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The Agitators: Three Friends Who Fought for Abolition and Women's Rights

Review

The Agitators: Three Friends Who Fought for Abolition and Women's Rights

In mid-1800s America, freedom was a foundational concept, but it had many, often thorny, branches. Who could doubt that African slaves were deprived of it, or that women, no matter how privileged, were not enjoying its fullest benefits? These multifaceted issues would lead to a destructive war and a lingering divide. In the midst of the fray were three remarkable women --- Harriet Tubman, Martha Wright and Frances Seward --- whose portraits are painted in THE AGITATORS by Dorothy Wickenden, a noted writer and the executive editor of The New Yorker.

Harriet Tubman’s story is perhaps the best known: a former slave who singlehandedly started what became known as the Underground Railroad to move Black people from captivity in the Southern states to new lives in the Northern regions. Along the way, she was able to enlist the assistance of people like Martha Wright, a Quaker mother of seven, and Frances Seward, the wife of Governor, then Senator, then Secretary of State William H. Seward. Wright and Seward were already allies in Auburn, New York, both free-thinkers whose views were not always understood by their neighbors or, at times, their spouses.

"Wickenden has mined the annals of social, political and cultural history in composing this complex, wide-ranging tome."

Wright was the sister of Lucretia Mott, who was well known to Tubman as a radical defender of all human rights; Mott avowed that Quakers should be not quietists but “agitators” in the face of injustice. As the possibility of war geared up, Wright, Seward and Tubman would approach it in different ways, but all were determined to abolish slavery, and to press for women’s rights and suffrage.

Wickenden has mined the annals of social, political and cultural history in composing this complex, wide-ranging tome. She shows each woman in particular situations that highlight her aspirations, even describing an incident where Tubman, posing as an old lady in prayer, initiated a street brawl with constables holding a fugitive slave in chains. There are behind-the-scenes glimpses of Lincoln seen by some as a radical, by others as ineffectual. Opinions differed about his Emancipation Proclamation, with Tubman believing it wouldn’t help the people enslaved in border states like Maryland, Wright seeing it as “far less than we had hoped,” and Seward referencing doubts about its “ultimate consequences.”

All three women were esteemed in their time, heading organizations and championing causes to proclaim and promote human rights well ahead of majority thinking, and all have been duly recognized and honored in Auburn and beyond. Wickenden is participating in that ongoing process, bringing their accomplishments and shared goals to light for a new generation.

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on April 2, 2021

The Agitators: Three Friends Who Fought for Abolition and Women's Rights
by Dorothy Wickenden

  • Publication Date: March 30, 2021
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 147676073X
  • ISBN-13: 9781476760735