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Livermore, Mary A. (1820–1905)

Popular American reformer best known for her volunteer work during the Civil War and for her lectures and writing on behalf of women's social, political and educational rights throughout the late 19th century. Name variations: Mrs. D.P. Livermore. Born Mary Ashton Rice on December 19, 1820, in Boston, Massachusetts; died on May 23, 1905, in Melrose, Massachusetts; daughter of Timothy Rice (a laborer) and Zebiah Vose Glover (Ashton) Rice (a sea captain's daughter); attended Miss Martha Whiting's Female Seminary, Charlestown, Massachusetts (1836–38); married Daniel Parker Livermore, on May 6, 1845; children: Mary Livermore (1848–1852); Henrietta White Livermore (b. 1851); Marcia Elizabeth Livermore (b. 1854).

Was associate editor, New Covenant (1858–69); with Jane Hoge, directed Chicago Sanitary Commission (1862–65); convened first woman suffrage convention in Illinois (1868); was editor, Woman's Journal (1870–72); served as president, American Woman Suffrage Association (1875–78); was a professional lecturer (1870–95).


New Covenant (1858–1869); Pen Pictures (1863); Agitator (1869); Woman's Journal (1870–72); My Story of the War (1887); The Story of My Life (1897).

Mary A. Livermore, like many Anglo-American middle-class homemakers in both the North and the South, expanded her voluntary charitable and benevolent work during the Civil War in the United States (1861–65). In the process, she discovered that she had exceptional organizational capabilities, that she could endure the hardships and hazards of unprecedented geographic mobility, and that she could very effectively influence others through public speaking. Mary Livermore is, therefore, representative of the large numbers of married women who came away from their experiences in the war with new self-confidence and a determination to increase their participation in the public educational, social and political life of American society. She is particularly noteworthy for her popularity and for her persistence in campaigning for a broad range of reforms to equalize opportunities for women.

Mary, named for a maternal aunt, was born Mary Ashton Rice in 1820 on Salem Street in the North End of Boston, several doors from Old North Church. Her sister, Rachel Rice , was born three years later, and another sister, Abbie Rice , was born when Mary was seven or eight years old. Two brothers and a sister had died before Mary was born, making the three sisters the only children born to the Rices to survive infancy.

A serious child, Mary seems always to have been a voracious reader. Even before she began attending dame's school, she learned to read. Sometimes, however, reading led her into trouble. On her eighth birthday, she received her first book, Robinson Crusoe, from her Aunt Mary; although reading was not allowed on Sunday, she could not resist devouring it immediately, and consequently the book was burned by her parents before the end of the day. While she was in grammar school at the Hancock School in Boston, her unusually mature ideas and writing style caused her English teacher to accuse her of plagiarism.

At age 14½, two years earlier than expected, she was awarded a Benjamin Franklin medal, a sign that she had successfully completed the highest level of public education offered for girls. During a four-month apprenticeship in dressmaking, she gained the satisfaction of acquiring a practical skill, but she was elated when her parents arranged for her to continue her formal education at Miss Whiting's Seminary, a Baptist school at Charlestown (1836–38). Following her first term, she became a teaching assistant, a position which not only assured that she would be able to pay her tuition at the school but also allowed her, much to her pride, to achieve her longstanding desire for economic independence from her parents. An eager student, she completed the four-year course of study in only two years and was offered a position to stay on as an instructor in French, Latin, and later Italian.

While Mary was at the seminary in Charlestown, her sister Rachel died. In her autobiography, The Story of My Life (1897), Mary described this crisis as a "pivotal point" in her life. It caused her to reject the severe exclusionary doctrines of Calvinism which she had been taught by her father's Baptist church and to look for a theology that better suited her belief in a loving and compassionate God. Her sister's death also encouraged her to leave her family and the familiar surroundings of New England in an effort to move on from the tragedy to a more hopeful future. After Mary left home, her parents adopted an orphaned two-year-old, Annie.

Mary then lived as a governess with the Henderson family on their Virginia plantation for three years (1839–42). Her lively account of this time is rich with fresh, balanced observation, humor and unconventional attitudes on both the education of her young charges and on life among whites and blacks involved in the system of slavery. "I learned while in Virginia, that ethical greatness and a high order of character are to be found among people of all sects, and of no sect, and thenceforth placed character higher than creed," she wrote in her autobiography.

Mary's religious tolerance, however, never prevented her from taking firm positions on issues of moral and social justice. When she returned to the North to become head of an academy (private high school) in Duxbury, Massachusetts (1842–45), she saw herself as "a pronounced abolitionist" who "attended every accessible anti-slavery meeting." In Duxbury, she also became active in organizing activities and writing pamphlets to recruit children for the "Cold Water Army" branch of the Washingtonian Total Abstinence Reform Society, founded in Baltimore in 1840.

In Duxbury, Mary not only adopted two lifelong social reform interests—the civil rights of disenfranchised groups and temperance—but also attended Christmas services for the first time in her life (1844). She fell in love both with the message of Universalism which she heard that night and with the "mild-mannered and refined" pastor, the Reverend Daniel Parker Livermore. They were married on May 7, 1845, and Mary Ashton Rice Livermore entered into the life of a housewife in small-town New England with the same determination which invigorated all the other causes she adopted during her lifetime. With the help of her sister Abbie who came to

live with them in Fall River, Massachusetts, for several months, she developed her abilities as a cook, "domestic business" manager, decorator, and hostess. She sometimes rebelled against the standard expectations and living conditions for a pastor and his family, but she managed to retain her integrity and, above all, her sense of humor.

For nearly forty years I have been convinced that if the world is to be helped onward in its progress, or assisted towards a nobler civilization, it can only be accomplished by as complete a freedom and development of women, as is accorded to men.

—Mary Livermore

Despite the demands of a growing family—Mary Eliza (1848–1853), Henrietta White (b. 1852), and Marcia Elizabeth (b. 1854)—she managed to write hymns, stories, poems, essays and sketches which were published both in local newspapers and in periodicals, including the popular Putnam's Magazine and Ladies' Repository. Favorite topics included abolitionism and temperance. She also edited Lily of the Valley for a few years. At first, the extra $200–300 her literary work brought into the family supplemented the modest salary of a cleric, but, as the family's circumstances changed, Livermore's economic contribution became more crucial.

While Mary and her husband were united in their views on abolitionism and temperance, not all members of the congregations they served agreed with them. In Stafford, Connecticut, where Daniel successfully campaigned for the passage of legislation to prohibit the sale of liquor in 1852, he was forced to resign his pastorate. At the time, the couple had two children. For the next six years, he was pastor of churches in Weymouth, where their daughter Mary Eliza died, and Malden, Massachusetts; but the couple felt uncomfortable expressing their anti-slavery views as the issue became more and more controversial and divided congregations and denominations. Daniel was considering withdrawing from the ministry when the opportunity came to join a 15-member group of abolitionists intent on establishing a farming community and helping to make Kansas a slave-free state. In 1857, the family started out for the frontier with the group, though not without misgivings; in the end, they settled in Chicago, where Mary could provide better care for Marcia Elizabeth who had become seriously ill.

In Chicago, Daniel purchased and took over as editor of The New Covenant, a Universalist monthly paper. In the struggle for financial solvency, Mary became manager and associate editor. Because her husband was frequently away for long periods of time, her duties expanded until she was entirely in charge of business and was writing for all departments except theology. Her work as a reporter took her to the Republican Convention in Chicago when Abraham Lincoln was nominated in 1860; she was the only woman among the more than 100 journalists there. A volume of the stories she wrote for the Universalist monthly, Pen Pictures, was published in 1863. Mary unabashedly used the paper to promote her favorite causes, such as the work of the Chicago Sanitary Commission which became her passion during the Civil War. The Livermores operated the paper from 1858 until 1869.

Mary Livermore was now in her 30s. By her own account, she was "endowed with an almost phenomenal capacity for work, and could work without friction" with those associated with her. Livermore's energies were consumed not only by running her household and The New Covenant but also by teaching a Sunday school class of 16 young men at the Second Universalist Church, where her husband was pastor, and by working on behalf of three newly established institutions for women and children: the Home for Aged Women (founded in 1861), the Hospital for Women and Children, and the Chicago Home for the Friendless, a refuge for destitute women and children founded in 1858.

It was through their work together on the board of the Chicago Home for the Friendless that she and Jane Hoge , one of its founders and its president, originally became acquainted. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the two women, eager to help the Union cause, began working for the Chicago (later Northwestern) Sanitary Commission, an organization of volunteers who supported the work of the government's medical bureau on the Western front. In December 1862, they were appointed co-directors of the commission and served in that capacity until October 1865. The two women were known for their creative, energetic and warmly personal administration of a monumental series of tasks which included writing letters for soldiers, recruiting nurses, organizing collection and distribution of hospital supplies and food to the field, visiting the front and hospitals to investigate needs, writing reports, founding 3,000 local aid societies (in Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan and Indiana), and raising thousands of dollars to support the work of the commission. In October 1863, their Sanitary Fair, which by Livermore's account raised $100,000, became the model for fairs in other cities. These activities and those of other women involved in the war effort appear in detailed form in Livermore's bestselling book, My Story of the War (1887).

After the war, Livermore turned her energies to the newly revived woman suffrage movement. Always concerned about attaining a broad range of equal opportunities for women, she had now come to view enfranchisement as the central issue. "Under a republican form of government," she wrote in her autobiography, "the possession of the ballot by woman can alone make her the legal equal of man, and without this legal equality, she is robbed of her natural rights." With characteristic resolution, she began lecturing in public on the subject, called a Woman Suffrage Convention (the first in Illinois) in Chicago in 1868, helped organize the resultant Illinois Woman Suffrage Association (and was elected its first president), and started a woman suffrage paper, The Agitator, in 1869. Her paper merged with the national Woman's Journal in 1870 when Lucy Stone called her to Boston to become its first editor-in-chief, a position Livermore held until 1872. The family moved from Chicago to Melrose, Massachusetts, where they lived for the rest of their lives.

At the same time, encouraged by James Redpath of the Boston Lyceum Bureau, who served as agent in arranging the engagements, Livermore launched what was to become a very successful, 25-year career as a public lecturer. According to Livermore, Redpath, who was very influential in the whole lyceum movement for adult education, advised her that if she wanted to be popular and make money she would have to "ignore the two vexed questions, Woman Suffrage and Temperance." Instead, she chose to use these two topics as the centerpiece for nearly all her talks, and she never lacked for engagements. Her first lecture, and one of her most popular, was delivered over 800 times and became the title for a collection of her speeches, What Shall We Do With Our Daughters?, published in 1883. Her second lecture, "Superfluous Women," was "a plea that women should receive so complete a training, that, married or unmarried, they would have firmness and fibre, and be able to stand on their own feet, self-supporting, happy in themselves, and helpful to the world." Her speeches were full of the same truthful observation, color and humor which gave her writing style such flair. Her stature, voice and ability to speak extemporaneously without notes contributed to her effectiveness as a speaker.

Although Livermore gave up the formal lecture circuit in 1895, when she was 75, she continued to speak occasionally on behalf of her two lifelong causes, temperance and suffrage. From 1875 to 1885, she had served as president of the Massachusetts Women's Christian Temperance Union; in her autobiography, she says that while she held that position her "faith and patience were taxed to the utmost." By now, she also had new charities and institutions which demanded her attention, particularly the Boston Women's Educational and Industrial Union which she helped to found and of which she was a life member. The Union ran a Protective Bureau to help guard women's wages, a Women's Exchange where women could sell their products if they had no other market, a lunchroom for women of limited means, and an Employment Bureau for women skilled to do more than domestic work. In 1896, when Tufts College graduated its first class of women, Mary Livermore was awarded an honorary LL.D. degree.

In 1895, the Livermores celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary surrounded by their daughter Henrietta, granddaughters Marion K. Livermore and Mary Livermore Norris , and by Mary's sisters Abbie and Annie Rice . Four years later, Daniel Parker Livermore died. Mary Ashton Livermore lived until May 23, 1905.


Brockett, L.P. Woman's Work in the Civil War. Philadelphia, PA: Ziegler, McCurdy, 1867.

Hoge, Mrs. A.H. [Jane Currie]. The Boys in Blue. NY: E.B. Treat, 1867.

Livermore, Mary A. My Story of the War. Hartford, CT: A.D. Worthington, 1889.

——. The Story of My Life. Hartford, CT: A.D. Worthington, 1897.

——. What Shall We Do With Our Daughters? Boston, MA: Lee and Shepard, 1883.

Riegel, Robert E. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Edited by Edward T. James. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971, pp. 410–413.

suggested reading:

Massey, Mary Elizabeth. Bonnet Brigades. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966.

McCarthy, Kathleen D. Noblesse Oblige: Charity & Cultural Philanthropy in Chicago, 1849–1929. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1982.


Correspondence in Kate Field Collection, Boston Public Library; Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College; Women's Rights Collection, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College; Isabella Beecher Hooker Papers in Stowe-Day Library, Hartford, Connecticut; National American Woman Suffrage Association Records and Mary Ann (Ball) Bickerdyke Papers, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division.

Manuscripts in Mary A. Livermore Collection, Princeton University Library.

Margaret Dorsey Phelps , Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa

Livermore, Mary A. (1820–1905)

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