Karen Board Moran's 2013 Annual Meeting Presentation

"Gates Along My Path"

It is wonderful to see so many familiar faces here tonight!

Almost 20 years ago Lisa Connelly Cook and Angela Dorenkamp raised our awareness of the historic event held in Worcester in 1850 that helped change the lives of American women. Lisa stimulated our curiosity and imagination about the first National Woman’s Rights Convention and the women and men who initiated the event, carried it out and carried it onward. Many of us in this room joined the wave of enthusiasm to hear the stories of the past and continue the woman’s rights movement forward into our own lives and those of the future.

I caught that wave and  it changed my life when I went in search of 1850 Worcester and its people. In the summer of 1997 I began gathering evidence about the Convention and Worcester women as a teacher fellow at the American Antiquarian Society. I needed to find a voice that would capture the imagination of my 8th grade students at Auburn Middle School and help with the production of the “Centerpiece” of Women 2000.

I “met” Mrs. Abigail Gleason Rawson who attended the convention 163 years ago TODAY. I discovered she was a manager of the Worcester Children’s Friend Society and com-mitted to its success for over 37 years of her life.

As I read the 1849 Children’s Friend Society Record Book, the entries about four orphaned children and a runaway captured my imagination. I thought they could speak to the children a century and a half later. Abigail had provided me with the thread of the novel I finally published this year, Gates Along My Path.

As a teacher I chose to write about and reenact average women and girls who were not especially famous, but experienced their time—people like us! Depending on the quality of information I am able to find, they may become a composite rather than a specific historic character. Their story is evidence that each of us has the ability to make a difference—influence others—and affect the next generation. And we do not always need to “rock a cradle to rock a world” to paraphrase Lucy Stone. Within these women’s stories are life lessons we can apply in our own lives in hopes of avoiding similar pitfalls. Hopefully their stories inspire and enable us to carry the torch for a better world forward. Abigail’s spirit helps me open a window on the past where ever and whenever I reenact her.

What if we could interview Abigail Gleason Rawson who lived from 1811-1895 for the Oral History Project? Of course she passed away generations before the project was founded. Sadly, I have yet to find anything in her own words. But perhaps her ancestors might still be alive. I actually did meet her Great-Great-Great granddaughter Donna Rawson Thurlow (and Donna’s mother Barbara Rawson) when I spoke as Abigail at the 1998 February Brown Bag Lunch at Worcester Universal Unitarian Church promoting Women 2000. WWHP member Laura Howie was responsible for making that encounter happen which connected me to the Rawson family.

What if we could interview one of Abigail’s charges Eliza McLoughlin who was born ca. 1842 and the heroine of this book?

Sadly, I have yet to find a descendant or found the time to pursue the McLoughlins whose name has been recorded in a wide variety of spellings. I decided to tell her possible story as a composite of similar young girls of the time starting with the facts I found.

Eliza, called Liza in the novel, was just one of the many Irish children brought to America by their parents in search of a better life. The death of her parents brought Liza and her siblings to Worcester where her sister Mary lived with the Miles’ family at Chestnut and Williams Streets.

As the youngest member of the newly orphaned McLoughlin family, Liza finds herself stranded in the strange city of Worcester because she is too young to be indentured out. Luckily for her, Worcester is a hot bed of reformers where strong-minded women are not content to accept the status quo as to their place in society whether black or white. The Orphans’ Home provides the link to the community throughout the novel.

As I read the minutes of the Children’s Friend Society, I was amazed to learn about the escape of one 11 year old girl --despite the safe shelter provided at the Orphans’ Home. Liza’s story was born in my imagination. What would she do?? Where would she go?

Take a moment to remember your life at age eleven. Do you remember being safely enrolled in 5th or 6th grade? By our time equal education reforms closed the gate on a situation like Liza’s. (At least in the perfect world.)

Would Liza be prepared to face the “real” world? Would her story provide a medium to help people of today (especially young adults) understand the world of the mid-19th century and the importance of the first National Woman’s Rights Convention? After all, the young adults of today enjoy many of the reforms discussed and fought for since the 1850 convention. They do not face entering the work place at age eleven, but enjoy --although they might not use that word--an additional 7 years of education, training and protection.

The novel’s characters were all real people! Few left personal diaries or letters, so I was forced to use literary license to put words in their mouths based on my understanding of the times, period writings and human nature. Any misrepresentations are due to my own imagination. I tried to present the realities of 19th century childhood as Liza connects with Worcester families in different socio- economic, racial and ethnic groups.

Like today, it took a community to raise Liza in a challenging society where children were expected to grow up fast and fend for themselves or their family or employer. Luckily, Worcester had a strong benevolent tradition with strong-minded women who conquered their fears to step out of their traditional place to make the world better.

Liza tells the reader,

"My [older] sister Mary had told us of how Mother Miles had boldly visited the abodes of poverty and wretchedness along Pine Street and Green Island for over a year.

Then she tried to enlist the practical sympathy of others to help “poverty-stricken human beings and friendless young creatures who present themselves in all their ragged wretchedness before us.

[Mrs. Miles] finally was able to organize the Children’s Friend Society for the protection and education of destitute children. At first she kept the orphans in her own home, but soon needed a separate Orphan’s Home."

Now would Liza really have spoken that way? I decided to include the rich vocabulary of the day to encourage the more advanced vocabulary found on state tests that continues to erode to text speak. My students actually looked words up in the dictionary and they quickly suggested I add a 19th century glossary. If we revisit the schoolbooks of 1850 like McGuffey’s readers, they not only used multiple syllable words, but also taught children morals and culture like "A Psalm of Life" by William Longfellow in McGuffey's Sixth Eclectic Reader and also found in the Children's Friend Society First Annual Report.

"Life is real; life is earnest;

And the grave is not its goal;

Dust thou art, to dust returnest,

Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment and not sorrow,

Is our destined end or way,

But to act, that each to-morrow,

Find us farther than to-day."

A 19th c. pep talk!

Telling HER-story, rather than HIS-story is a challenge I could not have met without the research I did to prepare WWHP for Women 2000. I thank the curiosity of the members and “Angels & Infidels” reenactors who opened the gate (some would say a flood gate) to 1850 Worcester and the Woman’s Rights Movement. The story is not just Liza’s, but has linked to the stories of the suffragists I portray in MA, AZ and now WI. The influence of Worcester heroines, Abby Kelley Foster and Lucy Stone, still stretches across America to today. The convention’s first principle of “Equality before the law without distinction of sex or color-- in education, the workplace, government and justice—is still unfinished! The Equal Rights Amendment is just 3 states short of becoming part of the US Constitution 90 years after being introduced by Alice Paul!

I never thought I would be a writer (most of you know how I’d rather talk). From my earliest days I knew I needed to share what I discovered—hence my career as a teacher. When my childhood dream of becoming a stewardess --today’s flight attendant-- was shattered by my shortness and glasses, I decided to follow Nancy Drew’s example as a detective. However, the mysteries of the past intrigued me more than present times.

As a teenager I boldly announced I would be an archaeologist until someone slammed that gate shut with the words, “It won’t work if you want to get married and have children.” Being in love at the time and not very brave about making waves, I did not explore that path for almost 30 years!

Liza’s fearful musings in the book show she was curious, strong and resilient—or at least for that moment--,

"My thoughts keep wandering from the adventurous expectation of today’s escape to fear in a matter of seconds.

Am I making a terrible mistake? I must have courage. I made my decision to go through the gate offered by [my sister] Mary. I am tired of others leading me down paths they choose for me. I am old enough to choose my own!"

My 10 year old granddaughter echoed this same sentiment just three days ago!

I hope this book will enable the reader to be aware of the ‘gates” they face along their life’s path and think about how FEAR can be our own worst enemy. As 19th century philosopher Henry David Thoreau said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” I’m sure each of us can look back with hindsight to a CLOSED gate and identify the gate keeper who changed our lives—whether they closed or opened the opportunity.

We need to ask ourselves if we are as courageous and aware as the heroine Liza or the women who influenced her. Did the experience make us stronger? Were we able to help others avoid the obstacles they encounter by joining the woman’s rights movement?

Sometimes our greatest impact can be opening NEW GATES. When WWHP challenged Carolyn Howe and me to bring Abby Kelley Foster to life from her letters, it opened a gate I would not have entered without the rich background gained at a “New Scholarship on Women” National Endowment for the Humanities Institute at Radcliffe in 1991 and the teacher fellowship at American Antiquarian Society where I encountered many of the characters in the draft of this novel. In turn, “Yours for Humanity – Abby” opened another gate so I could become a better writer and bring the past to life. I especially thank our “Abby”, Lynne McKenney Lydick for her dramatic insights.

Life is not a simple path as we’ve all discovered. It is a journey where it is up to each of us to hold true to our personal choices to be ourselves and NOT someone else’s version of who we are. …. Gates Along My Path includes a period map of Worcester to allow the reader to stroll mentally across town with Liza to meet the children in various families. It provides a slower, eye level pace we seldom can enjoy today from a car. You will recognize many Worcester locations as you follow Liza’s observations from the Orphan’s Home on today’s Shrewsbury Street near East Park.

Liza imagines following Pliny and Sarah Earle to their Quaker home on Nobility Hill across from City Hall.

Sixteen year old Stephen Salisbury and his little step sister Georgianna allow Liza and the reader to share their much wealthier world living in the Salisbury Mansions on today’s Lincoln Square. How wonderful that we can still visit the house just up the hill thanks to the Worcester Historical Museum.

The economic realities of the African American community along Summer Street are revealed as Liza learns what her place will be in the tight economy, even more limited for an orphan.

Emily Loveland, who we just heard, lived with her family in the neighborhood now under 290 near St. Vincent’s Medical Center. She offers insight into a woman’s career choices other than the drudgery of domestic duties Liza is being trained in at the Orphans’ Home before she is indentured out.

I hope you enjoy Gates Along My Path and share it with a young adult. It is both an exploration of Worcester and the Woman’s Rights movement to encourage the reader to consider what is left undone 163 years later.

Published Date: 
February 18, 2014