ANNA ELIZABETH DICKINSON (d: 1932) was an American orator and lecturer born on this date. An advocate for the abolition of slavery and women’s rights, Dickinson was the first woman to give a political address before the United States Congress. A gifted speaker at a very young age, she aided the 19th century Republican Party in the hard-fought 1863 elections and significantly influenced the distribution of political power in the Union just prior to the Civil War.
Dickinson was the first white woman on record to summit Colorado’s Gray’s Peak, Lincoln Peak, and Elbert Peak, and she was the second to summit Pike’s Peak. She was the third white woman on record to climb Colorado’s Longs Peak in 1873, and was certainly the first well-known woman to do so.
She spoke publicly first in 1857 when she addressed a man who derided women at a Progressive Friends meeting. After that, she spoke regularly about temperance and abolition. In 1860, she spoke in Philadelphia at the Friends of Progress meeting at Clarkson Hall about The Rights and Wrongs of Women and then she addressed the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society in the fall of that year.
She gave her first major speech, a two-hour discussion of The Rights and Wrongs of Women, on February 27, 1861 in Philadelphia. Lucretia Mott, who delivered abolitionist speeches for decades in Quaker meetinghouses, provided leadership to sell 800 tickets for the Concert Hall event. Mott arranged for a lecture tour, sponsored by the Massachusetts Anti-slavery Society, for the 19-year-old, who quickly became a popular speaker. The series of speeches helped lead the Emancipation movement.
Having heard her speak, abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison arranged for her to speak in 1862 in the Palmer Fraternity Course of lectures at the Boston Music Hall. Named “The Girl Orator” by Garrison, she spoke about The National Crisis. She visited hospitals and camps during the war to speak to the soldiers. In 1862, she visited soldiers wounded in the war, and then gave a lecture about “Hospital Life” in New England.
During the 1863 U.S. Senate elections, with the deepening of the Civil War, Dickinson campaigned for several pro-Union Republican candidates in New York, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Connecticut to audiences that included people who did not support the war. She spoke eloquently and powerfully in support of the Radical Republican’s anti-slavery platform and for the preservation of the Union. She spoke to coal miners in Pennsylvania soon after draft riots in the area and converted men who had not previously supported abolition.
No less than Mark Twain himself praised her, “She talks fast, uses no notes what ever, never hesitates for a word, always gets the right word in the right place, and has the most perfect confidence in herself. Indeed, her sentences are remarkably smoothly-woven and felicitous. Her vim, her energy, her determined look, her tremendous earnestness, would compel the respect and the attention of an audience, even if she spoke in Chinese—would convince a third of them, too, even though she used arguments that would not stand analysis.”
Dickinson was named the “Civil War’s Joan of Arc” for her promotion of the Union. When she spoke at Cooper Institute in New York City more than 5,000 people attended the event. It was reported that she “could hold her audience spellbound for as much as two hours. She gave the impression of being under some magical control.” She earned a standing ovation in 1864 for an impassioned speech on the floor of the United States House of Representatives. In attendance were President Abraham Lincoln and civic and military leaders. Invited by Republican leaders, she was the first woman to speak to Congress.
After the Civil War, she remained one of the nation’s most celebrated speakers for nearly a decade. She made as much as $20,000 (equivalent to $397,514 in 2017) a year, making a speech every other day on average, and gave most of her earnings away to charity, friends, and relatives. She also maintained a townhouse in Philadelphia, with expensive personal possessions, for her mother and sister.
She was a friend of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Quaker lecturers Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony. In her letters, Anthony sometimes addressed Dickinson as “Chickie Dickie”. Benjamin F. Butler, a Civil War general and a politician, pursued her romantically and in futility. Nevertheless, he remained her friend, a legal advisor, and source of money over many years. Unpublished correspondence with a woman named Ida caused one late-20th century author to claim that she was a Lesbian