In Rummaging Through the Attic, we interview nonfiction authors whose books explore fascinating moments, characters, and stories in history. For this episode we spoke with Dorothy Wickenden, author of The Agitators: Three Friends Who Fought for Abolition and Women’s Rights, a nonfiction work that profiles the friendship of three women and their fight to upend the racist and sexist societal norms of 19th-century America.
Dorothy Wickenden’s The Agitators follows a friendship at the beginning of the American Civil War, one deeply intertwined with the women’s rights movement, the fight for abolition, and the Underground Railroad—“three women, two of whom you probably have never heard of,” says Wickenden.
In upstate New York, Martha Wright was known for being a fierce abolitionist and having organized the first women’s rights convention in the country. Although her friend Frances Seward, the wife of then-Secretary of State William H. Seward, was not so public about her beliefs, she nevertheless participated in both movements behind the scenes. And both women formed a close friendship with Harriet Tubman, volunteering their kitchen basements in Auburn as a stop in the Underground Railroad and providing those who sought refuge job referrals, financial support, and education.
Writing a book about her grandmother, Wickenden remembered she mentioned living next to the Seward House in Auburn. This spurred her visit to the Seward House Museum, where she learned of the friendship between the three women. “Tens of thousands of books have been written about the antebellum era and the Civil War era, but they’re almost always through the perspective of remarkable men who fought to keep the union together or the male abolitionists who fought to break it apart,” says Wickenden. “I thought, ‘Well, what would the major events of the mid-19th century look like from the perspective of these women?’”
The Agitators begins in the years leading up to the Civil War and concludes a few years after its end, but Wickenden believes it is ever-more relevant in the present day. “Women are still fighting for equal pay, especially women of color,” she notes. “As the years go on and the white supremacist movement gains force, and we saw it come to its horrendous culmination on January 6th, I thought, well, the forces that these women were fighting against are still with us.”