Lydia Maria Child is not as famous now as she was when she lived— famous as a radical and reformer, a brilliant thinker and author, and a tireless advocate for oppressed members of society, specifically Native Americans, children, Africans and African Americans held in slavery, and women.
Lydia Maria Child was born in 1802 in Hartford, Connecticut. She chose the name Maria herself as a young woman when she joined the Unitarian Church. She felt that joining the church was a transformative event, and wanted a new name to go with this new phase of her life. Afterward, she always preferred to be called Maria.
Her unusual courage and vision was apparent early. At the age of 22, she published a novel called Hobomok, the first historical novel published in the United States. Hobomok was remarkable in that it involved interracial marriage between a white woman and a Native American, a controversial, almost taboo, subject at the time. This book launched Child's career as a best-selling author; it also foretold her commitment to social justice and antiracism, specifically her interest in the rights of Native Americans.
Child continued as a writer of popular books on homemaking and parenting (although she never had any children). She worked for women's rights, and gradually became deeply involved in the abolitionist movement, working to end slavery in the United States. Child changed the course of her life when she was 31 by publishing An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans, which became the most influential anti-slavery non-fiction book ever written. It inspired and galvanized abolitionists all over the country. Child, however, lost writing jobs because people thought she was too controversial a figure to write for children. But she never regretted her choice.
When she was 37, Maria Child made people angry again when she accepted appointment to the executive committee of the Anti-Slavery Society together with the Quaker Lucretia Mott and the Unitarian Mary Weston Chapman. Some men in the society were so furious they said, "To put a woman on the committee with men is contrary to the usages of civilized society," and left to form their own organization— one that excluded women. This did not trouble Maria Child.
At 43, she wrote The History of the Condition of Women in Various Ages and Nations, a tremendously respected work. Nine years later, she published an enormous, scholarly, three-volume collection, with her commentary, of religious wisdom from many of the world's faiths. The religious world hailed this as a remarkable, groundbreaking work. Indeed, Theodore Parker, one of the most powerful and beloved voices in Unitarianism and a contemporary of Child's, called it "The book of the age."
Child continued her anti-oppression work. She turned her attention to Native American advocacy, and worked tirelessly for the rights of native people to have good education, to speak their native languages, and practice their own religions. She passionately opposed the American government's policy to forcibly drive the Cherokee people from their tribal lands. At the age of 66, she wrote An Appeal for the Indians, again sparking controversy, in which she called on government officials and religious leaders to bring justice to American Indians. Her writing inspired other advocates, and led to the founding of the U.S. Board of Indian Commissioners and the creation of the Peace Policy during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant. Tragically, this policy was ultimately not honored by the U.S. government.
Today, Lydia Maria Child is most often remembered for having written the holiday song Over the River and Through the Woods, a fact that is fascinating, but so small a part of her impressive lifetime of achievement. We can remember this powerful, committed woman as one who helped end slavery, gave voice to those denied a voice, and bravely reminded those in power of their moral responsibility toward the oppressed.