Harriet Livermore is Local "Shero"
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With laser-beam eyes she
From Cinderella to Tomb Raider Lara Croft, the redefinition of the American heroine goes on. A couple of years ago the National Organization for Women (NOW) asked its members to suggest key characteristics of a "shero" or female hero. The problem, of course, is buried deep in the English language that implies heroism requires an overdose of testosterone. Female heroes, according to Hollywood, are buffed, large-breasted copies of their male counterparts. They too ride fast motorcycles, shoot Uzis and karate chop their enemies to pieces.
But NOW members suggested that "sheroes" and "heroes" are essentially the same thing. A hero, male or female, is courageous, strong-willed, purposeful, individualistic and endowed with an unshakable moral compass. A hero knows right from wrong and acts accordingly against all odds.
In local history, where we have so few documented female characters to work with, we often promote legendary women to heroic status. Goodwife Cole, New Hampshire's only convicted witch, is a fascinating historic figure, but more victim than hero. Maren Hontvet, sole survivor of the 1873 Smuttynose Murders lived through an unspeakably horrible winter night, against all odss, but motivated only by self-preservation. Ocean Born Mary, also profiled in this column, reportedly had heroic qualities, but her fame derives from an event that took place just as she was born, and in which she had no real role.
Marilla Ricker fits the definition better. An ardent suffragist, Ricker attempted to cast her vote in Dover every year for 50 years. She became New Hampshire's first female lawyer, tackled complex case law, and ran for governor even though women were unable to vote. Because she had enough inherited money to live comfortably, she charged her clients no fees.
But today the nomination for New Hampshire hero goes to Harriet Livermore (1788-1868). Few Seacoast figures have experienced a more amazing life, though her story is largely unknown. Born into one of New Hampshire's powerful families, Livermore gave up wealth and status to become an itinerant preacher in an age when upper class women were seen, but seldom heard, in public. Casting aside fineries, she traveled the world more than many sea captains and lived a harsher life. Her moral compass never wavered. Her mission was to rid the world of the encroaching evil she saw all around her in the middle 1800s.
This self-confessed "pilgrim stranger" began her days as a New Hampshire socialite. Her grandfather Samuel Livermore married Jane Browne, daughter of the prestigious Portsmouth minister Arthur Browne during the peak of the city's British rule. Yet Sam Livermore managed to adapt from a King's Attorney to a trusted Congressman and Senator after the Revolution. Harriet's father too served in the fledgling United States Congress, but his wife died when his daughter was just five. Harriet was all but abandoned to nursemaids and private finishing schools.
Harriet Livermore almost led a normal life. While at nearby Atkinson Academy, she met the man of her dreams, but both families opposed the union. When her one love died years later in the War of 1812, Harriet resolved to become a preacher. Her three cousins were clerics, but the calling was not proper work for a woman. And besides, she was considered too attractive, too wealthy and too intelligent to throw away her life simply to pursue a vocation.
Casting about for a doctrine she could believe in, Harriet embraced the apocalyptic Adventist vision. The Judgement Day was rapidly approaching, she warned, the Second Coming of Christ was nigh. She began writing books, traded her aristocratic clothing for homespun, and separated from her aristocratic family. In a gesture of religious transformation, she cut off three feet of dark silky tresses and thereafter appeared with close cropped hair. This severe look confounded and yet captivated listeners as she preached of doomsday and atonement in homes, in schools, on docks and street corners - anywhere people would listen.
It's easy with our 21st century secular snobbery, to write off Harriet as a nut case, a deluded evangelist wandering the streets shouting "The End is Near!" In fact, Harriet Livermore is increasingly recognized as a striking example of what was a much larger movement of women preachers than standard history admits. Textbooks tend to smooth out the rough edges of history, but real life is messy. Marilla Ricker sought justice for women in the courts, but a half century earlier that option was not yet open to Harriet, who took her battle to the church.
Remarkably for her time, Livermore was invited to lead the all-male US Congress in prayer on four occasions under four presidents. This was a time when church and state were tightly aligned and church services were held inside the House of Representatives. Livermore warned Washington Beltway leaders of the pending Apocalypse in a fire and brimstone address that lasted well over an hour and reportedly moved a number of the assembled politicians to tears.
Livermore became a strong advocate of Indian rights in an era of Westward expansion when Native Americans were being confined to reservations or slaughtered in war by the American government. She came to believe the beleaguered people were the famed lost tribe of Israel. She intended to transport them back to the Holy Land and, as always, expressed her opinions openly. Fearing her tendency to treat Indians with equality, even reverence, the Bureau of Indian Affairs ejected Livermore from the Kansas territory during her missionary work there.
She traveled, often alone, to the Holy Land of Jerusalem five separate times, relying on the kindness of strangers and on a slim income from her writing and her sponsors. She refused funds from her own wealthy family. Finally, at the age of 80, having suffered unrelenting discrimination, misunderstood and impoverished, she died in an alms house in Philadelphia.
Americans tend to confuse heroes with good guys in white hats. Winning one for the Gipper is what matters, no matter how high the body count. But courage isn't found only in foxholes or on a deserted main street at high noon. This writer would trade every movie character Arnold Schwartznegger or Clint Eastwood ever played for one Harriet Livermore. She never hurt a fly, but she sure scared the pants off a lot of people. By her very outspokenness, she made people from her era think "outside the box."
We might not know about Harriet Livermore today if she hadn't frightened a Quaker boy in Amesbury, Massachusetts one snowy winter night in the mid 19th century. The boy, John Greenleaf Whittier, grew up to be the nation's best-loved poet. He recalled his encounter with Harriet in his most popular poem, "Snow-Bound". She is "the not unfeared, half-welcome guest' who arrives in the midst of the snowstorm. The poet makes note of her legendary temper, her lustrous eyes and "unbent will's majestic pride". When Livermore first read Whittier's description of her decades later, legend says, she threw a copy of "Snow-Bound" across the room.
Whittier both feared and admired this independent and outspoken woman, who he saw as more mad, than prophetic. In "Snow-Bound" he struggles to paint a word picture of her, but is confused by her unfamiliar blend of fervor, pride, sexuality and asceticism. It is an unknown cocktail for Whittier, who spent his life as a bachelor surrounded by women, but by women who like his sister Eliza and poet Celia Thaxter, dressed and behaved properly. He describes Harriet in part:
And under low brows, black with night,What would Whittier have said about video game action hero Laura Croft, Charlie's Angels, Wonder Wonan, Xena or the sword-weilding tree-swinging young female protagonist in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"? Harriet Livermore certainly would have condemned every one. She was not a feminist, after all, but an evangelist. She did not believe even in the equality of the sexes, but in the omnipotence of an all-male Trinity. Still she wrote in one of her books of a day when women would be "clothed in the sun, and walk on the moon."
With her laser-beam gaze and rapid-fire words, shielded only by faith, Harriet Livermore leap-frogged around the globe saving souls. That puts her, by definition, on a one-way path to superhero status. But unlike all her motion picture sisters, New Hampshire's Harriet Livermore was real.
WHITTIER? See "The Devliish Fall of General Moulton"
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