By Dorothy Wickenden. Scribner, 2021. 400 pages. $30/hardcover; $14.99/eBook.
Context is vital to understanding stories of our past that inform our present. The Agitators presents elements of nineteenth-century history likely familiar to many Friends Journal readers: the quest for women’s rights, abolitionism, the Underground Railroad, horrors of war, and troublesome political choices. The lens through which this story is told is what makes this particular presentation compelling. It portrays overlapping networks of community and family, centered on the lives of three crucial figures: Martha Coffin Wright, Frances Seward, and Harriet Tubman.
Today, Tubman is the most known of these three women. Wright’s sister, Lucretia Coffin Mott, is the better-known reformer, and Frances Seward is most easily identified through her husband, then New York governor and U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward. All three women called Auburn, N.Y., home and supported one another over decades. Their overlapping worlds and influences weave through the narrative, along with insights relating to other well-known figures such as Frederick Douglass, John Brown, William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Abraham Lincoln, and many more. Of course, Martha’s notable Quaker sister, Lucretia, slips in throughout. The anecdotes and deeply researched details humanize both the protagonists and those they encounter on the world stage.
By centering these three activists, Wickenden provides compelling observations. She highlights the influences of background, identity, relationships, and personality on the choices and actions people are led to take at crucial points in their lives. While each of the three women could fill a full-length biography with just her own life, the decision to bring them together demonstrates the importance of community and relationships beyond the single story. Each had a role to play.
Wright was publicly known at the time as an agitator for abolition and women’s suffrage. Seward’s influence was more behind the scenes in her lifetime but brought to light by surviving correspondence connecting the Auburn story to national political intrigues. Harriet Tubman’s multiple roles through her long life are especially compelling, as she spends much of the story traveling in service to her life’s work to end enslavement while also supporting her family. Including Tubman’s voice and experiences provides an essential counter narrative to traditional presentations of nineteenth-century womanhood and women’s activism. Pairing her life story with those of other women leaders of the era connects the dots for a more complete history.
The Agitators is a book that takes the reader through decades of reform and crises with timeless themes of love for family, frustrations with power and disunity, and commitments to justice.
Gwen Gosney Erickson is a member of Friendship Meeting in Greensboro, N.C., and Quaker archivist at Guilford College.