Ednah Dow Cheney

Transcendentalist and Social Reformer

Ednah Dow Cheney
Ednah Dow Cheney. Public Domain: from Memorial Meeting, New England Women's Club, Boston, February 20, 1905

Known for: involved in abolition movement, freedman’s education movement, women’s movement, free religion; part of the second generation of Transcendentalists around Boston, she knew many of the well-known figures in those movements

Occupation: writer, reformer, organizer, speaker
Dates: June 27, 1824 – November 19, 1904
Also known as: Ednah Dow Littlehale Cheney

Ednah Dow Cheney Biography:

Ednah Dow Littlehale was born in Boston in 1824.

Her father, Sargent Littlehale, a businessman and Universalist, supported his daughter’s education at various girls’ schools. While liberal in politics and religion, Sargent Littlehale found the Unitarian minister Theodore Parker too radical religiously and politically.  Ednah took a job caring for and tutoring her youngest sister, Anna Walter, and when she died, friends recommended that she consult the Rev. Parker in her grief. She began attending his church.  This brought her into association in the 1840s with many of the Transcendentalists, including Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody as well as Ralph Waldo Emerson and, of course, Theodore Parker and Bronson Alcott. She taught briefly at Alcott’s Temple School. She attended some of Margaret Fuller’s Conversations, meetings that discussed a variety of themes including Emerson’s thought. Through the Conversations, she got to know Louisa May Alcott.

Abby May, Julia Ward Howe, and Lucy Stone were more of her friends starting from this period of her life.

She later wrote that "I always consider that, from the age of twelve, Margaret Fuller and Theodore Parker were my education."

Marriage

Supporting coeducational training in art, she helped found the Boston School of Design in 1851.

She married Seth Wells Cheney in 1853, and the two went to Europe after a tour of New England and the death of Seth Cheney’s mother. Their daughter, Margaret, was born in 1855, shortly after the family returned to the United States, staying in New Hampshire for the summer. By this time, her husband’s health was failing.  Seth Cheney died the next year; Ednah Cheney never remarried, returning to Boston and raising her daughter alone.  Seth Cheney's crayon portrait of Theodore Parker and his wife was given to the Public Library of Boston.

Women’s Rights

She was left with some means, and turned to philanthropy and reform. She helped to establish the New England Hospital for Women and Children, for medical training of women physicians. She also worked with women’s clubs to foster education for women.  She frequently attended woman’s rights conventions,  lobbied for women's rights at the Legislature, and served for a time as vice-president of the New England Women's Suffrage Society. She wrote in her later years that she had believed in the vote for women since she was a "school girl."

Abolitionist and Freedman’s Aid Supporter

Cheney’s reform involvements included support for the abolitionist movement.

  She knew both Harriet Jacobs, an ex-slave who wrote of her own life and escape from slavery, and Harriet Tubman, the Underground Railroad conductor.

Before and after the end of the Civil War, she became a strong advocate for education for the newly freed slaves, working first through the New England Freedman’s Aid Society, a voluntary association that tried to buy the freedom of slaves and also provide opportunities for education and training. After the Civil War she worked with the federal government’s Freedman’s Bureau. She became secretary of the Teachers’ Commission and visited many of the Freedman’s schools in the South.  In 1866 she published a book, The Handbook of American Citizens, to be used in the schools, which included an overview of American history from the perspective of progressive “emancipation.” The book also included the text of the US Constitution.

  Cheney corresponded frequently with Harriet Jacobs after Jacobs returned to North Carolina in 1867. After 1876, Cheney published Records of the New England Freedman’s Aid Society, 1862-1876, mindful of history’s need for such documents.

She was invited to lecture on the work with freedmen at the Divinity Chapel in Cambridge.  This created a debate at the school, as there had been no women speakers at that venue before, and she became the first.

Free Religious Association

Cheney, as part of the second generation of Transcendentalists, was active in the Free Religious Association, founded in 1867, with Ralph Waldo Emerson signing on as the first official member.  The FRA advocated freedom of individual thought in religion, an openness to the findings of science, a faith in the human progress, and a dedication to social reform: bringing the kingdom of God through working for the good of society.

Cheney, through the years, was often a key organizer behind the scenes, making FRA meetings happen, and keeping the organization functioning. She also occasionally spoke at FRA meetings. She spoke regularly in liberal churches and in Southern congregations, and perhaps if clergy training had been more open to women when she was younger, she would have gone into the ministry.

Beginning in 1878, Cheney was a regular teacher at the summer sessions of the Concord School of Philosophy.  She published essays based on some of the themes first explored there.  She was also the first woman to lecture at Harvard’s School of Divinity, not without controversy.

Writer

In 1871 Cheney published a juvenile novel, Faithful to the Light, which gained some popularity; it was followed by other novels.  In 1881 she wrote a memoir of her husband.

Margaret Swan Cheney, Ednah’s daughter, enrolled at Boston’s Institute of Technology (now MIT), among the first women to enter that school, and her entry is credited with that opening of the school to women. Sadly, some years thereafter, while still a student, she died of tuberculosis in 1882. Before her death, she published in a scientific journal a paper describing experiments with nickel, including a method of determining the presence of nickel in ore.

Ednah Cheney's 1888/1889 biography of Louisa May Alcott, who had died the previous year as had her father, Bronson Alcott, helped bring to life the early Transcendentalist years for another generation. It was the first biography of Louisa May Alcott, and remains an important source for those studying Alcott’s life. She included many passages from Alcott’s own letters and journals, letting her subject speak in her own words of her life.  Cheney, in writing the book, used a diary of Alcott’s during the time her family participated in the Transcendentalist utopian experiment at Fruitlands; that diary has since been lost.

That same year she wrote a pamphlet for the American Woman Suffrage Association, “Municipal Suffrage for Women,” advocating a strategy of gaining the vote for women on issues close to their lives, including school elections.  She also published Memoir of Margaret Swan Cheney, her daughter.

  In 1890, she published Nora’s Return: A Sequel to The Doll’s House, her attempt to deal with the feminist themes Henrik Ibsen’s play, The Doll’s House, opened.

A number of articles in the 1880s described Emerson, Parker, Lucretia Mott and Bronson Alcott.  Cheney’s writing was not, in its time or since, considered particularly creative, fitting in more with Victorian sentimentalism, but they do give insight into the memorable people and events through which she moved.  She was much respected by her friends in the free religious and social reform movements with which she associated.

Looking Back

By the turn of the century, Cheney’s health was not good, and she was much less active. In 1902, she published her own memoirs, Reminiscences of Ednah Dow Cheney (born Littehale), reflecting on her life, rooting it in the 19th century. She died in Boston in November of 1904.

The New England Women’s Club held a meeting on February 20, 1905, to remember Ednah Dow Cheney, who had been a member.  The club published the speeches from that meeting.

Background, Family:

  • Mother: Ednah Parker Dow
  • Father: Sargent Smith Littlehale, a grocer
  • Two older siblings, several younger; in total, four siblings died in childhood

Education:

  • Private schools

Marriage, Children:

  • husband: Seth Wells Cheney (artist; married 1853; artist; died 1856)
  • one child:
    • Margaret Swan Cheney, born September 8, 1855, died September 22, 1882.
  • eight siblings, two sisters and one brother; at least five died in childhood

Note: after further research, I corrected a line that was formerly in this biography that had Ednah Dow Cheney as a tutor to Theodore Parker's daughter.  Parker had no children.  The source I used may have misinterpreted a story from Reminiscences of Ednah Dow Cheney.