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Monday, April 15, 2013

Ladies for Liberty – Lessons from History

American history is stuffed with great examples of women who have made a positive impact on individual liberty. They were principled, courageous, tenacious, strategic soldiers in the war of ideas.

Let’s examine each of these qualities and talk about the women who exemplified them.


Abigail Adams refused to own a slave and the Grimké sisters renounced lives of luxury in the South to move north to campaign for abolition. Underground railroad “conductor” Harriet Tubman refused to accompany fellow campaigner Sojourner Truth to visit President Lincoln as long as black soldiers were paid a fraction of what white soldiers received. Writer Isabel Paterson, not at all well-off in retirement, refused to claim Social Security, declaring it a Ponzi scheme. Tax protest icon Vivien Kellems fought the IRS to a bloody draw over withholding, which she believed hid tax levels from employees. And Clare Boothe Luce, the first woman senior diplomat, faced down Italian communists.


Martha Washington traveled every late fall to run George’s winter camps, which were usually close to where the Brits were based. She kept George there and happy, which in turn kept the officers and soldiers in place. Mercy Otis Warren’s poems and plays were clearly seditious. Abigail Adams’s letters to her husband could have led to charges of spying. Harriet Tubman’s annual pilgrimage into the South to rescue slaves on her underground railroad was fraught with danger. Suffragette Alice Paul did not just do the time, she went on hunger strike. The Grimké sisters and Sojourner Truth were mobbed, egged, stoned, and they saw buildings where they had just been speaking burn to the ground. Red Cross founder Clara Barton took supplies to battlefronts; civil rights leader Rosa Parks sparked a year-long bus boycott; and novelist Taylor Caldwell cut her teeth in the backwoods of Kentucky.


Elizabeth Cady Stanton was at the plate for over 50 years, from writing the Seneca Falls Declaration in 1848 to lobbying Edith Roosevelt just days before she died in 1902. Bina West Miller started the Women’s Benefit Association to bring life insurance to ladies in 1891 and did not retire until 1948. Lila Wallace repeatedly stopped her husband giving up on his idea for a magazine called Reader’s Digest as she raised venture capital and came up with great marketing ideas. The Digest was a very important engine for liberty post-WWII. Jane Jacobs was for years unceasing in her efforts to stop tens of thousands of buildings in New York City from being condemned; she stopped NYC from being Los Angelized. Ayn Rand spent over a decade writing each of her two big novels; equally tenacious was Rose Wilder Lane with the Little House stories. And Madam C. J. Walker became the first woman to make a million dollars with her hair products and mail-order business.


Mercy Otis Warren was a key player in the creation of the committees of correspondence (the e-mail of the 1770s) that kept the patriots informed and united. Her poems and plays satirized and savaged the Brits, cheering up the colonials enormously. Abigail Adams wrote hundreds of letters (maybe thousands) to her husband John, all packed with strategic advice. The Grimké sisters segmented their markets and crafted messages for each one. Alice Paul realized that a constitutional amendment (the nineteenth) clearly trumped going for female suffrage state by state. Isabel Paterson told Ayn Rand to make her novels timeless. Rose Friedman persuaded Milton to make Free to Choose for TV and then wrote the eponymous book. Mildred Loving fought legal bans on interracial marriages all the way to victory in the Supreme Court. Philanthropist Dorian Fisher championed the leverage of free-market think tanks and left her fortune to them. And then there were the economic boycotts, as when the patriot women refused to buy British goods and the abolitionist women did likewise with slave-produced items.


The Opposition

The opposition to these female demands for liberty operated at two levels.

First, some people well versed and deeply vested in the issue at hand fought them on principle. Anne Hutchinson’s preaching that religion was a private matter between you and God deeply undermined the male ministers, the church, and even the state. She was tried twice and then expelled from Massachusetts. She walked south for six days and co-founded Rhode Island. With Harriet Beecher Stowe’s publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, folk in the South cut body parts off their slaves and mailed them to her.

But much of the violence surrounding these ladies for liberty was not issue-driven so much as created by the threat they posed to the existing social order. It was fine for women to hold meetings where they instructed female family members, children, servants, and neighbors. But men started to attend as early as Anne Hutchinson’s conventicles in the 1630s. And by the time the Grimké sisters hit top gear on abolition, there were black women and black men in the audiences. Their behavior was labeled “promiscuous,” which fueled the violence much more than the issue under discussion.

The lives of these women are not only truly inspiring, but also rich in lessons for those of us who are today fighting for liberty.

John Blundell wrote Ladies for Liberty: Women Who Made a Difference in American History as a visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C. He welcomes nominations for other ladies for his third expanded edition at [email protected].

  • John Blundell (9 October 1952 – 22 July 2014) was a British economist who served as Director General and the Ralph Harris Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs.