Public Historian and co-author of "Exploring American Girlhood in 50 Historic Treasures" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).
Feminists are everywhere, and they have done some pretty amazing things. In this article, I'd like to share with you two feminists from the 1800s that you've probably never heard of. Though their lives were polar opposites, Amy and Annie showcase the variety of activities and movements that American women became involved in during a time of rapid social change.
The "Quiet Life" of Amy Post
Amy Kirby Post's story begins rather humbly. She was born on a farm in upstate New York in 1802, and lived a relatively quiet life. Like many women of her time, most of what we know comes from letters between her and relatives. She also left several letters from her first love, Charles Willets, who died shortly before they were to be married in 1825.
Two years later, Amy married her sister's widower, Isaac Post. Together, they would have four children, including the young Matilda. Matilda's death at the age of five was the catalyst to Amy's involvement in several nineteenth-century movements. Distraught with grief, Amy sought solace in holding séances, during which she hoped to contact her daughter. She became an active supporter of the Spiritualist movement, which believed that spirits could make contact with the living. In the years after her daughter's death, Amy became heavily involved in Spiritualist events, including investigating the Rochester Rappins (a series of knock-like noises, believed to be communications from spirits, heard by the Fox sisters in 1848). Amy eventually became a mentor to the Fox sisters and many others, spreading the belief that the dead could talk to the living.
Yet Amy's involvement would soon grow to encompass two major movements. In 1836, Amy's husband moved the family to Rochester, where he started a new drug store. The income from the store provided the family with a very comfortable living, and enabled Amy to dedicate herself to the causes she believed in. By the 1840s, Amy was an avid abolitionist who used her home as a refuge for slaves on the Underground Railroad and a headquarters for many reform lecturers. She became friends with Frederick Douglass, who often found Amy either with guests or knitting stockings for antislavery fairs.
Amy would also befriend Harriet Jacobs, whom she encouraged in writing Jacobs's biography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Amy wrote the postscript for the first edition of the book. In the video below, Cherita Armstrong performs a piece from Harriet's life where she recounts her desire to marry - and her master's refusal to let her.
In 1842, Amy helped form the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society, which held fairs and raised money for abolishing slavery. She served as a delegate to national conventions, signed petitions, and visited fugitive slave communities in Canada in order to raise awareness.
Yet Amy's most notable role didn't come until the late 1840s. In 1848, Amy participated in the debates of the Seneca Falls Convention and signed the Declaration of Sentiments. When the Convention adjourned, Amy was appointed to the committee that was planning the next suffragists' meeting in Rochester. The committee proposed that a woman should preside over the Rochester convention, which led to the election of Abigail Bush as the first woman to chair a suffragist convention. Amy attended the convention in late 1848, where she called the meeting to order and participated in various debates. She was firm in asserting that women had an equal right to family earnings, due to their contributions in household labor and inheritance.
For the rest of her life, Amy remained heavily involved in the causes she loved. She helped form the Working Women's Protective Union, which advocated for wage increases for working girls, and organized over a dozen anti-slavery fairs in New York. She was alongside Susan B. Anthony when they registered to vote in 1872, and by 1885 she had established the Women's Political Club in Rochester. She also served as a lay healer, preacher, and writer for the Woman's Advocate of Philadelphia while also advocating for the end of capitol punishment and the establishment of coeducational, manual labor schools.
For Amy, “women could be as committed to social activism as men and could make political statements through the daily routines of their lives." She died of old age in Rochester in 1889.
Annie Peck, Conqueror of Peaks
While Amy Post spent most of her life in upstate New York, another feminist of the time was busy climbing some of the highest peaks in the world. Annie Smith Peck was born on October 19, 1850, in Providence, Rhode Island. Her father was a member of city council and prominent lawyer, which meant Annie had a good education and childhood. She attended and graduated from Dr. Stockbridge’s School for Young Ladies, Providence High School, and the Rhode Island Normal School.
Annie initially became a teacher, but quickly realized that she wasn't making as much as her male peers for the same work. She returned to school, attending the University of Michigan believing that a university education would guarantee her equal pay. Her determination for a woman's right to education was evident in letters to her father during the time. In response to his refusal to fund her education, Peck wrote,
“Why you should recommend me for a course so different from that which you pursue, or recommend to your boys is what I can see no reason for except the example of our great grandfathers and times are changing rapidly in that respect.”
Annie graduated with her Masters degree in Greek in 1881. She spent a few years teaching Latin and elocution, becoming one of the first women to achieve the rank of professor at Princeton University. In 1884, she spent a year teaching in Germany before becoming the first woman to attend the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. Returning to America, Annie quickly realized that she couldn't support herself on a teacher's salary.
She decided to begin lecturing to the public about her favorite hobby: mountain climbing! Annie had been an avid mountain climber for years and, finally, decided to pursue it full-time at the age of 44. She spent the rest of her life achieving fame and fortune for her various climbs.
In 1895, she set the women’s altitude record and was the first woman to climb the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps in trousers rather than a skirt. Two years later, she again set the women’s altitude record for her climb of Mexico’s Mount Orizaba. In 1903, she set out to climb Mount Sorata in Bolivia, but ran into several setbacks. She was forced to give up her first attempt when the men and Indian guides who accompanied her refused to complete the climb. She attempted the climb a year later, achieving a height of 20,500 feet with Mr. Victor Sintich and an Indian guide, but was forced to turn back when her companions refused to climb any higher. Yet her career was not over. In September of 1908, Peck completed the highest climb in the Americas at Mount Huascara, setting the record for the highest climb (22,000 feet) in the Western Hemisphere at the age of 58. The peak was named Cumbre Aa Peck in her honor.
At the age of 59, Annie combined her passion for climbing and women's rights in her climb of Mount Corpouna in Peru. Ascending the summit of 21,083 feet, Annie hung a "Votes for Women" banner on top of the mountain! Two years later, she wrote about her various adventures in A Search for the Apex of America (1909). She would also write several guide books about South America based on her travels, including Flying Over South America: Twenty Thousand Miles by Air, published in 1932.
In 1935, Annie had her final adventure. She returned to the place where her love of climbing had started: the Acropolis in Athens. She died shortly thereafter on July 18, 1935, in New York City.
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on November 27, 2016:
Interesting to know these two women who dedicated themselves to causes and pursued what was not traditionally paths for women to pursue.