Fierce Femme Friday: Elizabeth Farnham

For today’s Fierce Femme Friday I thought it would be good to look at an early reformer who didn’t believe that women were equal to men…they were superior.

Originally hailing from New York, Elizabeth Farnham, born in 1815, was a self-educated woman who devoured the works of Voltaire and Pain. When she was 21 she married a lawyer and settled in the plains of Illinois. Elizabeth would later go on to write a book about her time in Illinois, discussing the realistic struggles of women in the frontier. In it, she said that women didn’t have the luxury of being lazy like the men did. Women always needed to work whether it be in the field or in the home. She goes on to say that the educational system of the east has done a poor job of preparing women for the rugged frontier life.

After her husband received some land in California she moved back to New York while he went on the wild west. While living in New York she became the matron of Sing Sing’s women’s prison.

During her time here she instituted reforms that made the women’s living conditions better and emphasized a kinder treatment of the prisoners. From Sing Sing she moved to Boston where she worked with fellow reformer Samuel Gridley Howe at the New England Asylum for the blind.

But in 1848 she moved to California to clear up her now deceased husband’s estate. While there, she and a former assistant started their own ranch. It was during this time in California that she cemented her theories on the role of women in society. At the time the California population was 90% male. She saw a lot of destruction at the hands involved in the Gold Rush.

She Theorized that in addition to studying the races one had to study gender and how it affected race. For example, she theorized that women represented the best of the Anglo-Saxons because of a woman’s innate moral code.

She believed that the only way America could achieve Manifest Destiny was to recognize the necessary role women needed to play. She said:

“There is no country in the world where the highest attributes of the female character are more indispensable to the social wealth than to California.”

Farnham went on to theorize that because women are able to give birth they were physically stronger than men and biologically superior. She rejected the notion of equality stating that each gender had their own role to play. However, she did agree with her contemporary’s stances on unfettered freedom.

Though she wasn’t well liked by her fellow suffragists she was a woman who in many ways was before her time. She envisioned a women’s movement and a world where women could speak freely about the social injustices that we have had to keep hidden. Because of that, she is a Fierce Femme.


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