Robinson, Harriet Hanson (1825–1911)

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Robinson, Harriet Hanson (1825–1911)

American mill girl and suffragist . Born Harriet Jane Hanson in Boston, Massachusetts, on February 8, 1825; died in Malden, Massachusetts, on December 22, 1911; daughter of William Hanson (a carpenter) and Harriet (Browne) Hanson; married William Stevens Robinson (a newspaper editor and abolitionist), in 1848 (died 1876); children: Harriette Lucy Robinson (later Harriette R. Shattuck); Elizabeth Osborne Robinson; William Elbridge Robinson (died of typhoid at age five); Edward Warrington Robinson.

Harriet Robinson was born on February 8, 1825, in Boston, Massachusetts, the only daughter of four children of William Hanson, a carpenter, and Harriet Browne Hanson . Harriet's parents were descended from English colonists to New England, and her maternal grandfather, Seth Ingersoll Browne, had fought in the Revolutionary War. When William Hanson died in 1831, financial difficulties forced the family to move to the mill town of Lowell. There they survived by taking in boarders, with the children earning extra money in local jobs.

At age ten, Harriet began working in the mill as a bobbin doffer. A year later, she led the other young workers in a protest with older workers over a wage cut, a hint of her life of activism to come. Unlike work in horrific conditions experienced by many child laborers at other factories, work in the Lowell mills was relatively relaxed in that era, with time for play and reading. Through the early 1840s, mill owners even provided time for schooling and church, of which Harriet took advantage until age 15.

Although she was not a frequent contributor to the Lowell Offering, the famous monthly literary magazine of the Lowell mill girls, Harriet met her future husband through a poem she submitted to the magazine. William Stevens Robinson, an editor with the Lowell Courier, noticed the poem and fell in love with the poet. The two married on November 30, 1848, and Harriet became her husband's editorial assistant. Finances were a constant struggle as William went from one journalistic assignment to another in the aid of abolition, and Harriet soon followed him in his convictions. Their home was a hotbed of abolitionist talk, and William fueled discussions with his militant column published under the pen name "Warrington." During the three years in the mid-1850s that they lived in Concord, Massachusetts, Harriet came into contact with such famous New Englanders as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

At the start of the Civil War, the family was living in Malden, Massachusetts, where Harriet sewed mittens for Boston contractors and her husband won election as clerk of the state house of representatives in 1862, significantly easing the family's financial strain. After the war, their concerns shifted from abolition to women's suffrage, and their oldest daughter, Harriette Lucy Robinson (later Harriette R. Shattuck ), joined their crusade. Following William's death in 1876, Robinson and her daughter continued their activist work.

The suffragist movement in Massachusetts suffered from factional divisions, and by the early 1880s, Robinson had switched allegiance from Lucy Stone and the majority of New England suffragists to rival Susan B. Anthony 's National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). Robinson and her daughter organized a chapter of the NWSA in Massachusetts. They spoke before a special Senate committee in Washington in 1882, promoted Benjamin F. Butler for governor of Massachusetts in an unsuccessful effort to encourage his support for the cause during 1882–83, and valiantly petitioned Congress for removal of their political disabilities in 1889. Robinson would not see the fruit of her efforts, for women would not gain the right to vote until 1920, nine years after her death.

Robinson was an active member of various women's clubs, including the New England Women's Club, which she founded with Julia Ward Howe in 1868. She also served on the first board of directors of the General Federation of Women's Clubs early in the 1890s. She wrote a number of books as well, including Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement (1881), "Warrington" Pen Portraits (1877), a biography of her husband, and Loom and Spindle (1898), a memoir of her time in the Lowell mills. The latter two volumes are considered important historical depictions of their time. Other works include Captain Mary Miller (1887), a novel, and The New Pandora (1889), a verse play. Robinson died at her home in Malden on December 22, 1911, of complications from a bacterial infection, and was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery at Concord. Her papers are held at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Brenda Kubiac , freelance writer, Chesterfield, Michigan