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Child, Lydia Maria (Frances)

CHILD, Lydia Maria (Frances)

Born 11 February 1802, Medford, Massachusetts; died 20 October 1880, Wayland, Massachusetts

Wrote under: L. Maria Child, Mrs. Child

Daughter of David C. and Susanna Rand Francis; married David L. Child, 1828

Lydia Maria Child was the youngest of six children born to a prosperous baker and real estate broker and his wife. At twelve Child lost her mother and lived with her sister Mary and her husband. On her eighteenth birthday, announcing her independence, she moved to Watertown, Massachusetts, to stay with her brother Convers Francis, a Unitarian minister. She opened a girls' school and startled parents by encouraging her pupils' independent spirit. Child's literary work included light romances, domestic books for women and children, and historical tracts advocating the rights of black slaves, Indians, and women.

Hobomok (1824), Child's early attempt to write an American romance, presents the Indian as a noble savage, and makes a plea for tolerance. The Rebels (1825) portrays the tensions leading up to the Revolution. In 1826 Child began the Juvenile Miscellany, the first periodical for children in the U.S., which ran successfully for eight years. With the wide reception of her practical American Frugal Housewife (1830), Child became well known and respected as a literary figure in New England.

This reputation was dashed almost overnight with the publication of An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans in 1833. In her preface to this historical antislavery document, Child wrote: "I am fully aware of the unpopularity of the task I have undertaken; but though I expect ridicule and censure, it is not in my nature to fear them." Child not only suffered financial ruin and social ostracism, but was forced to end her Juvenile Miscellany.

Child's constant and selfless devotion to abolitionism was supported by her husband David Lee Child, a founder of the New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1832. In addition to writing many pamphlets in support of the cause, financing slave biographies, such as Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), and editing the National Anti-Slavery Standard from 1841 to 1849, Child, along with her husband, sheltered fugitive slaves at their residence in Wayland, Massachusetts. Her courageous zeal persisted late into her career when she published the Freedmen's Book (1865), the profits of which she donated to the Freedmen's Aid Association. Used as a text in schools for freed slaves, the book stressed the importance of moral principles, good health, neatness, thrift, and politeness, citing black heroes as inspiring examples.

Child's approach to reform was well thought out and literary. Her documents combined strong argument, carefully researched analysis, and sincere compassion. These faculties are also evident in her feminist works. For a Ladies Library series she wrote biographies of exemplary women and a History of the Condition of Women in Various Ages and Nations (1835), in which she argued for female equality. In 1837 she was the Massachusetts delegate to a women's rights convention in New York, though she generally avoided public attention.

Best acknowledged as an abolitionist writer, Child's versatility with feminist tracts, historical romances, and domestic books for women and children points to the principal motive behind all of her work: educating her readers and helping them to adopt a moral and humane way of life. She appealed to the young in her Flowers to Children (1844, 1846, 1855), which contains the famous "Boy's Thanksgiving" poem beginning with "Over the river and through the woods /To grandfather's house we go." She addressed the elderly in Looking Toward Sunset (1864), a miscellaneous collection designed to give "some words of consolation and cheer to my companions on the way," which was applauded by Whittier and Bryant. Even in her romances, she incorporated her ideas on social reform: feminism in Philothea (1836) and antislavery in The Romance of the Republic (1837). Hers was a lifelong commitment to humanitarian values.

Other Works:

Correspondence Between Lydia Marie Child and Gov. Wise and Mrs. Mason, of Virginia (1860). An Appeal for the Indians (1868).

Bibliography:

Baer, H. G., The Heart Is Like Heaven: The Life of Lydia Maria Child (1964). Clifford, D. P., Crusader for Freedom: A Life of Lydia Maria Child (1992). Milton, M. and P. G. Holland, eds., Lydia Maria Child: Selected Letters, 1817-1880 (1982). Yellin, J. F., Women and Sisters: The Antislavery Feminists in American Literature (1989).

Reference Works:

Cyclopedia of American Literature (1855). DAB (1852). NCAB (1892 et seq.). NAW, 1607-1950 (1971). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). Woman's Record (1853).

—BETTE B. ROBERTS

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