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Katzenhaus Books

Where We Tell the Stories behind the History


A Woman Who Refused to "Fit In"

Posted on June 4, 2014 at 3:38 PM
When I first began top read about the Gideonites and their mission to bring education, religion, and medical care to the slaves of South Carolina, I did not focus on any one individual.  In fact, I saw the group as a whole and assumed they acted with a single purpose.  Eventually I ran up against clear evidence that a great deal of infighting was going on and I realized that these people had varied interests. Their diversity, however, made them hard to deal with.  I needed a strong character as the focus of my research.  There were many candidates, but eventually I chose to tell the story of Laura Towne.  Why? Because she was a misfit.

As the middle child in a family of seven, she received little attention growing up.  She was too young to accept responsibility but too old to be “taken care of.” That role seemed to carry over into her adult life, as her siblings alternated between lecturing her about her weaknesses and relying on her strengths – and resenting both.
She grew up in an era of evangelical religious fervor, but her family attended the Unitarian Church, which valued restraint and logic  rather than passion.  That alone made her stand out in the normal day-to-day life of Philadelphia, but Laura’s own value system brought her additional attention when she became strongly attracted to the abolitionist cause. 

Abolitionists were never popular.  Her association with them did nothing to help Laura’s  own isolation.
Girls of the  upper and middle classes were expected to become happily married wives and mothers, interested above all in taking care of their families. Laura hated the very thought.  She was distantly fond of children, so long as after a while their parents whisked them away.  She did not dislike men but could not imagine ever being subservient and obedient to one of them.  Courtship did not interest Laura, nor did the socially accepted feminine charms by which a lady was expected to attract a suitable husband.  Laura gratefully accepted spinsterhood as the better alternative.
Education beyond the rudiments was usually deemed unnecessary for a girl. But books wooed Laura with an attraction that a man could never have provided.  Laura longed tor scientific knowledge and dreamed of becoming a doctor. She enrolled in one of the very first medical schools for women but rebelled when she discovered that she could only read the texts.  Clinical experience was closed to her because society believed it was improper for a woman to see a man’s body. That limitation sent Laura off on yet another tangent, exploring the strange world of homeopathic medicine because traditional medical studies were beyond her reach.
So there she was – an abolitionist spinster who practiced the mysterious rituals of homeopathic medicine. She chose to travel to an unknown part of the country in the company of  an equally unknown group of people  rather than to stay close to her family. She chose another woman as her lifelong companion and settled down at last with a house full of adopted black children. Fascinating.  Her story cried out to be told.

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