Monday, February 14, 2011

Exploring Vermont History with Professor Judy Peitscher

Vermont Women Lead the Way

With Judy Peitscher and Fifteen Seminarians

Excitedly, I plodded behind one of my students, slipping easily into the snowy footprints. Ethan and Fanny’s Place, the Ethan Allen Homestead, loomed in the dusk. Surprisingly I did not mind the cold, and realized the rest of the group was equally absorbed. So this was where Fanny’s garden was? Here they had grown the flax to become linen for their clothes in the 1780s, and the Three Sisters, beans, corn, and squash, saved them from starvation as the Abenaki had taught the early settlers. Soon we were in the house gazing at the hearth where Fanny and her daughters had labored before the fire. If only we could feel the warmth of that fire now! Dan O’Neil, director of the Homestead, gave us a thorough examination of artifacts from a yoke to a tick, helpful to students in recreating Ethan and Fanny’s Estate Document. And he sweetened the deal with hot chocolate in the “Tavern” afterwards!

“Vermont Women Lead the Way” is my new baby, an outgrowth of my experience teaching and studying American History. Along the way I met Clarina Howard Nichols, an editress of the Windham County Democrat, who crisscrossed Vermont in the 1850s fighting for the right of women to vote in school elections. To my delight I uncovered a connection between Nichols and two of the giants of the 19th century: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Hailing originally from Rochester, I was familiar with Anthony and her quest for the right to vote, and had visited her parlor where she was arrested for voting, but I did not know that these women knew each other. It made sense. After the earthquake of the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, where Stanton had the audacity to demand the right to vote, seconded by Frederick Douglass, reverberations were felt up and down the Erie Canal, to Worcester, MA, and the Green Mountain State. I decided to introduce Vermont’s outstanding women and their contributions to interested students allowing us to visit their homes, learn their stories, and make connections with the national movement.

The Reform Era prior to the Civil War lured women out of their homes to fight initially the evils of slavery. Rachel Gilpin Robinson believed fervently in abolition and supported her husband’s efforts in the Ferrisburgh and Vermont Anti-Slavery Societies. We visited her home, Rokeby, in North Ferrisburgh on February 8. “How different Rokeby is from the Ethan Allen Homestead,” one student commented as we gazed at the large farmhouse built originally in 1789, augmented by an eight room addition in 1814. It appeared luxurious compared to the primitive abode of Ethan and Fanny Allen. Treated to an interesting talk by director, Jane Williamson, students found the many Rachels and Rowlands over 200 years of family history to be confusing, since the Robinsons liked to repeat names. However, it was helpful to see the artifacts, pictures, drawings, and books from a family well educated and involved in the Underground Railroad. Rachel Gilpin Robinson was our focus (1799-1862), as she led a boycott of slave produced goods and did her part in the abolitionist movement, despite ill health and four young children. We read a letter she wrote to Rowland in 1839 from Philadelphia in which she described meeting Lucretia Mott, one of the leaders of the anti-slavery movement. Quaker women enjoyed a more liberal education than most women of the time plus they were used to running their own monthly Quaker business meetings, developing skills that would be useful as the reform causes developed.

What is the next stop on our journey? Next week students present their creative primary sources and artifacts for one of Roxana’s children, a project based upon Bonfield and Morrison’s Roxana’s Children, The Biography of a Nineteenth-Century Vermont Family. And in the time of maple sugaring we venture to the Shelburne Museum to find the stories of Louisine Havemeyer and Electra Havemeyer Webb as the fight for women’s suffrage heated up in 1917.

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