The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

The Personal Problems of a Social Reformer

We could all learn a thing or two from 19th-century reformer and essayist Caroline Dall. An abolitionist and advocate for women’s suffrage, Dall worked for societal change throughout her life. We have her papers in our collections and published the Selected Journals of Caroline Healey Dall, Volume I (1838-1855), edited by Helen R. Deese, in 2006. The second volume (1855-1866) is in production for this year.

Despite Dall’s renown as a literary and reform figure, she had trouble in her personal life just like the rest of us. She fought tirelessly to end slavery and earn the vote for women, and she was even a founder of the American Social Science Association, but relationships comprised the messiest part of her life. Dall’s marriage was a failure. Her husband, Charles, a minister, took a missionary post in India in 1855 and left her to raise their two children alone in the United States.

Dall also struggled in her friendships and often managed to alienate others without understanding why. Although she had encouraged and fostered Louisa May Alcott’s literary talent, she insulted the Alcott family when she authored a critical review of Louisa’s first book, Moods. On August 1, 1865, Dall wrote in her journals, “Well—I was to blame somewhere—perhaps in time, God will show me where.” Earlier that year, Dall similarly turned off another group. Some members of the congregation where she was Sunday School superintendent disliked her and made the fact known. Dall subsequently lost the position. On May 14, 1865, her last day in the post, she wrote that one member of the congregation “turned her back & drew her veil down” when she approached and another “merely lowered her eye-lids.”

Acknowledging her struggles in life, however, Dall chose to maintain a positive outlook. “[All] my trouble was well,” she wrote in her journal on March 27, 1865. Even snubs from the Boston literati couldn’t keep her down. On February 18, 1865, she wrote: 

I often wonder what my lot would been like, if I had been beautiful, and as attractive to men as I am to the young women of my reading class. Then, I suppose I should have belonged to the Atlantic Club, and have been able to get an article into the N. American without maneuvering or waiting.

Dall’s only interest in being beautiful or more successful socially was in how it could benefit her work. But even that would not have been worth it, as she later concluded. She wrote in her journal the next day, “But God cannot carry great reforms, by wrapping them in jelly. They get no hold on men, till they are swallowed like genuine medicine, with full knowledge of their quality & full faith in their power.”

Dall’s desire for an easier life was motivated only by the possibility of benefit to her work, and her trials she met as necessary to her effectiveness at advocating for her causes. In facing life’s personal obstacles, we could all take a little inspiration from her writings.

To read more about Caroline Dall see these earlier posts by Jim Connolly: “Bostonians Respond to Union Loss at 2nd Bull Run” and “Caroline Dall Gears Up for Summer in 1862.”


permalink | Published: Friday, 1 February, 2013, 8:00 AM