Charlotte Beebe Wilbour

Charlotte Beebe Wilbour

1833 – 1914

Essay by Steven Lubar, PhD

Exhibit Text from 2020 Special Exhibition

Charlotte Beebe Wilbour. B.F. Wilbour Scrapbook, LCHS Collection.

Essay by Steven Lubar, PhD

Charlotte Beebe was born December 25, 1833, in East Hartford, Connecticut, daughter of Springfield, Massachusetts Methodist Episcopal clergyman Reverend Lucinda and Edmund M. Beebe.[1] She was educated at Wilbraham Academy, in Massachusetts,[2] and immediately joined the ranks of feminists and reformers; she’s listed, in 1852, as one of the women that Elizabeth Cady Stanton persuaded to wear bloomers, “the freedom dress.”[3] She would remain an activist her entire life.

In her early twenties, Beebe became a Progressive Friend, and then Spiritualist, part of a movement of Quakers looking for a new spirituality. In 1857 Beebe was secretary of the Michigan Yearly Meeting of the Friends of Human Progress, a radical Quaker offshoot. She began a long public career that combined feminism, spirituality, and politics first as a medium, and then as a popular “trance speaker,” addressing public audiences on topics of religion and politics, including abolition. A flavor comes from the title of one of her talks: “Unity and Diversity of all things in the Universe,—especially of religions, and of all movements for the amelioration of the condition of the Race.”  (Trance speakers claimed the right to speak in public – denied to most women— because they wrote or delivered their lectures in a trance. Beebe wrote her lectures in trance and delivered them in conscious state.)[4] Beebe also had a permanent position as a lecturer on these topics, in Milwaukee.”[5] She later published some of these lectures in Soul to Soul: Lectures and Addresses Delivered by Charlotte Beebe Wilbour During the Years 1856-1858.[6]

In the late 1850s, Beebe returned to Connecticut and taught in a primary school in New London.[7] She married Charles Edwin Wilbour on 18 January 1858. Wilbour, born in Little Compton Rhode Island, in 1833 (and a long-time summer resident; Charlotte summered there with him in 1858, when their daughter Evangeline was born, and for many years after), was a reporter, writer, and law student in New York City, admitted to the bar in 1859. In the early 1860s he translated Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (1862–1863) and other French works. He came to own a major paper manufacturer, and became closely involved with Mayor William Tweed as a city contractor.

Charlotte Beebe Wilbour continued her political work in New York. She was a colleague of Susan B. Anthony in the fight for abolition and for women’s right to vote, and helped organize Susan B. Anthony’s fiftieth birthday party in 1870.[8] In 1872 she addressed the Judiciary Committee of the New York State Assembly on the topic of “Why we ask the ballot.”[9] She also continued her spiritual work, sometimes combining it with her politics. In 1874 she addressed the Assembly of Spiritualists, arguing that the public speaking platform was “the people’s arena,” a democratic alternative to the pulpit. The pulpit “may seem fit for the solitary despot whose empire it has sometimes served.” But on the platform, “Virtue is the only strength—Reason the only test—and Spiritual Power the only exaltation.”[10]

Wilbour was one of the founders of the Sorosis Club, the first professional women’s club in America, in 1868. She founded it, according to one biography, because women were excluded from the New York Press Club dinner for Charles Dickens.[11] She became president in 1870 and served until 1875, and was again president from 1903 to 1907.

A few years later, she played a key role in organizing the Association for the Advancement of Women, 1873. This was an offshoot of Sorosis, focused on issues of higher education and practical subjects relating to the welfare of women. It was an organization, its founding letter suggested, where these topics “might be offered, discussed and acted upon, and that mutual counsel and help might be rendered.”[12]

With the fall of the corrupt Tweed Ring, the Wilbours left the country, moving in 1874 to France. Charles remade himself as a pioneering Egyptologist. While Charles concerned himself with the ancient Egyptian past, Charlotte considered more contemporary issues. In her 1877 Of Egyptian women she offered a thoughtful sociological study of contemporary Egyptian women based on her visits there, from a feminist and suffragist point of view. Egyptian women, she wrote, are held back by their religion and also by British imperial law. Much of the book blame Islam for the weaknesses of Egyptian women, but Wilbour found promise in one group: “But the slave women from the Soudan and Abyssinia are the live, industrial female power of Upper Egypt. Their strong, Well-shapen bodies and amiable intelligence, promise a coming race that may equal the Memlooks [Mamalukes, former slaves who once been the non-Muslim rules of Egypt] in daring.” [13]

After Charles’s death in 1896 Charlotte returned to the United States. She continued her radical politics and religion, serving on the committee of The Women’s Bible In the 1890s, a project by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and a committee of twenty-six women to challenge traditional religious orthodoxy.

Charlotte Beebe Wilbour died 25 December, 1914, and was buried in the New Wilbour cemetery in Little Compton, Rhode Island. Her body was later moved to Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City. Her daughter, Theodora Wilbour, began a series of anonymous gifts of English silver to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in honor of her mother in 1933.[14]

Steven Lubar, PhD, Vice President Little Compton Historical Society

April 26, 2020

Exhibit Text from 2020 Special Exhibition

Charlotte Beebe Wilbour enjoyed a career as a public speaker when that right was denied to most women. Because Charlotte was a Spiritualist and wrote her speeches in a trance, it was acceptable for her to address public audiences on religion and politics, including abolition and the rights of women. Charlotte was an early suffragist and colleague of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

Charlotte married Charles Edwin Wilbour, a Little Compton man, in 1858 and had four children. Charles amassed a small fortune working for Boss Tweed in New York, while Charlotte co-founded the Sorosis Club, the first woman’s club devoted to intellectual pursuits. Newspapers mocked her efforts.

When Charles fled New York to avoid arrest, Charlotte and the children followed him to Paris and later Egypt. Charlotte studied and wrote about the lives of Egyptian women. After an eight-year absence, the Wilbours began to return to Little Compton in the summers. Charlotte hosted lawn parties in support of Women’s Suffrage where she served pink cakes and raspberry shrub. Her activism and scholarship continued throughout her life.

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[1] Whitehill, Walter Muir, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; a centennial history, v.2. , p. 559. On Beebe, see Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, Volume 11, p. 405; minutes of the annual conferences of the methodist episcopal church, New England Conference, 1845, p. 616. Lucinda listed in Hale Collection.

[2] The New international year book (New York, Dodd and Meade, 1915), p. 788

[3] History of woman suffrage. Ed. by Elizabeth Cady … v.1. Stanton, Elizabeth Cady,  p. 844. Fischer, Gayle V. Pantaloons And Power: Nineteenth-century Dress Reform In the United States. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2001, p. 94.

[4] Ann Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-century America,  Indiana University Press, 2001), pp. 65-66

[5] Braude, p. 92

[7] The Repository (New London), Oct. 12, 1859, p. 266.

[8]   (Eighty years and more (1815-1897) : reminiscences of Elizabeth … Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, 1815-1902.) p. 173

[10] “Charlotte B. Wilbour, “An Address, delivered on the Twenty-sixth Anniversary Exercises, before the Assembly of Spiritualists, convened at Robinson Hall, New York city, March 31, 1874. – in Brittan’s Quarterly Journal, p. 224. Quoted in Broude, Radical Spirits, p. 66.

[11] The New international year book, New York, Dodd and Meade, 1915, p. 788

[12] Association for the Advancement of Women 1877, p. 121-.

[14]  Whitehill, Walter Muir, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; a centennial history, v.2. 560-61; Hipkiss, Edwin J. “The Charlotte Beebe Wilbour Collection of English Silver.” Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts 31, no. 184 (1933): 25-30. Accessed April 26, 2020.

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