Thursday, Oct. 14, 2010

Anna Dickinson

In 1864, abolitionist Anna Dickinson became the first woman invited to speak to both congressional houses in Washington D.C. She was 21. Dickinson — dubbed America's Joan of Arc — first gained a reputation as a leading emancipation activist when she was a teenager. At 14, she was published in William Lloyd Garrison's anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator. By 21, she was an established orator, known for her biting sarcasm and statistic-heavy speeches on women's rights and the Republican emancipation cause. Her address to Congress was no exception. Before political and military leaders, including President Lincoln, Dickinson advocated harsh reconstruction policies and called for the president's reelection. After one of her later speeches, Mark Twain, who is thought to have based a character in "The Gilded Age" on Dickinson, wrote about her "determined lips" and "indignant eyes" which would "snap and flash when she marched the platform pouring out the lava of her blistering eloquence upon the enemy." However, by the end of the century, Dickinson largely fell off the radar. She attempted a career in acting with moderate success. Her medical and mental health declined — some speculate due to alcohol abuse — and she was committed to an asylum for insanity in 1891. She later became entangled in a series of lawsuits, including a hung jury case against those who had her committed. She spent the last forty years of her life as a recluse.