Anna Elizabeth Dickinson (1842–1932), social reformer and popular lecturer known for her fiery speeches on abolition and women’s rights
Dickinson was born into a family of abolitionists whose home provided a way station for the Underground Railroad. When she was two her father died of a heart attack while delivering an impassioned anti-slavery speech. Anna began her own career as a reformer when she was a young teenager. The abolitionist newspaper The Liberator published a letter by Dickinson when she was only fourteen years old. The publisher, William Lloyd Garrisoin, immediately saw her potential as a lecturer. Fellow abolitionist Lucretia Mott set up a series of lectures for her.
In 1860 Dickinson spoke before the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, and the following year she gave a talk in Philadelphia called “Women’s Rights and Wrongs.” At a time when women were discouraged from public speaking, along came a very young lady delivering philippics. Audiences were thrilled by the spectacle, and lecture invitations poured in. At the height of her career Dickinson was delivering a lecture every second day and earning an astonishing $20,000 a year.
She lectured on behalf of the Republican party, giving pro-Union talks to unsympathetic audiences (she was even shot at during one lecture). After the war she spoke in favor of harsh Reconstruction measures. Her lectures covered a variety of social issues, including the full emancipation of women, civil rights for African Americas, veneral disease, and polygamy. Her own personal favorite lecture was about Joan of Arc, and some embraced Dickinson as “America’s Joan of Arc.”
Dickinson could not sustain her popularity, however. Interest in the lyceum movement faded, and likewise Dickinson faded from the public eye.