Biography of Mary Livermore

From Civil War Organizer to Women's Rights and Temperance Activist

Mary Livermore transporting sick soldiers for the Sanitary Commission
Mary Livermore transporting sick soldiers for the Sanitary Commission during the Civil War: contemporary illustration.

Interim Archives / Getty Images

Mary Livermore is known for her involvement in several fields. She was a lead organizer for the Western Sanitary Commission in the Civil War. After the war, she was active in the women’s suffrage and temperance movements, for which she was a successful editor, writer and lecturer.

  • Occupation: editor, writer, lecturer, reformer, activist
  • Dates: December 19, 1820 – May 23, 1905
  • Also known as: Mary Ashton Rice (birth name), Mary Rice Livermore
  • Education: Hancock Grammar School, graduated 1835; Female Seminary of Charlestown (Massachusetts), 1835 - 1837
  • Religion: Baptist, then Universalist
  • Organizations:  United States Sanitary Commission, American Woman Suffrage Association, Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Association for the Advancement of Women, Women’s Educational and Industrial Union, National Conference of Charities and Corrections, Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association, Massachusetts Woman's Temperance Union, and more

Background and Family

  • Mother: Zebiah Vose Glover Ashton
  • Father: Timothy Rice. His father, Silas Rice, Jr., was a soldier in the American Revolution.
  • Siblings: Mary was the fourth child, though all three older children died before Mary was born. She had two younger sisters; Rachel, the older of the two, died in 1838 of complications of a congenital curved spine.

Marriage and Children

  • Husband: Daniel Parker Livermore (married May 6, 1845; Universalist minister, newspaper publisher). He was Mary Rice Livermore's third cousin; they shared a 2nd great grandfather, Elisha Rice Sr. (1625 - 1681).
  • Children:
  • Mary Eliza Livermore, born 1848, died 1853
  • Henrietta White Livermore, born 1851, married John Norris, had six children
  • Marcia Elizabeth Livermore, born 1854, was single and living with her parents in 1880 and with her mother in 1900

Early Life of Mary Livermore

Mary Ashton Rice was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on December 19, 1820. Her father, Timothy Rice, was a laborer. The family held strict religious beliefs, including Calvinist belief in predestination, and belonged to a Baptist church. As a child, Mary pretended at times to be a preacher, but she early began to question the belief in everlasting punishment.

The family moved in the 1830s to western New York, pioneering on a farm, but Timothy Rice gave up on this venture after just two years.


Mary graduated from Hancock Grammar School at age fourteen and began studying at a Baptist women’s school, Female Seminary of Charlestown. By the second year she was already teaching French and Latin, and she remained at the school as a teacher after her graduation at sixteen. She taught herself Greek so that she could read the Bible in that language and investigate her questions about some of the teachings.

Learning About Enslavement

In 1838 she heard Angelina Grimké speak, and later recalled that it inspired her to consider the need for women’s development. The following year, she took a position as a tutor in Virginia an enslaver plantation. She was treated well by the family but was horrified at a beating of an enslaved person she observed. It made her into an avid anti-enslavement activist.

Adopting a New Religion

She returned to the north in 1842, taking a position in Duxbury, Massachusetts, as a schoolmistress. The following year, she discovered the Universalist church in Duxbury, and met with the pastor, the Rev. Daniel Parker Livermore, to talk over her religious questions. In 1844, she published A Mental Transformation, a novel based on her own giving up of her Baptist religion. The next year, she published Thirty Years Too Late: A Temperance Story.

Married Life

Religious conversation between Mary and the Universalist pastor turned to mutual personal interest, and they were married on May 6, 1845. Daniel and Mary Livermore had three daughters, born in 1848, 1851 and 1854. The eldest died in 1853. Mary Livermore raised her daughters, continued her writing, and did church work in her husband’s parishes. Daniel Livermore took up a ministry in Fall River, Massachusetts, after his marriage. From there, he moved his family to Stafford Center, Connecticut, for a ministry position there, which he left because the congregation opposed his commitment to the temperance cause.

Daniel Livermore held several more Universalist ministry positions, in Weymouth, Massachusetts; Malden, Massachusetts; and Auburn, New York.

Move to Chicago

The family decided to move to Kansas, to be part of an anti-enslavement settlement there during the controversy over whether Kansas would be a free or pro-slavery state. However, their daughter Marcia became ill, and the family stayed in Chicago rather than proceeding on to Kansas. There, Daniel Livermore published a newspaper, New Covenant, and Mary Livermore became its associate editor. In 1860, as a reporter for the newspaper, she was the only woman reporter covering the Republican Party’s national convention as it nominated Abraham Lincoln for president.

In Chicago, Mary Livermore remained active in charity causes, founding an old-age home for women and a women’s and children’s hospital.

Civil War and the Sanitary Commission

As the Civil War began, Mary Livermore joined the Sanitary Commission as it expanded its work into Chicago, obtaining medical supplies, organizing parties to roll and pack bandages, raising money, providing nursing and transportation services to wounded and sick soldiers, and sending packages to soldiers. She left her editing work to devote herself to this cause and proved herself to be a competent organizer. She became co-director of the Chicago office of the Sanitary Commission, and an agent for the Northwest Branch of the Commission.

In 1863, Mary Livermore was the chief organizer for the Northwest Sanitary Fair, a 7-state fair including an art exhibition and concerts, and selling and serving dinners to the attendees. Critics were skeptical of the plan to raise $25,000 with the fair; instead, the fair raised three to four times that amount. Sanitary Fairs in this and other locations raised $1 million for the efforts on behalf of Union soldiers.

She traveled frequently for this work, sometimes visiting Union Army camps at the front lines of battle, and sometimes going to Washington, DC, to lobby. During 1863, she published a book, Nineteen Pen Pictures.

Later, she recalled that this war work convinced her that women needed the vote in order to influence politics and events, including as the best method to win temperance reforms.

A New Career

After the war, Mary Livermore immersed herself in activism on behalf of women’s rights – suffrage, property rights, anti-prostitution and temperance. She, like others, saw temperance as a women's issue, keeping women from poverty.

In 1868, Mary Livermore organized a woman’s rights convention in Chicago, the first such convention to be held in that city. She was becoming more well-known in suffrage circles and founded her own women’s rights newspaper, the Agitator. That paper was in existence just a few months when, in 1869, Lucy StoneJulia Ward Howe, Henry Blackwell and others connected with the new American Woman Suffrage Association decided to found a new periodical, Woman’s Journal, and asked Mary Livermore to be a co-editor, merging the Agitator into the new publication. Daniel Livermore gave up his newspaper in Chicago, and the family moved back to New England. He found a new pastorate in Hingham, and was strongly supportive of his wife’s new venture: she signed on with a speakers’ bureau and began lecturing.

Her lectures, from which she soon was making a living, took her around America and even several times to Europe on tour. She gave about 150 lectures a year, on topics including women’s rights and education, temperance, religion and history. 

Her most frequent lecture was called “What Shall We Do With Our Daughters?” which she gave hundreds of times.

While spending part of her time away from home lecturing, she also spoke frequently in Universalist churches and continued other active organizational involvements. In 1870, she helped found the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association. By 1872, she gave up her editor position to focus on lecturing. In 1873, she became president of the Association for the Advancement of Women, and from 1875 to 1878 served as president of the American Woman Suffrage Association. She was part of the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union and the National Conference of Charities and Corrections. She was president of the Massachusetts Woman’s Temperance Union for 20 years. From 1893 to 1903 she was president of the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association.

Mary Livermore also continued her writing. In 1887, she published My Story of the War about her Civil War experiences. In 1893, she edited, with Frances Willard, a volume they titled A Woman of the Century. She published her autobiography in 1897 as The Story of My Life: The Sunshine and Shadow of Seventy Years.

Later Years

In 1899, Daniel Livermore died. Mary Livermore turned to spiritualism to try to contact her husband, and, through a medium, believed that she had made contact with him.

The 1900 census shows Mary Livermore's daughter, Elizabeth (Marcia Elizabeth), living with her, and also Mary's younger sister, Abigail Cotton (born 1826) and two servants.

She continued lecturing almost until her death in 1905 in Melrose, Massachusetts.


Mary Livermore’s papers can be found in several collections:

  • Boston Public Library
  • Melrose Public Library
  • Radcliffe College: Schlesinger Library
  • Smith College: Sophia Smith Collection
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Your Citation
Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Mary Livermore." ThoughtCo, Nov. 7, 2020, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, November 7). Biography of Mary Livermore. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Mary Livermore." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).