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Robinson, Harriet (Jane) Hanson

ROBINSON, Harriet (Jane) Hanson

Born 8 February 1825, Boston, Massachusetts; died 22 December 1911, Malden, Massachusetts

Also wrote under: Harriet J. Hanson, Mrs. W. S. Robinson

Daughter of William and Harriet Browne Hanson; married William S. Robinson, 1848 (died 1876); children: four

Harriet Hanson Robinson's father, a carpenter, died in 1831, and her mother took her four children to Lowell, where she managed a factory boardinghouse. Robinson began working as a bobbin-doffer at ten. After working a 14-hour day, she went to evening schools until she was able to attend Lowell High School for two years. At fifteen, her regular formal education ceased. She tended a spinning frame and then became a drawing-in girl, one of the most skilled jobs in the mill. Taking private lessons in German, drawing, and dancing, Robinson read widely and began publishing poetry in newspapers, annuals, and the Lowell Offering.

One of her verses caught the attention of William Stevens Robinson, assistant editor of the Lowell Courier; after a two-year courtship, in which Robinson was torn between love and literary ambition, they were married. Her husband published the Lowell American, one of the first free-soil papers, from 1849 to 1854. Robinson joined him in his support of abolition and worked as editorial assistant while becoming the mother of four children. (Her elder daughter became the second woman admitted to the bar in Massachusetts.) After the Civil War, Robinson and her husband worked for woman suffrage until his death in 1876. Robinson became the Massachusetts leader of Susan B. Anthony's National Woman Suffrage Association and a strong organizer and supporter of women's clubs.

All of Robinson's books were published after her husband's death. Her first is "Warrington" Pen-Portraits (1877), which combines her memoir of her husband with a collection of his works. (The title refers to the name under which his militant abolitionist writings had been published.) It gives valuable pictures of abolitionist circles of the 1850s and of two eras in Concord, Massachusetts, where W. S. Robinson grew up and the couple lived from 1854 to 1857. "Among his schoolmates were John and Henry D. Thoreau; 'David Henry,' as he was then called. Of the elder, John, Mr. Robinson was very fond. He was a genial and pleasant youth, and much more popular with his schoolmates than his more celebrated brother. Mr. Robinson had a high opinion of his talents and said that he was then quite as promising as Henry D." Pen-Portraits also records impressions of John Thoreau Sr., as "the most silent of men, particularly in the presence of his wife and gifted son," and of Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau as "one of the most graphic talkers imaginable, [who] held her listeners dumb."

In The New Pandora (1889), a verse drama, Robinson writes, "A woman should no more obey a man / Than should a man a woman.… My mate's no more my slave than I am hers"; and "Sex cannot limit the immortal mind. / We are ourselves, with individual souls, / Still struggling onward toward the infinite." Her pleas for equality of the sexes and the equal representation of women in councils of state, however, bog down in archaic verbs and verb forms and poetic diction.

Loom and Spindle (1898), Robinson's most important work, adds personal history, anecdotes, and detail to the account she already had given in Early Factory Labor in New England (1883) of life in the cotton mills and corporation boardinghouses. Loom and Spindle provides analyses of the social hierarchy of Lowell and unforgettable vignettes, such as that of backwoods Yankee farm girls arriving to work in the city. Robinson also provides a full account of the Lowell Offering and biographical sketches of its chief contributors, carried through to 1898 whenever possible. She admits her account of "the life of every-day working-girls" may omit a darker side of their existence, but says, "I give the side I knew best—the bright side!" Robinson's work may be only a relic of feminist propaganda, but her lucid first-person accounts of Lowell life in the 1830s and 1840s, of the Lowell Offering, and of Concord will always be valuable to literary and social historians as well as enjoyable reading.

Other Works:

Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement (1881). Captain Mary Miller (1887).

Bibliography:

Eisler, B., ed., The Lowell Offering: Writings by New England Mill Women (1977). Foner, P. S., The Factory Girls (1977). Josephson, H. G., The Golden Threads: New England's Mill Girls and Magnates (1949). Merk, L., Massachusetts and the Woman-Suffrage Movement (dissertation, 1961). Rothman, E., Harriet Hanson Robinson: A Search for Satisfaction in the Nineteenth Century Woman Suffrage Movement (dissertation, 1973).

Reference works:

American Literary Manuscripts (1977). NAW (1971). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

—SUSAN SUTTON SMITH

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