Farnham, Eliza Woodson (Burhans)

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FARNHAM, Eliza Woodson (Burhans)

Born 17 November 1815, Rensselaerville, New York; died 15 December 1864, New York, New York

Wrote under: Eliza W. Farnham

Daughter of Cornelius and Mary Wood Burhans; married Thomas Jefferson Farnham, 1836; William Fitzpatrick, 1852

While her first husband was away on exploring expeditions in the Far West, Eliza Woodson Farnham developed her interests in reform. Her most controversial work was at Sing Sing prison where, as matron from 1844 to 1848, she revolutionized the treatment of female prisoners through her phrenological approach to the problem of rehabilitation. She resigned after frequent conflicts with conservative staff members who denounced her environmentalism and determinism. In California, where she went in 1849 to settle her first husband's estate, she visited and criticized San Quentin prison and lectured on various subjects. In 1858 she addressed the New York Women's Rights Convention on her theory of female biological and moral superiority. During the Civil War, she became involved in the Women's Loyal National League, which sought a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. She also nursed the wounded at Gettysburg.

Farnham's writing shows the independence of mind, the curiosity, and the strength that she exhibited in her life. Life in Prairie Land (1846) is a vivid account of her experiences in Illinois. The account of her life in the West, California, In-Doors and Out (1856), is colorful and compelling. The reader is drawn into the world of California after the Gold Rush, when a woman's appearance brought crowds of gaping men to the street. In this very fluid, primitive society, Farnham bought her own ranch, built her own house, and traveled on horseback unchaperoned. The last part of the book, which describes and evaluates California society and culture, tends to be moralistic, although Farnham's analysis of the particular problems of women in frontier society is penetrating.

Eliza Woodson (1864; a revision of My Early Days, 1859) is an autobiographical novel treating Farnham's life as a foster child in a home where she was treated as a household drudge and denied the benefits of a formal education. The fictional heroine reflects Farnham's own character as a tough, determined individual who works hard to achieve her goals, overcoming all obstacles. Clearly, Farnham's independence of thought and her interest in biological evolution originated in her childhood.

Woman and Her Era (1864), Farnham's major work, argues that women are not only morally superior to men but biologically superior as well. Her position is based on the following syllogism: "Life is exalted in proportion to its Organic and Functional complexity; Woman's Organism is more complex and her totality of Function larger than those of any other being inhabiting our earth; Therefore her position in the scale of Life is the most exalted, the Sovereign One." Reproductive functions, commonly cited to demonstrate female inferiority, are used in Farnham's philosophy to place woman far above the male.

The same idea dominates The Ideal Attained (1865). This novel's heroine, Eleanora Bromfield, is an ideal, superior woman who tests and transforms the hero, Colonel Anderson, until he is a worthy mate who combines masculine strength with the nobility of womanhood and is ever ready to sacrifice himself to the needs of the feminine, maternal principle.

In a society that defined the true woman as submissive, pure, and weak, Farnham forged her own definitions of female selfhood and lived by her own standards. Both her theory and practice (sometimes contradictory) provided alternatives for women unsatisfied with the narrow lives laid out for them by their culture.

Other Works:

Rationale of Crime by M. Sampson (introduction by Farnham, 1846).


Bower, K. S., Eliza Farnham, Western Adventurer, 1815-1865 (slideshow, 1982). Dawes, J. A., Women Writers and the American Wilderness: Responses to the Frontier in Caroline Kirkland's "A New Home Who'll Follow?" and Eliza Farnham's "Life in Prairie Land" (thesis, 1997). Davies, J. D.,Phrenology, Fad and Science (1955). Kirby, G. B., Years of Experience (1887). Lewis, W., From Newgate to Dannemora: The Rise of the Penitentiary in New York, 1796-1848 (1965). Mount Pleasant State Prison Annual Report of the Inspectors (1846). Prison Association of New York First, Second and Third Reports (1845, 1846, 1847) and First Report of the Female Department (1845). Woodward, H. B., The Bold Women (1953).

Reference works:


Other references:

Atlantic (Sept. 1864). New York Tribune (16 Dec. 1864). NYT (18 Dec. 1864).


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