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Helen R. Deese: Caroline Healey Dall, Daughter of Boston

Helen R. Deese is the author of Daughter of Boston: The Extraordinary Diary of a Nineteenth-century Woman, Caroline Healey Dall, and she is the Caroline Healey Dall editor for the Massachusetts Historical Society. She lives in Flint and Ann Arbor, Michigan

Deese Each time I hear a news report of an American woman's breaking a new gender barrier--Madeleine Albright's becoming the first woman named as Secretary of State, Nancy Pelosi's becoming the first woman elected as Speaker of the House of Representatives, or, more recently, Hillary Rodham Clinton's coming to be the first woman who is a serious contender for a major party's presidential nomination--I can't help wondering what Caroline Healey Dall would have thought. Dall is the woman who has been my almost daily companion for almost a quarter of a century. Although she died nearly a hundred years ago (in 1912) at the age of ninety, Caroline Dall remains a lively presence for me, and I frequently play the game of trying to analyze what she would do or think in response to a particular twenty-first century event or dilemma. As both an abolitionist and a feminist, would she think it a higher priority for the country to elect its first black president or its first woman president? Although I cannot be certain of her position on such questions, I am sure that she would have been engrossed by them. I am also confident that she would have known her answers instantly and that the chances of her changing her mind would be almost nil, for she was a strong-minded and highly opinionated woman. 

What has given me such a vivid sense of Caroline Healey Dall’s personality and such insight into the way she thought is a remarkable work that she authored–her own diary, covering some three-quarters of a century, constituting the fullest account of an American woman’s life in the nineteenth century and possibly the longest-running diary of all time. For many years I have been engaged in the fascinating task of reading, selecting, annotating, and publishing portions of this diary.

Dall, who was born in Boston and spent much of her life there, played a major role in the early women’s movement, writing, lecturing, petitioning, addressing legislative bodies, and organizing meetings, from the 1850s into the 1870s. Her work The College, the Market, and The Court; or, Woman's Relation to Education, Labor, and Law (1867) was considered at the time the definitive statement on the "woman question." That she has been so nearly forgotten as a feminist foremother can be explained in part by the fact that another branch of the movement (the New York contingent) wrote its history. But her obscurity is partly her own fault--she found it hard to work with other strong women and eventually dropped out of the organized women's movement. And, just as significantly, she refused to respond to requests from would-be authors of biographical sketches about her, out of a sense that it was beneath her dignity to do so.

Dall's journal documents her involvement not only in woman's rights activities but also in the Transcendentalist movement, the anti-slavery movement, and the organization of the American Social Science Association. Among her friends and acquaintances were Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Margaret Fuller, Dorothea Dix, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Maria Mitchell, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, First Lady Frances Cleveland, and hundreds of other figures prominent in literary, scientific, reform, and political circles. So this journal is a trove of eyewitness accounts of public events and major figures of the age.

It was the journal's value as a potential source of information on the Transcendentalist movement, in fact, that first drew me, an English professor and a student of nineteenth-century American literature, to it, and I was not disappointed in what I found there. But as I skimmed the journals seeking mentions of Thoreau, Emerson, and the like, I found myself gradually becoming intrigued (one might say entrapped) by Dall's own story. From the age of fifteen until almost ninety, she documented in her journal her extraordinary life as a brilliant and well educated young woman, as the wife of a struggling minister, then (after her husband's departure as a missionary to Calcutta) as essentially a single parent, struggling to turn her talents into economic rewards, and finally as a major reformer. As I read, I was vicariously living her life, a story told in what has been called the "continuous present" of the diary form. When in her old age Caroline Dall reread her own journals, she wrote in her journal, "My life, half remembered--now reads to me like a Romance." And so it does:  although Dall's journal is a source that can be mined for all sorts of literary, social, and political history, it is first and foremost something else. It is her story, an engrossing narrative written by a woman who was amazingly articulate, even from her teenage years. Further, it is her story. And so my task as editor became one of choosing selections that followed the thread of her own life's narrative, rather than serving any agenda that I might have--to emphasize a certain aspect of her life, for example, or to present her in either a positive or a negative light. I hope that in Daughter of Boston I have allowed Dall's story to come through, in all its eloquence and with all its emotional power.