livingston -- Book Review

When one thinks of women's rights in early America, the names Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott come to mind. There's a statue of these three women at the U.S. Capitol.

A Very Dangerous Woman: Martha Wright and Women's Rights by husband and wife, James D. Livingston and Sherry H. Penney, however, tells the story of another early activist for women's rights.

Martha Wright was the younger sister of Lucretia Mott. Her fear of public speaking and the raising of her large family prevented Wright from participating in some ways during the early years, and as such, even though she was well-written and continued to support women's rights her entire adult life, she has long lived in the shadow of her sister, Lucretia, who was a well-known Quaker preacher and antislavery activist by the time it came to organize the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848.

Martha Wright was James Livingston's great-great grandmother. Through much research and Wright's personal letters, Penney and Livingston have sought to help Wright move out of the shadow of her more famous sister, to take her place among the influential women of her time. Wright's opinions on abolition, women's rights, and organized religion did not make her very popular with her Quaker neighbors, and as such, she earned the reference of, "a very dangerous woman".

I was thoroughly impressed with this well-written, engaging account of Wright's life. Told in a fairly chronological manner, A Very Dangerous Woman takes the reader through Wright's Quaker beginnings and early influences, her first love, an ill-fated relationship, her marriage to David Wright, the many years Martha spent balancing her family with her interest in abolition and women's rights, the Civil War years, and beyond.

While Martha Wright is an inspiring historical figure, she suffered through much tragedy, not unlike many women of her time. She was expelled from her family's religious group for daring to marry Peter Pelham, a non-Quaker. Peter and his new wife traveled to Florida in the hopes of improving his health and meeting with business success, but Peter's health and business continued to fail. Martha would soon find herself a young widow with a newborn daughter. Aspiring artist, Julian Catlin eventually captured Martha's heart, only to fall to his death while sketching a waterfall.

Martha and David Wright shared a desire to see slavery come to an end, but David did not support women's rights. Like modern women today, Martha struggled to balance her family life and outside interests. She was forced to choose sides between friends when the leaders of the women's rights movement split and formed separate organizations.

She would serve as secretary for and president over many women's rights conventions, and could count William Lloyd Garrison, William Seward, and Harriet Tubman among her friends.

A Very Dangerous Woman paints a touching and inspirational picture of a woman ahead of her time, who believed in freedom for all men and women. A woman whose quick wit and humor was admired by many of her contemporaries, Martha Wright definitely left her mark on America. While she, like many other early organizers of the women's rights movement, would die before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, Wright's contributions are brought to light in this moving story.

I felt the authors did an excellent job in remaining unbiased in their account of Wright. I highly recommend A Very Dangerous Woman to anyone interested in the women's rights movement, influential early American women, how the Civil War affected the women's rights movement, and those wishing to learn more about Martha Wright.

Title: A Very Dangerous Woman: Martha Wright and Women's Rights
Authors: Sherry H. Penney and James D. Livingston
Publisher: University of Massachusetts Press
ISBN-10: 1558494472
ISBN-13: 978-1558494473
SRP: $24.95

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