Mary Ashton Rice Livermore

Livermore

            Mary Livermore’s name should be remembered far better than it is, for the role she played in the Civil War was very similar to that of Clara Barton; she was a coequal in the Suffrage Movement with Julia Ward Howe and Lucy Stone; and finally, she was an early Prohibition advocate along with Frances Willard.   Her popularity in her lifetime is clear from the uncommonly high income she earned from lectures and book royalties.

            A native of the Boston area, she worked as a teacher, including three years as a governess on a Virginia plantation, before her 1845 marriage to a Unitarian minister.  The experience in the South made her an early member of the Abolition Movement, and while she mothered three children during the 1840s and 1850s, she wrote for that and the temperance cause.  The family moved to Chicago in 1857, and it was from here that Mary Livermore did her important Civil War work. 

            Dedicated abolitionist that she was, Livermore volunteered to do full-time war work soon after fighting began.  By early 1862, she was head of the Army’s Sanitary Commission in the Midwest and was responsible for the military hospitals in Illinois, Kentucky, and Missouri.  Like Barton in the East, she discovered appalling needs, and also like Barton, her genius was in supply procurement rather than in the more stereotypical nursing role that is usually assigned to Civil War women. 

            Livermore traveled the Midwest, educating the public and forming more than three thousand local units to provide soldiers with food, medicine, surgical dressings, and other essentials that the military had not yet organized for itself.  Her fund-raising abilities were so great that seventy thousand dollars was netted in a single 1863 event that she organized in Chicago, and this model for Sanitary Commission fairs was emulated all over the  North.   Women volunteers, led by Livermore, literally saved the lives of thousands of men who would have died without the vital supplies they bought and sent South.  Somehow in the midst of all this, Livermore found time to publish her first book, Pen Pictures, in 1863. 

            When the war was over, she and other abolitionist women were eager to extend to themselves the civil rights that they helped win for black men, whose legal status was spelled out in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and especially Fifteenth Amendments.  In 1868, Livermore became the founding president of the Illinois Suffrage Association, and in conjunction with this, published a newspaper called the Agitator.   She joined Howe and Stone in the 1869 formation of the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), serving as a vice-president, and when she and her family moved back to Massachusetts the following year, she undertook editing the AWSA’s publication, the Woman’s Journal.  She held that position for two years, while also launching what would become a very successful career as a lecturer.

            Livermore’s fund-raising speeches during the war had already shown her ability to move audiences, and she soon became a prime attraction on the lyceum circuit that provided one of the few sources of entertainment and education available in most American towns.  She toured every year for more than two decades, giving thousands of speeches.  Large numbers of people were thus influenced by her opinions, and they bought tickets to hear her again years later.  Her topics included a range of issues, but the case for women was central to her speeches.

            Not willing to merely earn a comfortable living from speaking about women’s needs, Livermore also continued as an active member of several organizations.  She served as the first president of the Association for the Advancement of Women when it was founded in 1873; she was the founding president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in Massachusetts, continuing in that job from 1875-1885; she volunteered as the national president of the AWSA from 1875-1878; and she was a delegate to the International Council of Women in 1888.  She played a conciliatory role when the AWSA merged with the rival National Women’s Suffrage Association in 1890 and, also that year, was a leader in the formation of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs.

            Meanwhile, she continued to write, publishing her lectures and other essays in several of the nation’s best magazines.  Her most popular lecture, What Shall We Do with Our Daughters? was issued in book form in 1883, and four years later she had a bestseller with her Civil War memoirs, My Story of the War, (1887).  Along with Frances Willard, she edited A Woman of the Century (1893), a collection of biographical sketches of the women of her era that functioned much as a Who's Who does today.

            She finally retired from lecturing at seventy-five, the same year that the Livermores celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary with “a great throng of distinguished guests.”Indefatigable still, she helped found the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union; received an honorary doctorate of law from Tufts University in 1896; and published the Story of My Life (1897).  Her husband and lifelong supporter died in 1899; she lived on another six years, dying at eighty-five in Melrose, Massachusetts.

 

  • Reprinted with permission from: Doris Weatherford. American Women's History: An A to Z of People, Organizations, Issues, and Events, (Prentice Hall, 1994), 211-212.
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