Blood draw

The science writer Douglas Starr has made something of a specialty of blood.

His book, Blood: The Epic History of Medicine and Commerce, and the PBS documentary series it inspired, Red Gold, cover the waterfront on this vital component of life, and our relationship to it.

The PBS website has a great discussion guide that sums up the topic impressively, and includes a timeline of important developments in our evolving relationship with blood.

Red Gold

Even before we understood its function, humans invested blood with value and meaning. As Starr writes in an essay in the guide:

Blood: It’s strange that this most familiar of substances has always been so laden with feeling, so heavily freighted with mystery and symbolism. Consider the vocabulary: blood of our fathers; blood of Christ; the nation’s blood; lifeblood; blood brothers, blood sacrament, blood libel.…The history of blood involves not only medicine, but also culture and religion. It is a story of change — how a mysterious liquid became a global commodity and reflected the soul of each society that used it.

Channeling the women’s rights movement

Women were thought to be more sensitive and spiritual than men in the mid-19th century, so people weren't completely surprised to discover that spirits nearly always chose women to serve as "mediums" to convey their messages to the world of the living.

The medium was the central figure in the Spiritualist faith. Women didn't choose to be mediums -- the spirits chose them -- and they often found themselves doing things they wouldn't have believed women could or should do.Radical Spirits

Mediums not only channeled messages from the dead in small seances, but they also stood up in front of large groups and lectured. When they did so, they were in a trance. Nevertheless, some of these "trance speakers" became hugely successful on the lecture circuit, the historian Ann Braude writes in her book, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-Century America.

To close the loop on our discussion of the role Spiritualism played in preparing American women for a public role in American life, women had been making inroads in some religions, but had not served a primary role before Spiritualism, Braude writes. And religion went a long way toward setting the tone in 19th century life.

Spiritualism began to take shape in 1848, the very year, and in the very same area, the Finger Lakes region of New York State -- the so-called "Burned Over District" -- that gave birth to the organized women's rights movement.

"Dissident Quakers" were at the center of both of these radical movements, and considerable overlap ensued. Quaker women already enjoyed more freedom and prestige than women in other religions, but women who were or would become Spiritualists were so aggressive in pushing for a central role for women that they put off even some of their fellow feminists, Braude writes.

None of the women who put together the Seneca Falls Convention believed a woman should preside over such an assembly, for example. So James Mott, Lucretia Mott's husband, was pressed into service as president of the meeting that established the women's rights movement.

However, when the group met again in Rochester two weeks later, a faction of the women, most of whom later became Spiritualists -- notably Amy Post, Rhoda DeGarmo and Sarah Fish -- insisted that a woman should preside. Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton "stoutly opposed" the motion as "a most hazardous experiment." They wanted James to head this gathering as well.

The meeting was a contentious one, but in the end, Abigail Bush, a Presbyterian who would become a lifelong Spiritualist, was elected president. The world did not come to an end, and the idea of women as leaders took one step forward.

Thanks to my friend, the historian Rima Lunin Schultz, for putting together a list of books for me about how Americans' ideas about women took shape in the 19th century.

As Women's History Month winds down, you might want to visit Birth Activist's  "Women's History Blog Carnival" about "women who have led the way in birth."

The medium was the message

Elizabeth Blackwell was the first female doctor in the United States, but it’s her sister, Anna, I would like to consider today. Anna Blackwell was a Spiritualist; that is, she believed it was possible to communicate with the dead.

She wasn’t alone. Many prominent families, especially in the Northeast, contributed passionate believers to this native American religion. Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, had two siblings who were Spiritualists.

Today perhaps most people view Spiritualism as a hoax, but in the mid-19th century, when electricity was beginning to be harnessed and people realized there were things about their world they couldn’t see and didn’t understand, Spiritualism attracted a huge number of followers.

Spiritualism sprang to life in a small town near Rochester, N.Y., in 1848 after two sisters, Kate and Margaret Fox, 12 and 14 years old, claimed that the raps that only occurred in their presence were urgent messages from a dead man they said was buried in the basement of their house.

The Fox sisters

Margaret and Kate Fox with their sister Leah (left to right)

When the sisters moved into Rochester, they were taken up by an enthralled community of progressive people ready to move away from the grim outlook of traditional religions, and traumatized by the virtually universal untimely loss of children and other loved ones.

“The hunger for communion with the dead gave Spiritualism its content, transforming what may have been a teenage prank into a new religion,” writes Ann Braude, author of Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth Century America.

Many of these people discovered that they, too, could communicate with the dead. Virtually all these mediums were women, and even young girls. Spiritualism was not a particularly organized religion, but it did pick up a guiding philosophy from the Quakers, abolitionists and feminists who swelled its ranks.

One of the most important tenets of Spiritualism was gender equality. “Not all feminists were Spiritualists, but all Spiritualists advocated women’s rights,” Braude writes.

Documentation is scarce, but membership estimates range from a few hundred thousand to 11 million at a time when the United States population was 25 million, Braude reports.

What does Spiritualism have to do with the birth story? According to Braude’s book, this colorful native American religion played a major role in preparing women to occupy a role on the center stage of American life.

We’re going to explore that connection this week.

Anne Hutchinson, Colonial midwife

Anne Hutchinson, an early Boston, Mass., midwife, was a brilliant and original thinker and an ardent defender of the right of the individual to make up her own mind.

Anne Hutchinson

Anne Hutchinson depicted at her trial

Hutchinson and her family followed their minister, John Cotton, from Boston, England, in 1634. She was a prominent member of her Puritan community in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and a highly regarded midwife, who reportedly attended women in birth free of charge.

Religion was a major focus of her life, but Hutchinson claimed the right to forge her own relationship with God. She soon ran afoul of the Bay Colony's authoritarian leaders, and was charged with heresy.

Hutchinson's major claim to fame lies in the brilliance with which she defended herself in civil and ecclesiastical trials. At the time of her civil trial, presided over by Governor John Winthrop, she was 46 years old, the mother of 14, and pregnant. During the trial, the governor called her an "American Jezebel."

In 1638, Hutchinson was found guilty and sentenced to banishment to Rhode Island just four years after her arrival in the New World.

The leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were so shaken by the quality of both her theological and legal arguments that they determined to educate their religious and civil leaders to withstand future assaults on their authority. That determination became part of the mission of Harvard College, which had been founded in 1636.

After Anne's husband, William Hutchinson, died in 1642, she left Portsmouth, taking her youngest children to the area now known as the Bronx, N.Y., then held by the Dutch. The Hutchinsons unwittingly walked into a bloody altercation between the Dutch and Native Americans that became known as Kieft's War. In 1643 Hutchinson and several of her children were murdered by Indians.

When word of Hutchinson's death reached Boston, the church bells reportedly pealed for a full 24 hours with joy that God had finally taken retribution on this troublesome woman.

Illustration by Edwin Austin Abbey