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Three Sisters Who Showed The Way

July 2024
19min read

Elizabeth, Mary, and Sophia Peabody managed to extend the boundaries that cramped the lives of nineteenth-century women. Elizabeth introduced the kindergarten movement to America, Mary developed a new philosophy of mothering that we now take for granted, and Sophia was liberated from invalidism by her passionate love for her husband.

Other men,” Ralph Waldo Emerson told an admiring crowd in Boston’s Odeon Theater toward the end of 1845, “are lenses through which we read our own minds.” The eminent philosopher then went on to tell his audience of the importance in their lives of “Representative Men,” such as Plato, Shakespeare, Napoleon, and Goethe. “These men correct the delirium of the animal spirits, make us considerate, and engage us to new aims and powers,” Emerson concluded. “Thus we feed on genius....”

Emerson’s lecture series “Representative Men” became one of his most famous, for Emerson spoke directly to his listeners’ need for new models of action in the tumultuous decades before the Civil War. To this day his phrase “Representative Men” reverberates, reminding us not so much of the heroes Emerson identified in 1845 as of Emerson himself and the men he inspired during New England’s flowering: Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, and many more.

There were women, too, among Emerson’s listeners. In his audience, no doubt, was the forty-one-year-old Elizabeth Peabody, one of the few female members of Emerson’s elite Transcendental Club. She was the printer and publisher of his literary journal The Dial and the oldest of three sisters who could well be called the “Representative Women” of their time. Elizabeth’s thirty-nine-year-old sister, Mary, might also have been in Emerson’s audience that day, for she, too, attended his lectures whenever she could. Or perhaps she had stayed home that night, for three years earlier Mary had at last, after a long, secret courtship, married Horace Mann; now she was pregnant with their second child. Elizabeth’s youngest sister, the thirty-six-year-old Sophia, was a talented painter who had studied Emerson’s writings on nature and art and gratefully received his praise of her work. But she most likely never attended his lectures, because severe migraine headaches had confined her to bed through much of her young adulthood. Now the beautiful Sophia was a recovered invalid, married to Nathaniel Hawthorne and living in Salem while her husband served the apprenticeship at the customhouse that would lead to his writing The Scarlet Letter.


What must Elizabeth Peabody have thought, listening that day to the revered Emerson, whose only explicit reference to women was the offhand remark that women learn “by a wife arrives at the intellectual and moral elevations of her husband”? Those words probably rankled Peabody, who never married and who had proved herself every bit as able a scholar as Emerson. After all, more than twenty years before, young “Waldo” himself had told her when she came to him for private tutoring in Greek that she already knew as much as he did. Ever since then Elizabeth Peabody had been earning a living as a teacher, writer, and lecturer, exploiting her extensive knowledge of languages, literature, and history as best she could in a city that still forbade women entrance to its institutions of higher learning, both as students and as teachers. Whose genius could she “feed on”? What lessons could she learn from “Representative Men”?

Nonetheless, the same words that to a modern ear sound condescending were heard as compliments by most nineteenth-century women. When Emerson addressed a women’s rights convention in Boston, he joined the women in calling for female suffrage but based his support for the cause on a view of women as special creatures, very different from men. “Man is the will, and Woman the sentiment,” he told this audience. “More vulnerable, more infirm, more mortal than men...[women] lose themselves eagerly in the glory of their husbands and children....Women are, by this and their social influence, the civilizers of mankind.”

In 1855 this speech brought applause, not catcalls, from feminists. A new age for women was dawning, in which they might ask for voting rights but also take pride in their role as “civilizers” within the home. Elizabeth Peabody, with her hardwon career as a writer and educator; Mary Peabody Mann, with her joy in motherhood; Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, with her illness, her art, and her transfiguring love for her husband—each of the three Peabody sisters in her turn lived out a new pattern for womankind. Their lives can be the lenses through which we may read the minds of America’s women.

The American Revolution had brought a sense of heady freedom and exhilarating responsibility to American men; no other modern nation had promised its citizens self-rule. By the 1830s and 1840s men in the established urban centers of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia were already working toward a second revolution—one that was both social and personal. Reformers like Horace Mann, Samuel Gridley Howe, and others founded schools and hospitals for the blind, the deaf, the insane, and launched a great national campaign to improve public education. Crusaders for personal liberty like Emerson, Henry Thoreau, and the more radical Bronson Alcott and Orestes Brownson set up a cry for independence of mind and style of living such as had not been heard since the Pilgrims left Leiden for the New World. Their programs included communes, pacifism, pantheism, simplicity in dress and food, and, above all, self-examination.

But what of the women of the young Republic? By most standards, women were passed over by these waves of reform. Their husbands and sons and fathers had gained the vote. They had not. Even some rights that had been theirs under the old colonial governments, such as the right to represent themselves in court, were written out of the new legislation. Then, as industrialism gained momentum, women were left behind in the home as their men went out to work. How was a woman supposed to find time for self-examination now that she had full responsibility for rearing her children and running a household? How could she feel important when, despite her hard work, her husband’s was the voice that would be heard in all legal matters?

Yet history can never be fully told by simply tallying gains and losses. American women of the nineteenth century were pioneers in a domestic wilderness, and what mattered to them was their performing to the utmost a “civilizing” role for the men and children in their lives.

For Mary Peabody the first task was to find the right man. She and her sisters had grown up in what has been politely called genteel poverty. Both their parents had been schoolteachers when they married, and for as long as the Peabody girls could remember, they had lived in houses with one parlor set aside for a schoolroom. But Mrs. Peabody, the granddaughter of a wealthy Revolutionary War hero whose businesses had failed during the postwar years, had higher hopes for her husband. She urged him to become a doctor, and he trained for several years in the profession. But the young Dr. Peabody, the only member of an obscure rural branch of the famous New England clan “who stepped out of the furrow into a gentle profession,” preferred to experiment with the new science of dentistry. By some accounts, he spent more hours writing tracts on the care of teeth and testing herbal remedies than attending patients, and he was always willing to take time off to teach his older daughters Latin and Greek or lead them on nature walks. Mrs. Peabody continued as a main support of the family until her girls were grown.

The young Mary Peabody could not afford to bide her time attending cotillions and teas. Every bit as bright as her older sister, Mary moved to Boston in her late teens to teach in Elizabeth’s schools and was drawn along with Elizabeth into the highest intellectual and reform circles. It must have seemed to them that the most exciting men of their time were already married—William Ellery Channing, Alcott, Emerson. This didn’t stop Elizabeth from forming close platonic relationships with each of these men. Looking back on this phase in an article she wrote in the 1870s defending women’s right to higher education, Mary wrote sympathetically of the “noble army of unmarried women, who are often in the respectable ranks of ‘spinsterism’...out of self-respect....”

In their mid-twenties Elizabeth and Mary moved into a boardinghouse that ran on the combined intellectual wattage of some of the brightest minds of their day. At Mrs. Clarke’s the sisters met their landlady’s son, James Freeman Clarke, soon to become an outspoken Unitarian minister; the historian Jared Sparks, at work on The Writings of George Washington, which eventually would land him the president’s chair at Harvard; the up-and-coming lawyer-editor George Hillard; and the recently widowed politician Horace Mann.

Elizabeth asked Emerson to tutor her in Greek, he told her that she already knew as much as he did.

Both Peabody women were immediately attracted to the grieving thirty-six-year-old widower, whose young wife, Charlotte, had died of tuberculosis. Because he had been a married man, Elizabeth felt it proper to invite Mann to the sisters’ private parlor unchaperoned. In the name of sympathy she held his hand, combed his hair, massaged his forehead, and more than once allowed him to embrace her.

But it was Mary who finally won Mann’s heart, though the couple were not to marry for ten years. Mann was deeply in debt, having taken responsibility for a widowed sister’s large family and a ne’er-do-well brother’s business failures. But most important, he was too brokenhearted to think of starting a new family. Never certain of her beloved’s feelings until he proposed to her the month before their wedding, Mary survived those years believing “it is far better for the soul to live in an ideal union with a possible twin-soul than to enter marriage upon a low plane of thought or feeling.” For from the first time Mann smiled at her, Mary felt “here was life and something to do....It was to make that smile perpetual.”

Throughout that anxious decade Mary visited and corresponded with Mann, offering him her support in his new project—the reform of the Massachusetts common schools. This was no small offer, for as a teacher Mary had a good deal more experience with children than did Mann the statesman. Mary published at least one anonymous article defending Mann’s methods, and she began to write her own educational works for children and parents. The first of these, published in 1838, was called The Flower People, a collection of tales about a little girl named Mary who makes the acquaintance, one by one, of common garden plants. In these imaginary conversations with crocuses, violets, anemones, and geraniums, Mary Peabody was putting forth a radical educational view: that young children could be taught science through direct experience of the natural world. It would be nearly a century before John Dewey reached the same conclusion.

At last came the wedding, on May 1, 1843, a family affair with Mary and Horace’s old boardinghouse companion James Freeman Clarke officiating. The couple planned an extended European honeymoon with their friends the newlyweds Samuel Gridley Howe and Julia Ward Howe (the future suffragist and author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”). The couples’ itinerary featured prisons, reform schools, insane asylums, institutions for the blind and the deaf. In short, it was to be a working holiday on which Mary, with her knowledge of foreign languages, was to serve as interpreter.

Mary could only delight that at last she had a “legal right to comb his hair & hold his head.” She wrote to Elizabeth when she reached London that “Mr. M & I shut the door of the little dining room and sat down together alone for the first time & it seemed a little bit like a home feeling. The only evil in my lot thus far has been this being in public....What a pleasant season that will be...when we are at housekeeping!!!”

Her wish would soon come true, for while in Europe Mary became pregnant. As soon as possible after their return to New England, Mary and Horace built a house in West Newton, Massachusetts, that would be as progressive as the family that lived in it. The Manns installed one of the earliest central furnaces in the United States and a “bathing room with a pump, as hot as Tophet, and a water closet annexed, hotter still.” These newfangled conveniences were not just whimsy. After waiting so long for marriage, the couple faced parenthood with the burdens of demanding work and advanced age. Mary Mann was now nearly forty; her husband, almost fifty. They needed whatever comforts they could afford.

Among Horace Mann’s papers is a newspaper clipping claiming the scientific benefits of rearing children late in life. The offspring, it was supposed, would inherit the health and greater brainpower of its mature parents. Mary and Horace Mann believed in this kind of speculation, but they were also part of a trend familiar to our own day for couples to postpone marriage and bear fewer children. Mary’s mother had married at twenty-four and given birth to seven children; Mary married at thirty-six and reared only three.

In most other ways Mary’s life was not to be a common one. Her wish to remain out of public scrutiny was never realized. Horace Mann was destined to become first a controversial opponent of corporal punishment and sectarianism in public education, then an outspoken abolitionist in the U.S. Congress, and finally the first president of Antioch College, an innovative, fully coeducational institution.

Mary continued her quiet support of her husband at home and in daily letters when his work took him out of town. And she turned her considerable skills to educating her children at home. Some of her experiments backfired. When she and her husband tried speaking only in French to their youngest son, Benjey, in hope that he might become bilingual, the boy’s speech became a muddle, understandable only to his immediate family. But for the most part, Mary held out for common sense. When her husband’s schoolteacher sister pressed Mary to give the four-year-old Horace, Jr., lessons in geography, she calmly refused. “I have not quite made up my mind yet,” Mary wrote to her husband, “to confine his ideas of creation within small boundary lines.”

All this time Mary Mann was formulating a philosophy that she was to publish in her popular Christianity in the Kitchen: A Physiological Cookbook. It was the housewife’s duty, Mary believed, to educate herself in the latest scientific knowledge in order to keep her family healthy. Citing the research of the best men of science, she warned her readers against rich and fatty foods and advised moderation in spices and abstinence from alcohol. Some of her notions sound needlessly frugal or old-fashioned today. “Compounds, like wedding cake, suet plum-puddings, and rich turtle soup, are masses of indigestible material, which should never find their way to any Christian table,”she wrote. “It looks ominous to see a bridal party celebrating nuptials by taking poison.” Yet underlying these injunctions is the modern principle of preventive medicine. “A book of reckoning is kept for the offences of the stomach, as well as for those of the heart,” Mary Mann wrote. “If asked why I pronounce these and similar dishes unchristian, I answer, that health is one of the indispensable conditions of the highest morality and beneficence.” Her book was perhaps the first of many cookbooks combining an inspirational message with the latest scientific findings to be published during the second half of the nineteenth century as her brand of domestic feminism took hold. Fannie Farmer founded her cooking school with the same elevated goals.

Mary Mann and her readers were not radicals. They did not believe, as a few ambitious women like her older sister argued, that women should be permitted to leave the home to join men in the professions. Instead, their goal was to professionalize the home. This movement gave women a sense of power and achievement that compensated for their lack of political influence. Indeed, domestic feminism convinced many women that they were above politics. They were the “civilizers of mankind,” just as Emerson had said.


The youngest Peabody sister, Sophia, embodied another special female power that Emerson described. Ironically this power left Sophia an invalid for almost half her life. “Man is the will, and Woman the sentiment,” Emerson had said. As Sophia Peabody neared adulthood, sentiment became her enemy. She was a talented painter, but her sensitivity to beauty was so acute that she often felt too overwhelmed to record her responses on canvas. “My heart never moves to joy or grief without sending out a ministry of pain through all my nerves,” she wrote in a letter to Elizabeth. “This is so sure & fixed a law of my nature...[that] I should go to some far off turret & live in profound solitude—where the interests of humanity & the noise of matter could never reach me—Then I might paint perhaps—tho’ my members would even object to that—because it requires so much soul to paint.”

The result was disabling headaches that lasted days, and then weeks, keeping Sophia from the art she dearly loved. As she spent more time in bed, Sophia suffered lameness, heart palpitations, fevers, and dizziness.

Was Sophia’s illness psychosomatic, rooted in the conflict she must have felt as a female artist in a time when the only painters she knew were men who would rather paint her portrait than aid her career? Perhaps. Yet that was not the way Sophia saw it. As the years passed, she became convinced that suffering was to be her lot. Sophia and her many doctors shared the nineteenth-century view of the body as a closed system, with only so much energy to be expended during a lifetime. For a woman with so excitable an “organization” as Sophia’s, the constant monitoring of one’s feelings, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual (and the three became inseparable), was the only route to health. Paradoxically this preoccupation with self tended to perpetuate the disease.

Some historians have argued that in an era in which selflessness was required of most women as wives and mothers, invalidism was one of the few choices a high-spirited woman could make to preserve her independence of mind. For most it was a tragic choice. But like a growing number of women who later were termed “neurasthenics,” “hysterics,” or simply “bed cases,” Sophia made illness her career. She herself may not have known whether she preferred to be the artist or the work of art.

And that, most likely, is why she fell in love, at last, with Nathaniel Hawthorne, a man who revered her as both. Hawthorne was another of Elizabeth Peabody’s intellectual conquests. Elizabeth had read his early stories, reviewed them favorably, and finally sought out the author in the Salem house where he had lived with his widowed mother and two unmarried sisters for the decade since his graduation from Bowdoin College. Elizabeth invited Hawthorne and his sisters to tea, but on their first visit to the Peabody household, Sophia stayed upstairs in her room, sick with a headache. Elizabeth was so taken by the young writer’s looks, she ran upstairs in the middle of his call to report to Sophia: “You never saw anything so splendid as he is,—he is handsomer than Lord Byron!” Elizabeth had exclaimed. Hawthorne went home, his mind filled with images from the journals and sketchbooks by the unseen Sophia that her older sister had shown him.

Nathaniel Hawthorne called again, this time alone. Here was the way Elizabeth recorded the first meeting of the couple: “...she came down, in her simple white wrapper, and sat on the sofa. As I said ‘My sister, Sophia,’ he rose and looked at her intently,—he did not realize how intently. As we went on talking, she would frequently interpose a remark, in her low, sweet voice. Every time she did so, he would look at her again, with the same piercing, indrawing gaze. I was struck with it, and thought, ‘What if he should fall in love with her!’ and the thought troubled me; for she had often told me that nothing would ever tempt her to marry, and inflict on a husband the care of an invalid.”

A more crucial encounter, for Sophia at least, came not long after, when she showed Nathaniel a drawing she had made of a character from his story “The Gentle Boy.” She asked him, Elizabeth recalled, “‘if this looks like your Ilbrahim.’ He sat down and looked at it and then looked up and said, ‘He will never look otherwise to me.’”

“She is a flower to be worn in no man’s bosom,” Nathaniel told Elizabeth a year later, “but was lent from Heaven to show the possibilities of the human soul.” Soon Sophia and Nathaniel were taking walks together, and Sophia’s strength gradually returned. Privately the couple began to hope that Sophia would one day be well enough to marry. But like her sister Mary’s romance, Sophia’s, too, would be a long, secret courtship. Hawthorne’s mother and sisters opposed any marriage, fearing that family life would prevent him from pursuing his career as a novelist. Indeed, Nathaniel himself worried that he earned too little from his writing to support Sophia. He took a job in the Boston customhouse; then he joined the Transcendentalists’ commune, Brook Farm. With each experiment he hoped to put aside enough savings to set up housekeeping with the woman to whom he was now writing almost daily as “Mine own Dove,” “Infinitely Belovedest,” “Blessedest wife” and signing himself “Your ownest Husband.”

By 1842, after four years of courtship, the couple could wait no longer. They scheduled a June wedding, and Hawthorne rented for their new home the vacant Emerson family house in Concord, which he soon dubbed “The Old Manse.” Then Sophia fell sick with a fever that lasted several weeks. Was she having second thoughts about making such a radical change in her thirty-third year? But by July she was better, her pulse elevated on her wedding day, the doctor said, only by the excitement. After a short service in the Peabody parlor, the Hawthorne women conspicuously absent, Sophia and Nathaniel rode by carriage to Concord.

Mary put forth a radical educational view: very young children could learn science by observing the natural world.
After her long-delayed wedding, Sophia wrote her mother: “It seemed miraculous that I was so well.”

The next day she wrote to her mother that “every step the horses took, I felt better and not the least tired. My husband looked upon me as upon a mirage which would suddenly disappear. It seemed miraculous that I was so well.”

Concord was, to the newlyweds, an Eden in which they played Adam and Eve. Sophia set up her studio on the first floor; Hawthorne, his study on the second. The two took long walks through the meadows and forests gathering wild flowers, and they bought a rowboat from their neighbor Thoreau for outings on the lazy Concord River. But Sophia would never again paint as much as she had before the marriage. Love, not art, had replaced her illness. And for Sophia love was more than enough. To the new Mrs. Hawthorne the world seemed a different place. By the next spring she was recording in her journal: “I feel new as the Earth which is just born again. I rejoice that I am, because I am his, wholly, unreservedly his. Therefore is my life beautiful & gracious. Therefore is the world pleasant as roses.”

Like Mary, Sophia bore three children and educated them at home. But for Sophia the love that restored her to health remained the center of her life. When she thought about herself and her sisters now, it was in these terms. At the time of Mary’s marriage, she wrote in her journal: “Now Mary has shot into her orbit, having found the other half of her globe.”

And what of Elizabeth Peabody? Was she less happy than her married sisters? Rumors circulated for years after the weddings that Elizabeth, because of her close attachments to both Horace Mann and Nathaniel Hawthorne, had been engaged to each man but then been thrown over in favor of her more conventionally feminine sisters. Had she been jilted?

Most likely Elizabeth simply preferred not to marry. She had left home at eighteen to become a teacher, partly out of ambition for herself but mostly to help support her large family. In her late thirties, while both her sisters were forming secret attachments to their future husbands, Elizabeth was still thinking of her parents and younger siblings. She rented a town house in Boston where she could set up a bookstore and a small publishing firm, and she brought the family together again under one roof for the four years before Mary and Sophia went off to start their own families.

But there was more to Elizabeth’s romantic hesitancy than the burdens of an oldest child. Elizabeth Peabody had a brilliant mind and an outspoken personality. In nineteenth-century New England, where learned women were admired but still expected to appear, in Emerson’s terms, “more vulnerable, more infirm, more mortal than men,” Elizabeth’s habit of intellectual disputation made her first attractive and then repellent to both men and women. During the years in which she might have married, the outgoing Elizabeth, fully aware of what other people saw as her faults, often felt inwardly depressed and uncertain. She begged Horace Mann to tell her if “he thought that thro’ earnestness—enthusiasm—or any other innocent cause even—I was ever betrayed into an overbearing—intrusive—masculine manner—.” He answered no. But like all the others, after a brief infatuation, he drew back from Elizabeth.

In a letter to Mary written during this time, Elizabeth expressed an equally avid desire to live alone. “You can have solitude in society,” she wrote to Mary, with whom she had always shared her rented rooms, “because reserve is a part of your character—I cannot for I must communicate wherever there is a human being presented to my senses....I have always felt this, but I feared it would not be understood and so have done violence to my nature. I felt from the time [we moved to Boston] that a chamber to myself would have been a greater blessing than anything else.”

It wasn’t until Elizabeth was well beyond her childbearing years that she resolved these conflicts and settled into what she called her life’s work: the education of young children. During the years just following the Civil War, when Elizabeth was in her sixties, she revived a series of historical lectures she had given in her youth and found in the new atmosphere of political self-analysis an extremely receptive audience. But more important than the lectures were the fees Peabody earned, which allowed her to travel to Europe to study the innovative German kindergartens begun by a man named Friedrich Froebel. This, Elizabeth later wrote, was “the ‘wandering year,’ closing my apprenticeship to life, and from which I returned enriched with the knowledge of Froebel’s method of Education, to the diffusion of which in this country I have devoted the last fifteen years of my life.”


The schools that Peabody started in Boston and then promoted across America operated on the principle that “children should be led to discover everything...when their minds are in the ease of spontaneous play!” Peabody’s kindergartens were run by young women who trained both mothers and children in the art of creative play. Passing on such learning was a way for Elizabeth to have a profession and feel satisfied with her womanhood. At last she abandoned competition in the male world of ideas and joined the ranks of the domestic feminists, who would, as she had so long hoped, “love and value me for what I am.” It was a decision that carried her influence into the twentieth century as America’s young modernists (chief among them Frank Lloyd Wright, whose unique design sense has been traced by one biographer to the years he spent piling up special blocks in a Froebel school) were educated through guided play.

This is not to say she had accomplished little in her youth. Elizabeth Peabody was always a dynamo. In her thirties and forties she wrote, translated, and printed dozens of books on education, history, and literature; she founded two magazines and published in one of them Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.” During the Civil War years she campaigned for abolition, twice visiting President Lincoln to urge emancipation for the slaves. But these efforts were scattered and rarely effective. It took the emergence of a women’s culture, the same audience that eagerly received Mary Mann’s physiological cookbook, to give Elizabeth’s voice the strength it needed to carry beyond the parlors of polite Boston society. At last Peabody earned the respect that should have been hers much earlier in life. By the 1880s Henry James could memorialize her in a half-mocking, half-admiring portrait in The Bostonians. There, as Miss Birdseye, she was “one of our celebrities....The woman in the world...who has laboured most for every wise reform.”

Today we might say that Elizabeth Peabody claimed too much for her preschool movement, which she was convinced would transform the world into a utopia of love and thought. But we have only to look around us to see that every American child now attends a kindergarten and that built into our American character is her belief in “self-direction.”

Elizabeth Peabody, who died in 1894, and her sisters Mary and Sophia, who died in 1887 and 1871, respectively, certainly never imagined the world we live in now. But through their lives we see that the ambitions and conflicts of women today are not so very different from those of the “Representative Women” of the past. For Elizabeth there was the conflict between achievement and womanliness; for Sophia, the choice between becoming an artist or playing the muse; and for Mary, the challenge to win respect for women’s rights and duties. Although it took many years for each sister to resolve those issues to her own satisfaction, they (and women like them in those pre-women’s suffrage days) found many not-so-subtle ways to exert their influence, an influence that most men recognized. As Mary Peabody wrote in one of her earliest letters to Horace Mann, “I think women ought to be the politicians of the world, for, begging pardon of such a famous legislator as yourself, I think they would infuse some morality into the governments of men which seem[s] to be the last thing thought of now.” And when she added, “You know I consider you a woman in those & all other good matters,” she was only partly joking. Horace Mann, or for that matter any one of those “Representative Men” of her day, would have received Mary’s words as a compliment.


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