Anna Dickinson was born on October 28, 1842, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her parents, John and Mary Dickinson’s ancestors were ardent Quakers and Abolitionists who had immigrated to the United States from England. She was the youngest of five children and the family home was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
When she was only two years old, her father died leaving the family in abject poverty. Her mother took in boarders and opened a school in their home to help support the family. Anna was educated at Friends Select School of Philadelphia and at Westtown School. She was a dedicated student and spent any money she was able to earn on books. She had acquired a deep interest in reading and literary classics from her mother. When she was 14 years old she converted to the Methodist Church and remained an active parishioner of the church throughout her life.
When she was 14 she had an essay published in the Liberator, a newspaper owned by the abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison called her the “Girl Orator. Her essay addressed abuse received by an abolitionist schoolteacher in Kentucky and was titled “Slavery”. The following year she went to work for him as a copyist. In 1859 and 1860 she taught school in Berks County, Pennsylvania. In May of 1861 she obtained a clerkship for the United States Mint. She was one of the first female employees at the mint. She was removed from this position however, in December of that year, because she proclaimed at a public meeting, that General George McClellan’s poor performance at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff amounted to treason.
Apparently this was just the beginning of a career as a public speaker. She became widely known as an eloquent, sometimes blistering, and persuasive speaker delivering impassioned speeches on abolition, women’s rights, Sanitary Commission issues, temperance and reconstruction. She was encouraged by her community of Quakers to speak out in public, thus leading the way for many women in the future.
She spoke at meeting houses, and many other venues. She was named the Civil War’s Joan of Arc for the way she promoted the Union. Speaking at the Cooper Institute in New York City, to an audience of over 5,000 people it was reported that - “she could hold her audience spellbound for as much as two hours. She gave the impression of being under some magical control.” In 1864 she received a standing ovation on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. In attendance were President Abraham Lincoln and many civic and military leaders. She had been invited to speak by Republican leaders and was the first woman to address congress.
At the end of the Civil War, Davidson remained on the of the nation’s most celebrated speakers for decades earning $20,000 (equivalent to about $415,297 currently) a year. Most of her earnings were given away to charity, family, and friends. She also maintained a townhouse in Philadelphia for her mother and sister.
In 1867, in a letter to San Francisco Alta California, Mark Twain said: “She talks fast, uses not notes what ever, never hesitates for a word, always gets the right word in the right place, and has the most perfect confidence in herself. Indeed, her sentences are remarkably smoothly-woven and felicitous. Her vim, her energy, her determined look, her tremendous earnestness, would compel the respect and the attention of an audience, even if she spoke in Chinese—would convince a third of them, too, even though she used arguments that would not stand analysis.”
In 1873 Ralph Meeker invited her to visit Colorado. In the three weeks she visited there she climbed Pikes Peak, Mount Lincoln, Grays Peak, Mount Elbert, and joined the Hayden survey climbing Longs Peak, usually using horses or mules. She wore trousers and was the first white woman on record to summit Gray’s Peak, Lincoln Peak and Elbert Peak (on a mule) and the second to summit Pike’s Peak and the third to climb Longs Peak. The Boulder County News reported all of her activities in scandalous detail.
She was a friend of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony who addressed her as “Chickie Dickie” in letters. She corresponded with escaped slave and abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass. She tried her had at writing stage plays and even performing, Hamlet on broadway. Benjamin Butler, a Civil war general and politician, pursued her romantically remaining a lifelong friend. Unpublished correspondence from a woman named Ida appears to indicate at least one intimate episode with another woman during her lifetime. The World War II Liberty Ship SS Anna Dickinson was named in her honor.