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The Agitators

Three Friends Who Fought for Abolition and Women's Rights

From the intimate perspective of three friends and neighbors in mid-nineteenth century Auburn, New York—the “agitators” of the title—acclaimed author Dorothy Wickenden tells the fascinating and crucially American stories of abolition, the Underground Railroad, the early women’s rights movement, and the Civil War.

Harriet Tubman—no-nonsense, funny, uncannily prescient, and strategically brilliant—was one of the most important conductors on the underground railroad and hid the enslaved men, women and children she rescued in the basement kitchens of Martha Wright, Quaker mother of seven, and Frances Seward, wife of Governor, then Senator, then Secretary of State William H. Seward.

Harriet worked for the Union Army in South Carolina as a nurse and spy, and took part in a river raid in which 750 enslaved people were freed from rice plantations. Martha, a “dangerous woman” in the eyes of her neighbors and a harsh critic of Lincoln’s policy on slavery, organized women’s rights and abolitionist conventions with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Frances gave freedom seekers money and referrals and aided in their education. The most conventional of the three friends, she hid her radicalism in public; behind the scenes, she argued strenuously with her husband about the urgency of immediate abolition.

Many of the most prominent figures in the history books—Lincoln, Seward, Daniel Webster, Frederick Douglass, Charles Sumner, John Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Lloyd Garrison—are seen through the discerning eyes of the protagonists. So are the most explosive political debates: about women’s roles and rights during the abolition crusade, emancipation, and the arming of Black troops; and about the true meaning of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Beginning two decades before the Civil War, when Harriet Tubman was still enslaved and Martha and Frances were young women bound by law and tradition, The Agitators ends two decades after the war, in a radically changed United States. Wickenden brings this extraordinary period of our history to life through the richly detailed letters her characters wrote several times a week. Like Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals and David McCullough’s John Adams, Wickenden’s The Agitators is revelatory, riveting, and profoundly relevant to our own time.

This reading group guide for The Agitators includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

Dorothy Wickenden, the New York Times bestselling author of Nothing Daunted, once again brings historical figures vividly to life in The Agitators, a riveting dive into the lives of three unlikely collaborators in the quest for abolition and women’s rights. By taking readers through the lives of these women—Harriet Tubman, Frances Seward, and Martha Wright—Wickenden offers an unusual and highly intimate perspective on the classic American stories of abolition, the underground railroad, women’s rights activism, and the Civil War.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Discuss the book’s epigraph. How does this quote prepare you for the text? In what way does it resonate with current events?

2. The prologue and epilogue bookend the text with vivid descriptions of Fort Hill Cemetery today. What is the value of beginning and ending the book in this way? What effect does this have on your reading experience?

3. The first three chapters establish the very different backgrounds of Martha, Frances, and Harriet and the time in which they lived. What is your sense of their personalities and how they changed over time?

4. In chapter 4, Frances’s husband, Henry, makes the extraordinarily controversial decision to defend William Freeman, the twenty-three-year-old Black man who confessed to murdering four members of a white family. This is one of the first uses of the insanity defense, which is based on the belief that a person who is unable to distinguish right from wrong should not be criminally charged because they cannot take moral responsibility for their crime. Henry’s father-in-law, a county judge, thought his defense of Freeman would end his political career. Why was Frances so supportive of his choice?

5. In chapter 5, Martha overhears a party guest calling her “a very dangerous woman” because of her social activism and her friendship with Frederick Douglass. Consider what it meant to be a “dangerous woman” in Martha’s time and place. Who, or what, is being threatened by Martha’s behavior? Is there a modern-day equivalent of the term “dangerous woman?”

6. Discuss these two quotes from chapter 13 and how they have “aged” since their initial utterance: “The United States government ‘was made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever.’” —Senator Stephen A. Douglas. “I know, and you know, that a revolution has begun. I know, and all the world knows, that revolutions never go backward.” —Senator William Henry Seward

7. Each of these women was bold, principled, and intent on changing the world. They express their idealism in different ways. Discuss the avenues and methods each used to try and affect change.

8. At the end of chapter 13, Henry and the British intellectual Harriet Martineau discuss slavery, “the great American question.” What might you consider today’s “great American question”?

9. Harriet Tubman and her companions felt guided by their religious faith in pursuit of their activism, as did many reformers of the time, which often aided the progress of their causes. How was the political expression of evangelical thought different from how it is manifested today?

10. Harriet was an extraordinary orator and storyteller who, as the author says in chapter 15, knew how to play to “her audiences’ enthusiasm for hair-raising first-person accounts of slavery and escape.” What role does storytelling play throughout the book and in activism?

11. Throughout the book, we see Martha’s roles as activist and mother intersect. In chapter 14, “Martha Leads,” we see this manifest in conflict with her daughter Ellen, who, according to the author, was “overwhelmed by self-doubt” and, “to Martha’s dismay,” was “more interested in her succession of suitors than in her studies.” How does Martha’s career as an activist seem to affect her daughter’s development? What do you think of Martha’s early reservations about becoming a leader and her own doubts about her capabilities? Do you see this conflict present in modern-day mother-daughter relationships?

12. Discuss the interplay of women’s rights and anti-slavery activism throughout the book. The abolitionist and women’s rights movement were aligned through much of the mid-nineteenth century. The movement split in the late 1860s over priorities—some women insisting that the fight for Black male suffrage take precedence over the fight for women’s rights, while Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony broke away to fight solely for the women’s vote. In what ways have the conflicts of this period extended to our own?

13. Think about the husbands of Martha, Frances, and Harriet. How did they help or hinder their wives in their sociopolitical goals? What impact did these relationships have on the women in their decision-making processes? How did the women shape the thinking and actions of their husbands?

14. Reflect on the Henry’s long anti-slavery career, the battle between Frances and Henry in the early 1860s about immediate emancipation, and the ultimate assassination attempt on Henry and two of their sons. Martha blames Henry for Frances’s unhappiness and, the author writes, finds him “hungrier for power than for principle.” What is your final assessment of Henry and of the difficulties of their marriage?

15. Letters, photos, and portraits appear throughout the book as chapter and section openers. What do these add to your reading experience? How does it feel to have faces and handwriting to put to these historical figures?

16. Consider the impact that the actions of the activists in the book may have had directly on your own life. Can you conjure an example of how their efforts in the movements benefited you personally?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Check the National Register of Historic Places for historical sites near you. See what you can learn about your local history!

2. Correspond with your friends through handwritten letters about the book. This way, you might get a sense of what it was like to hold passionate discussions through snail mail as the women in the text did.

3. Brainstorm ways you might contribute to social activism today. Research causes that you are passionate about and take inspiration from Martha, Frances, and Harriet. Is there a local group you can participate in or online resources available in your area?
Photograph © Jayme Grodi

Dorothy Wickenden is the author of Nothing Daunted and The Agitators, and has been the executive editor of The New Yorker since January 1996. She also writes for the magazine and is the moderator of its weekly podcast The Political Scene. A former Nieman Fellow at Harvard, Wickenden was national affairs editor at Newsweek from 1993-1995, and before that was the longtime executive editor at The New Republic. She lives with her husband in Westchester, New York.

Praise for The Agitators

"New Yorker executive editor Wickenden brings three fascinating women to life in rich, humanizing detail ... Wickenden pulls this history out of the dry dustiness of fact and adds color and warmth to its retelling. The women of our shared past deserve more treatments like this."
Booklist

"New Yorker executive editor Wickenden (Nothing Daunted) expertly weaves together the biographies of “co-conspirators and intimate friends” Harriet Tubman, Martha Wright, and Frances Seward in this novelistic history... Through extensive research and fluid writing, Wickenden rescues Wright and Seward from obscurity and provides a new perspective on Tubman’s life and work. This is an essential addition to the history of American progressivism."
Publisher's Weekly, starred review

“An original portrait of three original women who muscled aside expectations, obligations, and neighborhood gossip for the sake of their consciences.  Dorothy Wickenden not only resurrects these unlikely agitators but plunges us deep into their volatile world, with a supporting cast that includes Julia Ward Howe, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Abraham Lincoln.  This is rich and rousing history, crisply and intimately rendered, its moral collisions vivid and vital on the page.“
—Stacy Schiff, author of Cleopatra and The Witches

“The Agitators tells the story of America before the Civil War through the lives of three women who advocated for the abolition of slavery and women’s rights as the country split apart. Harriet Tubman, Martha Coffin Wright and Frances A. Seward are the examples we need right now—another time of divisiveness and dissension over our nation’s purpose ‘to form a more perfect union.’” 
—Hillary Clinton

"This is an extraordinary peek into the lives of three women who courageously pushed past the tight worlds that confined them to create the bones and muscle of the freedom movements that we now know. That they walked in a land of giants – Lincoln, Lee, John Brown – is no surprise. That they knew one another, were giants themselves, and accorded second class status is no surprise either. The treat is the refreshing decency, skillful ease, and extraordinary skill with which their stories are intertwined, showing how each pressed against the seams of imprisonment with such force and resilience that their collective song continues to resonate today. That is why Dorothy Wickenden is one of the deans of our game." 
—James McBride 

“When writing about the Civil War era, focus is everything: how it is seen depends entirely on who is seeing it. In The Agitators, Dorothy Wickenden has fortunately chosen three brilliantly engaging characters. The result is unexpected, original, and profoundly illuminating.”
—S.C. Gwynne, author of Hymns of the Republic and Rebel Yell

"Inspiring and important – and a rousing good read – The Agitators reminds us how, even in the darkest of times, there is light. And when a few fierce women join forces against that darkness, they can win."
—Jeannette Walls, author of The Glass Castle 

"As a revolutionary, Harriet Tubman made many allies, none more important than her Auburn, New York, neighbors Martha Wright and Frances Seward. Wright, a middle-class Quaker, and Seward, the wealthy wife of a famous statesman, learned their activism from the abolition and women's rights movements that surrounded them, as well as from Tubman's incomparable example. This is a unique, lyrically written, exhaustively researched, triple biography of epic proportions about three women, mothers and organizers all, woven into a single narrative about their activist struggles before and during the Civil War. Their lives burst from these pages, as do the crusades that began the liberation of African Americans and women across the nineteenth century. Wickenden possesses a novelist's eye for detail and a historian's passion for story, in a book about women with no formal political rights who changed their world."
—David W. Blight, Yale University, author of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

"Dorothy Wickenden seamlessly weaves together the lives of her protagonists with the times that influenced them, and that they in turn profoundly affected. Vivid, enlightening, and engrossing, here is the story of three women who are fixtures of history but whose relevance to the present could scarcely be more apparent."
—Jelani Cobb, Professor at the Columbia School of Journalism and the author of The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress 

Praise for Nothing Daunted

"A quintessentially American tale... An enchanting family memoir... the narrative positively glimmers."
The Washington Post

"An exquisite book."
The Boston Globe

“A superb, stirring book. Through the eyes of two spirited and resourceful women from the civilized East, Wickenden makes the story of the American West engaging and personal. A delight to read.”
—Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief

“An enchanting family memoir…A brilliant gem of Americana.”
Washington Post Book World

“Lovingly pieced together.”
Los Angeles Times

“A rich narrative… Nothing Daunted is an extraordinary book.”
Denver Post

“Dorothy Wickenden’s recounting of her grandmother Dorothy Woodruff’s treacherous cross-country journey is as charming as it is rugged… This is Little House on the Prairie in petticoats, and it is enchanting.”
NPR

“A great story, with a richly appealing character at the center...a tale of the triumph of determination over adversity...wonderfully American”
Slate

“Dorothy Woodruff and Rosamond Underwood come alive in Nothing Daunted, Dorothy Wickenden’s fascinating slice of social history... Their story is blessed with a cast of supporting characters that novelists would envy.”
USA Today

“Wickenden is a lucky and talented writer... Both women spring to life in this wonderful book.”
Houston Chronicle

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