Thanks to all the great folks who showed up at the St. Helena Library today to hear me chat about Laura Towne. Here's a more formal account of what we talked about.
For all of her adult life (and much of her childhood as well), Laura Towne had known that she did not fit in with the society around her. If someone had told her that in 150 years she would be touted as an example of a woman who made a permanent difference in the world, she would not have believed it. Nor would she have believed that anyone would ever write a book about her life. She knew she was different; she just didn’t know that being different was going to make her important. I see her as an example of how women can change their world. She deserves to be honored during Women’s History Month. Here’s why.
Laura’s world demanded that women fulfill one of two roles in society. She could either marry and become a dutiful wife and doting mother, or she could remain in the family home as the caretaker of her parents, the support of her brothers and sisters, the family anchor. Laura wanted no part of either one. She could not bring herself to be subordinate to a man, especially one who was not as intelligent or capable as she was. She loved children but wanted to encourage them to flee the nest, not hover over them as protector. Her mother died when she was nine, her father when she was in her early twenties, so there was no need to take on the role of caregiver. And she had no interest in encouraging her siblings to lean on her any more than they already did. She cherished a close friendship with another woman whom she considered her equal in every way. She dreamed of sharing their lives, but knew that while Philadelphia society might allow two women to live together, they would never give their relationship the status of family. She thought she would always live a solitary existence, without the bonds of love and affection that sustained other people.
Laura wanted a career, even though she knew that there were few career options open to her. She petitioned for years to be allowed to attend medical school, and finally found admission in Philadelphia’s first medical school for women. There she was allowed to attend academic classes and lectures, but barred from any clinical experience on the grounds that women should never see the body of a man other than their husbands or children. Frustrated with the lack of contact with patients, she gave up her pursuit of a medical degree and turned to the study of homeopathic medicine, which put her even further outside the boundaries of acceptable careers. Most trained doctors looked down on homeopathy as quackery, but Laura found much to like. It allowed her to be in close contact with her patients; treating them as individuals, not cases; offering comfort and palliative care; and avoiding the harshness of dangerous medicines, quick amputation, or blood-letting.
Laura was a non-conformist when it came to religion, too. In a city involved with evangelism in all its many forms, as well as a city that had been founded by Quakers, Laura was a Unitarian. What was that? The question bothered other people, too. Unitarians believed in one God. Only one, not a Trinity, which seemed to make them non-Christians. They disliked dogma, official church doctrine, and any and creeds. They believed religion should be a quiet and private affair. They were ethical and reasonable, believers in free will, and flexible in their religious observances. They were particularly irritating to traditional Christians because they denied the divinity of Jesus while following his teachings more closely than most Christians did.
Finally, there was the matter of politics. Women did not have the right to vote and were not expected to have political opinions. They certainly were not expected to speak out about their views. But Laura was an abolitionist, and an outspoken one at that. She was not afraid to express her hatred of slavery and demanded equality for all people, including women. Abolitionists were usually northerners, but they were no more popular in the north they were in the south. Workers feared an influx of free blacks would take away their jobs, while the wealthy feared attacks from those who had much less than they did. Laura the abolitionist was one of a very few uppity women who were hated by nearly everyone.
I'll post the second half of the talk tomorrow, so please come back then.