One of the 19th century’s most prominent feminists was an Illinoisan who also was a pioneer and abolitionist, a prison reformer and philosopher, a nurse and teacher, and an illustrator and writer.

One of the 19th century’s most prominent feminists was an Illinoisan who also was a pioneer and abolitionist, a prison reformer and philosopher, a nurse and teacher, and an illustrator and writer. Eliza Woodson Farnham is worth remembering anytime, of course, but particularly this month, the 204th anniversary of her birth.

“She was the first transcontinental feminist,” wrote Helen B. Woodward in “Bold Women.” “Nobody else made such claims for women.”

Indeed, Farnham blended a sense of justice and independence with a perspective of physical and moral superiority over men that celebrated motherhood and homemaking. Some might see her as the 1800s’ progressive Ann Coulter or domestic Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Farnham’s amazing life had her:

* mothering four children;

* proposing an emigration plan endorsed by Horace Greeley to bring single poor women West;

* ranching on a 200-acre California spread;

* serving as a matron in New York’s Sing Sing Prison, and later a staffer at San Quentin in California;

* lecturing on and advocating spiritualism and other philosophies;

* teaching, including helping with Laura Bridgman, the first known deaf blind person to be formally educated,

* writing five books – and illustrating another – and befriending Edgar Allan Poe and William Cullen Bryant;

* volunteering as a nurse at the Battle of Gettysburg, where she contracted tuberculosis, which would kill her a year later.

 

However, Farnham’s lasting contribution to society may be her feminism and reflections on frontier Illinois. Farnham came to Tazewell County when she was 20, after an unpleasant New York childhood. There, following the death of her mother, Eliza endured years with a foster family, whose mistreatment of her included physical abuse, working her like a servant, and denying her schooling. She became introspective, educated herself, and turned to Nature.

She moved to Illinois in 1835 to join her sister in Groveland, and soon married transplanted Vermont lawyer Thomas Jefferson Farnham. They moved to nearby Tremont, where she faced common and unusual challenges. Her husband left to lead a wagon train from Peoria to Oregon, and in his absence she became self-reliant despite suffering the deaths of her sister and an infant boy.

Farnham expanded her horizons beyond moving when she left Illinois in 1839. Her work with inmates at penitentiaries grew from her study of phrenology, the then-respected pseudo-science of tying skull shapes to behavior. However, Farnham’s approach went beyond unorthodox diagnosis and treatment techniques, as she connected criminal tendencies to poverty, heredity and physical condition.

Among trips to California was a five-year relocation, when she assumed control of her late husband’s farm. There, with a few hired hands, Farnham ran behind horses she borrowed, coped with pestilence and weeds, raised crops, and designed and built a house. Locally known as the woman in Turkish pants, red boots and sombrero, Farnham remarried but in four years became Santa Cruz County’s first divorcee.

In 1856 she returned East, where she wrote and worked on women’s issues. Her work ranged from the autobiographical “California, In-doors and Out” and an account of the doomed Donner Party, to a rousing speech, “The Superiority of Women,” at the 1858 national Women’s Rights Convention in New York and 1864’s two-volume study, “Woman and Her Era.”

Farnham thought Susan B. Anthony too timid and dismissed the Women’s Christian Temperance Union as advocating for a dull state of educated sexlessness. In 1881, “The History of Woman Suffrage” by Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others recalled Farnham presenting “a series of resolutions, recognizing the right of man in the primary era, in his physical and cerebral structure, to be the conqueror, mechanic, inventor, clearer of forests, pioneer of civilization, but she looked to the dawning of a higher era, when woman should assume her true position, in harmony with her superior organism, delicacy of structure, beauty of person, great powers of endurance, and thus prove herself not only man’s equal in influence and power but his superior in many of the noblest virtues.”

Although “Woman and Her Era” and a romance novel came out within a year of her death at age 49, Farnham’s most available book is “Life in Prairie Land,” in which she celebrates Illinois’ unspoiled wilderness filled with hope and plenty, yet threatened by civilization: a landscape of “beautiful gardens ... its grandeur, its freedom, its wondrous fertility” and also “men, with hard hands and severe, calculating faces.”

Farnham’s is a voice missing from today’s conversations, a brave, brash thinker as well as a strong, creative personality.

 

Bill Knight has been a reporter, editor and columnist for more than 50 years. Also an author, Knight is a journalism professor emeritus from WIU, where he taught for more than 20 years. Contact him at bill.knight@hotmail.com; for archives, go to https://mayflyproductions.blogspot.com/.