Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe
"I wrote what I did because as a woman, as a mother, I was oppressed and broken-hearted with the sorrows and injustice I saw, because as a Christian I felt the dishonor to Christianity - because as a lover of my county, I trembled at the coming day of wrath."
- Harriet Beecher Stowe

Induction Category:
Writers & Journalists

Born: 1811

Died: 1896

Inducted: 1994

Town: Litchfield and Hartford

When Harriet Beecher Stowe died in her Hartford home in 1896, she was eulogized and remembered as the most influential writer of the century. The most famous of the Beecher daughters, Stowe was the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, one of the most popular and important novels in American history. Her impact was so great that when she met President Abraham Lincoln, legend has it that he addressed her as “the little lady who started this big war.”

Harriet was one of eleven siblings born to Lyman Beecher, a prominent Congregational minister from Litchfield. Their father’s intellect and dynamic religious energy had an effect on all of his children, and many of them, including Harriet, her sister Catharine Beecher and half-sister Isabella Beecher Hooker, proved in their adult years that his influence and intelligence had been passed on to the next generation.

As a young woman, Harriet Beecher was both a student and an employee of the Hartford Female Seminary, started by her sister Catharine. The school’s emphasis on a full education meant schoolwork on par with that of a male educational institution. Students of the Female Seminary were schooled in courses such as Latin, and hours of time were dedicated to writing essays. When Harriet’s father and sister moved the family to Cincinnati in 1832, Harriet joined them. It was here that Harriet Beecher met her husband, Calvin Stowe. Six of their seven children were born in Cincinnati. It was also here that Stowe saw first-hand the issue of slavery, and the inspiration for Uncle Tom’s Cabin was born. Living across the Ohio River from Kentucky, a slave state, Stowe witnessed the cruelties of slavery and became acquainted with both abolitionists and runaway slaves, who told her tales of appalling treatment and their perilous pursuit of freedom.

Stowe had already written articles, essays and stories for magazines when she started to formulate ideas for Uncle Tom’s Cabin in order to publicize the evils of slavery and bring a sense of awareness to the country. In 1850, the Stowes moved to Brunswick, Maine. Shortly thereafter, the first installment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in serial form in The National Era, an abolitionist newspaper. Publisher Gamaliel Bailey had asked Stowe to “paint a word picture of slavery” and Stowe anticipated producing only three or four installments. The nation soon became absorbed in the story, and she ended up writing 40. All 40 chapters were published in book form in 1852 and the book was an enormous success; it was widely read and subsequently translated into more than 60 languages. The success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin brought financial security to the family and allowed Stowe to write full-time. The controversy generated by the book forced people in the North to confront the institution of slavery, and horrified those in the South, who looked on the novel as an attack on their very existence. The publication of the book and the firestorm it produced further divided the country and helped sow the seeds of the Civil War.

Following the fame and influence of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe continued to write extensively on domestic science and horticulture and to publish children’s stories and poems. She also wrote The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which documented the cases on which she had based the novel, and Dred: A Tale from the Swamp, which gave an even more horrifying account of slavery. Her later novels satirized post-Civil War New York. Over the course of her 51-year literary career, Stowe would write 30 books and countless poems, short stories, hymns and articles.

In 1853, the Stowes moved from Maine to Andover, Mass., where Calvin Stowe had accepted a professorship at the Andover Theological Seminary. Eleven years later upon Calvin’s retirement, the family moved to Hartford, Conn., where Harriet Beecher Stowe built her dream home, which she named “Oakholm,” in the Nook Farm section of the city, populated with good friends and relatives. During the latter part of her career, Stowe embarked on two speaking tours, one on the east coast and another in the western states.

Harriet Beecher Stowe died in Hartford in July 1896.

When Stowe’s great-niece Katharine Seymour Day returned to Hartford in 1927, she purchased Oakholm and subsequently founded the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, which is today one of Connecticut’s premier historical museums. The Stowe Center is a featured stop on both the Connecticut Freedom Trail and the Connecticut Women’s Heritage Trail. To mark the 200th anniversary of Stowe’s birth, in 2011 the Stowe Center established The Harriet Beecher Stowe Prize to recognize an American author who makes a significant impact on a critical contemporary social justice issue.

During This Time
1800 - 1920: Industrialization & Reform

When the Declaration of Independence announced that all men are created equal, the path to citizenship for both blacks and women had begun. Despite not having the right to vote, women had long petitioned governors and legislatures to articulate a family grievance. Activist women presented to the U.S. Congress a large-scale innovative petition on behalf of abolition. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is widely credited with stirring public opinion, especially among women, to anti-slavery sentiments. Helped by women’s efforts, abolitionists eventually secured their goal in the three post-Civil War amendments.

Work in activities such as anti-slavery, temperance and moral reform led some middle-class women to the cause of women’s rights. They challenged the ideal of “separate spheres,” insisting on the same rights to life, liberty, property, and happiness as men. Through Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s lobbying, New York gave women control over their property, wages, and children. In 1848, Stanton and others met in Seneca Falls to discuss the “repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman.” The resulting Declaration of Sentiments asserted that “woman is man’s equal.”

The early industrial economy had changed women’s lives. Textile production shifted from home to factory towns where farm daughters hoped wage labor would open new opportunities. Arrangements seemed ideal, until declining profits caused owners to slash wages to reduce costs. Lowell women walked out in 1836, and later petitioned the legislature to investigate deteriorating conditions. The labor force also changed as more immigrants arrived, delegated to poorly paid factory and domestic work.

In the Progressive Era, some benevolent women were committed to helping working-class women, and their needs received increased publicity after the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in 1911. Others addressed civic concerns, established settlement houses, worked for protective labor legislation, and tried to ban child labor. Clerical work in offices opened up as a desirable field for women, and some gained greater entry into various professions, including medicine, law, social work, nursing, and teaching.

Determined suffragists persisted in their political protests even after World War I broke out in 1914. Finally, seventy-two years after the Seneca Falls convention, employing new tactics and strategies, and a long, hard struggle at the state and national levels, the elusive goal was reached. The 19th amendment, proposed by Congress and ratified by the states in 1920, prohibited restrictions on the right to vote based on sex. It was one of the most successful mass movements in the expansion of political democracy in American history.

An important expression of feminism (calling for change in women’s private lives, not in their public roles) was the campaign in favor of access to birth control. Nurse Margaret Sanger spoke and wrote on its behalf, though her mailings were judged as violating the anti-obscenity Comstock laws. In 1916, after opening the first birth control clinic in the country, she was arrested and sentenced briefly to jail. For forty years she promoted contraception as an alternative to abortion, foreshadowing Planned Parenthood.

Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.