Daughter of Miles and Esther Bennett Doolittle
A middle child in a family of five girls and five boys, Antoinette Doolittle lived from age ten to thirteen at an aunt's home, with her maternal grandmother, a religious woman and "a strong magnet" for her. After Doolittle's conversion to Shakerism at age fourteen, she did routine work for 10 years at the Shakers' major community, Mt. Lebanon, and was then appointed assistant deaconess. Two years later, at twenty-six, she was made second (or assistant) eldress. At thirty-eight, she attained the highest office, eldress, and held this post at Mt. Lebanon until her death. In 1873, she became coeditor of the Shaker and Shakeress, the official Shaker periodical. Doolittle had important executive responsibilities, such as traveling to New York City to buy supplies to be shipped to the South Union (Kentucky) Society, then beleaguered by the Civil War. A practical administrator, Doolittle was also deeply involved in mystical and emotional Shaker experiences: spiritualism and speaking in tongues.
The Autobiography of Mary Antoinette Doolittle (1880) provides a vivid picture of Doolittle's growing commitment to a religious vocation. In it, she also promotes Shaker feminism by presenting Shaker principles with parenthetical feminist comments added to them. For example, in explaining the system of trusteeship for Shaker property, she writes: "the laws of the land were framed and executed by men exclusively—women having no part nor lot in the matter, except to be taxed without representation."
In her journalism, too, Doolittle supported feminism. When she became coeditor of the official Shaker periodical, its title was changed from the Shaker to the Shaker and Shakeress. Doolittle also advanced feminism outside Shaker communities. In a letter to the Brooklyn Eagle, republished in the Shaker Manifesto, Doolittle wrote in 1881:
The voice of woman is not heard in legislative halls….Why this bondage and servitude on the part of woman?… Is she destitute of reasoning powers, and unable to plead her own cause, and the cause of her downtrodden and oppressed sisters, who do not find redress from wrongs inflicted upon them at the tribunals, where male rulers alone preside, judge and decide? A change must and will come in this respect. Women possess latent powers that need to be brought into action, both for her own benefit and the good of the community.
Apart from her feminism, Doolittle's autobiography is notable in parts I and II for its fresh, concrete detail as she describes her childhood and conversion. The growth of her commitment, her adolescent struggle, and her final choice of a life antithetical to her family's views elicit sympathy and sustain interest. Part III, added for a second edition, is more didactic and polemical, a public rather than a private document, advocating Shaker principles. Its purpose seems to be to educate and possibly convert the public. Nevertheless, Doolittle's is the best-known and best-written autobiography of a Shaker woman.
White, A., and L. S. Taylor, Shakerism: Its Meaning and Message (1904).
In Memoriam, Affectionately Inscribed to the Memory of Eldress Antoinette Doolittle, by Her Loving and Devoted Gospel Friends (1887). The Shaker Manifesto (1881).
—HELEN DEISS IRVIN