Farnham, Eliza W. (1815–1864)

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Farnham, Eliza W. (1815–1864)

American philanthropist and writer. Born Eliza Woodson Burhans at Rensselaerville, Albany County, New York, on November 17, 1815, of an old Dutch family; died in New York City, on December 15, 1864; married Thomas J. Farnham (a lawyer and travel writer), in 1836 (died 1849); married a second time; children: four.

Born near Albany in 1815, Eliza Farnham was six when her Quaker mother died. Eliza then went to live with an uncle in Maple Springs, in western New York, rather than stay with a stepmother. Her uncle's wife was abusive, and Eliza was treated like a charity child and denied schooling. Farnham read everything in the household from Congressional debates, Masonic tracts, and Voltaire, to Paine, Zoonomia by Erasmus Darwin, and a biography of Elizabeth Fry . She felt, said Farnham, "an intense curiosity to penetrate the innermost centre of the stained soul."

At 17, she was finally reunited with her sisters and brothers in Palmyra and began attending a Friends' boarding school. Soon, she qualified to teach and took a job at an Eastern academy where she met a friend of her brother's, Vermont lawyer Thomas J. Farnham. For health reasons, Thomas was leaving for Illinois to partake of the climate. In 1835, at age 19, Eliza journeyed to Illinois to marry him. They had a son who died of yellow fever while still an infant.

Thomas Farnham was a rover. On May 30, 1839, he set out on an expedition to Oregon; upon his return, he wrote the popular Travels in the Great Western Prairies. The couple moved back to New York in 1841, where Eliza began to visit prisons and lecture to women. Sometime in the mid-1840s, Thomas headed for California. To support herself, Eliza took a job in Sing Sing (then called Mt. Pleasant) where for four years (1844–48) she was matron of the women's division of the New York State Prison. Learning that many of the women had turned to crime only after they had "lost their self-respect through prostitution," Farnham sought to govern by "Kindness alone." At this time, she edited Sampson's Criminal Jurisprudence and published Life in Prairie Land about her experiences in the wilderness of Illinois.

In 1848, Farnham moved to Boston, where she was connected with the management for the Institution for the Blind. When Thomas Farnham died unexpectedly in 1849, she sailed for the Pacific Coast to settle his estate. In San Francisco, a boomtown where men outnumbered women ten to one, the 34-year-old Farnham found walking on the street an uncomfortable experience: "Doorways filled instantly, and little islands in the streets were thronged with men who seemed to gather in a moment, and who remained immovable … incredulous." Farnham attributed most of the evils of the Gold Rush to the lack of females and believed that the presence of women, whom she regarded as the great civilizer, would lend some stability to western expansion. Returning East, she organized a society to aid and protect destitute women, and encouraged the unmarried to emigrate. She often escorted these women to the Western states. On her return to New York in 1856, Farnham published a bestseller, California, Indoors and Out. For the next two years, she studied medicine, and in 1859 she published My Early Days.

Emboldened by the implications of the unisexual barnacle of Charles Darwin, grandson of Erasmus, Eliza Farnham produced her most important work, Women and her Era, in two volumes that were begun in 1856 and published in 1864, the last year of her life. In this treatise on the position and rights of women, Farnham adamantly disputed the claim of the women's movement that women were equal to men; she maintained, instead, that they were better—much, much better. Since Farnham's premise was not in accord with that of the women's movement, the movement tended to shy away from her work.

Written in a style that was sweet, spiritual, and extremely non-Victorian, Farnham's book dealt fearlessly with reproduction and anatomy. She saw women, whose role was as matron and guardian of the race, as responsible for the advancement of the species, because men were certainly incapable. Although both women and men had bosoms, Farnham remarked that women's were not only decorative but useful. Woman's sphere was procreation and maternity, and her place was in the home, a striking assertion given that Farnham wrote, worked in a prison, trekked back and forth to California, built her own home, plowed, planted, and rode horseback in a Bloomer dress. Farnham, however, had a ready reply for this contradiction: only a few Women, with a capital W, could be trusted with this kind of freedom; such independence would prevent many from facing up to their gender's responsibilities.

Farnham pleaded the superiority of women based on biology, art, literature, history, religion, and philosophy. She saw women's power to reproduce as "a creative power second only to God." "The purpose of these unique volumes," wrote a reviewer in the New York Tribune, "is to present a scientific exposition and proof of the time-honored adage, that 'woman is the better half of creation.'"

"Mrs. Farnham accepts this proposition not only as an undeniable truth, founded upon a deep and wide basis in the mental and physical constitution of the female sex, but as a truth of vital importance to the true order of society and the eternal interests of humanity," wrote the brothers Duyckinck in their 1875 edition of the Cyclopædia of American Literature. "She would redeem this cardinal idea, as she regards it, from the province of romantic sentiment, trace it to a more profound source in human nature than the enthusiasm of the affections, present it in the light of accurate analysis and philosophical argument, and exhibit its practical applications to domestic and social life."

"No one can give a candid perusal to her work without being deeply impressed with the sincerity of her convictions and the purity of her motives," continued the brothers, "whatever view may be entertained of the validity of her reasoning and the soundness of her conclusions. With glaring, and almost odious faults of execution, the transparent earnestness of her book, the lofty standard of womanly excellence which it sets forth, and the faith in God and humanity with which it is inspired, atone, in a great degree, for its perpetual violation of good taste, and stamp it as an original and remarkable production."

Eliza Farnham died prematurely at 49, possibly from an illness contracted the preceding year while doing volunteer nursing at Gettysburg. Her novel, The Ideal Attained, was printed posthumously in 1865.


Duyckinck, Evert A. and George. Cyclopædia of American Literature. Vol. II. Philadelphia, PA: Wm. Rutter, 1875.

Woodward, Helen Beal. The Bold Women. NY: Farrar, Straus, 1953.