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.

A woman’s voice

Women's History Month reminds us that women have had to fight not only for the right to vote, but also to own property, control our fertility, get an education, work outside the home, keep custody of our children, have violence toward us taken seriously, and even to say what's on our minds.

For me, this month presents an opportunity to take a closer look at some of the advances women have made, and at some of the women who were involved in our progress in one way or another.

Most of the women I am writing about are famous for something having to do with the birth experience, but their stories also relate to the development of a woman's voice -- that is, getting to the point where expressing ourselves and asking for what we need is a normal event.

On the road from Anne Hutchinson to the belligerent Susie Greene from HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," many women risked a great deal to make some part of the world safe for outspoken women.