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Wednesday, March 14, 2007 01:22 pm

Sisters, doing it for themselves

A look at three women who sparked up early American culture

The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism By Megan Marshall (Mariner Books, 2006, 457 pages, $16.95)
Untitled Document Looking for emotion, struggle, determination, and accomplishment? They’re all there in Megan Marshall’s The Peabody Sisters, a fascinating look at the lives of three women who helped light up American culture in the early history of our Republic. Pulling information from newly discovered letters and diaries, Marshall tells us about Sophia, Mary, and Elizabeth Peabody, our equivalent of England’s storied Brontë sisters. The Peabody women, who accomplished much in their own right, were associated with and shaped some of the leading luminaries of American literature, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, who led the Transcendental movement and literary culture by the end of the 1830s. The sisters traded ideas with these thinkers and published and promoted their works. They also worked together to establish Boston schools and teach in them — Elizabeth, in particular, is credited with popularizing kindergarten education in the United States. They participated in developing new approaches to schooling and chronicled this in publications that are little known today. Marshall has changed that. Letters and diaries pull the reader into the emotions and lives of the sisters. Marshall found one diary never before interpreted and drew heavily from others. To flesh out her story, she includes artwork, newly discovered letters, and multiple publications, exploring the social web and sometime community that grew up around the Peabodys in the 1820s and ’30s. Marshall has not written a biography of individuals but instead a history through the women’s careers and youthful and adult years. Mary (1806-1887) became a strident reformer and married Horace Mann. Sophia (1809-1871) grew into an artist of note when few women were able to gain international recognition. Her creativity was joined with that of Nathaniel Hawthorne when Sophia married the author in 1842. Elizabeth (1804-1894), the most influential, never married. She held her own to converse with and influence the emerging philosophies of Transcendentalism through Emerson, William Ellery Channing, and Bronson Alcott. She eventually opened a bookstore that gathered thinkers, published the well-known transcendentalist journal The Dial, and offered a place for her and Margaret Fuller’s “Conversations with Women.”
Each sister succeeded in cultivating her own public identity, but the three combined forces to offer new perspectives on art, education, and philosophy. The Peabody Sisters illuminates an important part of our nation’s history, revealing just how critical and influential women were, from the very beginning.

Deborah Kuhn McGregor teaches history and women’s studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield. She is the author of From Midwives to Medicine: The Birth of American Gynecology. 
She reminds us that March is Women’s History Month.
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