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The Agitators: Three Friends Who Fought for Abolition and Women's Rights

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From the author of the New York Times bestseller Nothing Daunted, The Agitators chronicles the revolutionary activities of Harriet Tubman, Frances Seward, and Martha Wright: three unlikely collaborators in the quest for abolition and women’s rights. In Auburn, New York, in the mid-nineteenth century, Martha Wright and Frances Seward, inspired by Harriet Tubman’s rescues in From the author of the New York Times bestseller Nothing Daunted, The Agitators chronicles the revolutionary activities of Harriet Tubman, Frances Seward, and Martha Wright: three unlikely collaborators in the quest for abolition and women’s rights. In Auburn, New York, in the mid-nineteenth century, Martha Wright and Frances Seward, inspired by Harriet Tubman’s rescues in the dangerous territory of Eastern Maryland, opened their basement kitchens as stations on the Underground Railroad. Tubman was enslaved, Wright was a middle-class Quaker mother of seven, and Seward was the aristocratic wife and moral conscience of her husband, William H. Seward, who served as Lincoln’s Secretary of State. All three refused to abide by laws that denied them the rights granted to white men, and they supported each other as they worked to overturn slavery and achieve full citizenship for blacks and women. The Agitators opens when Tubman is enslaved and Wright and Seward are young women bridling against their traditional roles. It ends decades later, after Wright’s and Seward’s sons—and Tubman herself—have taken part in three of the defining engagements of the Civil War. Through the sardonic and anguished accounts of the protagonists, reconstructed from their letters, diaries, and public appearances, we see the most explosive debates of the time, and portraits of the men and women whose paths they crossed: Lincoln, Seward, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and others. Tubman, embraced by Seward and Wright and by the radical network of reformers in western New York State, settled in Auburn and spent the second half of her life there. With extraordinarily compelling storytelling reminiscent of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time and David McCullough’s John Adams, The Agitators brings a vivid new perspective to the epic American stories of abolition, the Underground Railroad, women’s rights activism, and the Civil War.


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From the author of the New York Times bestseller Nothing Daunted, The Agitators chronicles the revolutionary activities of Harriet Tubman, Frances Seward, and Martha Wright: three unlikely collaborators in the quest for abolition and women’s rights. In Auburn, New York, in the mid-nineteenth century, Martha Wright and Frances Seward, inspired by Harriet Tubman’s rescues in From the author of the New York Times bestseller Nothing Daunted, The Agitators chronicles the revolutionary activities of Harriet Tubman, Frances Seward, and Martha Wright: three unlikely collaborators in the quest for abolition and women’s rights. In Auburn, New York, in the mid-nineteenth century, Martha Wright and Frances Seward, inspired by Harriet Tubman’s rescues in the dangerous territory of Eastern Maryland, opened their basement kitchens as stations on the Underground Railroad. Tubman was enslaved, Wright was a middle-class Quaker mother of seven, and Seward was the aristocratic wife and moral conscience of her husband, William H. Seward, who served as Lincoln’s Secretary of State. All three refused to abide by laws that denied them the rights granted to white men, and they supported each other as they worked to overturn slavery and achieve full citizenship for blacks and women. The Agitators opens when Tubman is enslaved and Wright and Seward are young women bridling against their traditional roles. It ends decades later, after Wright’s and Seward’s sons—and Tubman herself—have taken part in three of the defining engagements of the Civil War. Through the sardonic and anguished accounts of the protagonists, reconstructed from their letters, diaries, and public appearances, we see the most explosive debates of the time, and portraits of the men and women whose paths they crossed: Lincoln, Seward, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and others. Tubman, embraced by Seward and Wright and by the radical network of reformers in western New York State, settled in Auburn and spent the second half of her life there. With extraordinarily compelling storytelling reminiscent of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time and David McCullough’s John Adams, The Agitators brings a vivid new perspective to the epic American stories of abolition, the Underground Railroad, women’s rights activism, and the Civil War.

30 review for The Agitators: Three Friends Who Fought for Abolition and Women's Rights

  1. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

    The Agitators by Dorothy Wickenden is an excellent nonfiction that weaves together the stories of three friends or “Auburn agitators”: Frances Seward, Harriet Tubman, and Martha Wright. This was an excellent book! I loved learning more about Frances, Martha, and Harriet and their quests for not only personal accomplishments, survival, and concern, but also for their selfless devotion to abolition and to advance women’s rights. I learned so much more about their involvement and additions to the ad The Agitators by Dorothy Wickenden is an excellent nonfiction that weaves together the stories of three friends or “Auburn agitators”: Frances Seward, Harriet Tubman, and Martha Wright. This was an excellent book! I loved learning more about Frances, Martha, and Harriet and their quests for not only personal accomplishments, survival, and concern, but also for their selfless devotion to abolition and to advance women’s rights. I learned so much more about their involvement and additions to the advancement of these causes, their involvement with the Underground Railroad, and also more about the societal problems and political atmosphere during the 1840s-1910s. I loved the addition of a few other famous advocates: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (National Woman Suffrage Association) , Lucy Stone, Fredrick Douglass, Lucretia Mott, and many others. I had no idea how intertwined all of these figures were. I have to say my favorite aspect was learning even more about Harriet Tubman. She is truly one of the most amazing women in modern history. I am stunned with each new thing I learn about her. I loved it! This book is well-written, well-paced, and thoroughly researched. It is clear the author did her due diligence in all of her listed sources. What she was able to create was a book that is breathtaking and unforgettable. I have already purchased this as a preorder and will recommend this to everyone I know. Well done! 5/5 stars Thank you to the Author and Scribner for this stunning ARC and in return I am submitting my unbiased and voluntary review and opinion. I am posting this review to my GR, Instagram, Bookbub, Amazon, and B&N accounts upon publication.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Joseph J.

    Having read Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals I was especially interested in the story of Frances Seward among the three focused on in this book. While she emerges in a more complete and appreciated way, I was surprised that my index search revealed Mary Lincoln missing, especially since Mary so notoriously snubbed Frances and the entire Seward family. Disappointing, although Frances' impatience with D.C. and that social scene was touched upon. The detail of Harriet Tubman's slave life, the Having read Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals I was especially interested in the story of Frances Seward among the three focused on in this book. While she emerges in a more complete and appreciated way, I was surprised that my index search revealed Mary Lincoln missing, especially since Mary so notoriously snubbed Frances and the entire Seward family. Disappointing, although Frances' impatience with D.C. and that social scene was touched upon. The detail of Harriet Tubman's slave life, the cruelty and the escape was especially impacting. This is an admirable addition to both mid-nineteenth century and women's history.

  3. 5 out of 5

    David Dunlap

    This is the surprising story of three women whose lives intersected in Auburn, New York, and who had major impacts -- each in a way consistent with her own character -- on the fight against slavery and for women's rights in the years leading up to (and during) the American Civil War. The three women are Frances Adeline Miller, who was to marry William Henry Seward (later Governor of New York and Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of State), Martha Coffin (younger sister to the more famous Lucretia Coff This is the surprising story of three women whose lives intersected in Auburn, New York, and who had major impacts -- each in a way consistent with her own character -- on the fight against slavery and for women's rights in the years leading up to (and during) the American Civil War. The three women are Frances Adeline Miller, who was to marry William Henry Seward (later Governor of New York and Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of State), Martha Coffin (younger sister to the more famous Lucretia Coffin Mott), who would take as her second husband David Wright, an attorney (raised in Bucks County, Pennsylvania), and Harriet Tubman, whose involvement in the fight for abolition and the rights of blacks took her beyond her seminal role in the Underground Railroad to embrace espionage, nursing, and activism. Uncomfortable as the wife of one of the nation's most prominent politicians, the retiring Frances Seward was a more fierce opponent to slavery than even her husband, but, when it came to women's rights, although she was fiercely in favor, she agreed -- out of respect for the delicacy of her husband's position -- not to take an openly public role in the fight for female suffrage. Martha Wright, on the other hand, while not comfortable at first with a public speaking role (more than willing to defer to her elder sister, as well as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony), became front and center in the women's gatherings that preceded and followed the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention; she was deemed a 'dangerous woman.' While Harriet Tubman is probably the best-known of the trio, many of her activities were behind-the-scenes and, of necessity, under the radar, so to speak: shepherding slaves out of the antebellum South, leading many of them to the safety of Canada, spying for the Union Army during the war, and nursing its casualties. Three fascinating individuals -- and their lives are well-captured in this well-written, well-researched book. The subject matter may not appeal to all...but, IMHO, it *should*! Recommended!

  4. 4 out of 5

    Bookreporter.com Biography & Memoir

    In mid-1800s America, freedom was a foundational concept, but it had many, often thorny, branches. Who could doubt that African slaves were deprived of it, or that women, no matter how privileged, were not enjoying its fullest benefits? These multifaceted issues would lead to a destructive war and a lingering divide. In the midst of the fray were three remarkable women --- Harriet Tubman, Martha Wright and Frances Seward --- whose portraits are painted in THE AGITATORS by Dorothy Wickenden, a no In mid-1800s America, freedom was a foundational concept, but it had many, often thorny, branches. Who could doubt that African slaves were deprived of it, or that women, no matter how privileged, were not enjoying its fullest benefits? These multifaceted issues would lead to a destructive war and a lingering divide. In the midst of the fray were three remarkable women --- Harriet Tubman, Martha Wright and Frances Seward --- whose portraits are painted in THE AGITATORS by Dorothy Wickenden, a noted writer and the executive editor of The New Yorker. Harriet Tubman’s story is perhaps the best known: a former slave who singlehandedly started what became known as the Underground Railroad to move Black people from captivity in the Southern states to new lives in the Northern regions. Along the way, she was able to enlist the assistance of people like Martha Wright, a Quaker mother of seven, and Frances Seward, the wife of Governor, then Senator, then Secretary of State William H. Seward. Wright and Seward were already allies in Auburn, New York, both free-thinkers whose views were not always understood by their neighbors or, at times, their spouses. Wright was the sister of Lucretia Mott, who was well known to Tubman as a radical defender of all human rights; Mott avowed that Quakers should be not quietists but “agitators” in the face of injustice. As the possibility of war geared up, Wright, Seward and Tubman would approach it in different ways, but all were determined to abolish slavery, and to press for women’s rights and suffrage. Wickenden has mined the annals of social, political and cultural history in composing this complex, wide-ranging tome. She shows each woman in particular situations that highlight her aspirations, even describing an incident where Tubman, posing as an old lady in prayer, initiated a street brawl with constables holding a fugitive slave in chains. There are behind-the-scenes glimpses of Lincoln seen by some as a radical, by others as ineffectual. Opinions differed about his Emancipation Proclamation, with Tubman believing it wouldn’t help the people enslaved in border states like Maryland, Wright seeing it as “far less than we had hoped,” and Seward referencing doubts about its “ultimate consequences.” All three women were esteemed in their time, heading organizations and championing causes to proclaim and promote human rights well ahead of majority thinking, and all have been duly recognized and honored in Auburn and beyond. Wickenden is participating in that ongoing process, bringing their accomplishments and shared goals to light for a new generation. Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott

  5. 5 out of 5

    Carol Simmons

    Fascinating account detailing the involvement of Martha Coffin Wright, Harriet Tubman and Frances Seward in both the abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements. This account is especially interesting to me as much of this happened in my hometown of Auburn,NY. Even though I grew up there and have visited Seward’s home, the details of Seward’s role leading up to the Civil War are things I did not know

  6. 4 out of 5

    Judi

    I feel like I've read a lot about the Civil War and the nascent women's suffrage movement but I learned a lot reading The Agitators. The story of the friendship between Martha Wright, Francis Seward, and Harriet Tubman was new to me. I had heard of all three in different contexts (Tubman was my first real hero in grade school) but never as a trio of friends and supporters in the women's suffrage movement. It was absorbing to listen to how the lives of each of these women influenced events in the I feel like I've read a lot about the Civil War and the nascent women's suffrage movement but I learned a lot reading The Agitators. The story of the friendship between Martha Wright, Francis Seward, and Harriet Tubman was new to me. I had heard of all three in different contexts (Tubman was my first real hero in grade school) but never as a trio of friends and supporters in the women's suffrage movement. It was absorbing to listen to how the lives of each of these women influenced events in the Civil War and in advancing the rights of women. Even in the mid to late Nineteenth Century, each left their mark and changed the course of history.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Danaw

    Wickenden helps complete the story of the fight for women’s rights and abolition through the eyes of three incredible women. This refreshing view is knitted together through meticulous research and correspondence that provides new details and insights about a difficult time in our history. Wickenden’s storytelling is compelling and would intrigue readers interested in a good story, even if they aren’t interested in the history of the time.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jane

    This book is as much about the Civil War as abolition and women’s rights—but of course the war heavily shaped what came next. I enjoyed the audiobook, with three narrators. Full of letters and details of these women’s backgrounds and intertwining lives, you get a real feel for the ways in which they transcended the expected roles for women of the time. But Harriet Tubman looms larger than life. I was stunned at how much I didn’t know about her, from her Union position during the Civil War to her This book is as much about the Civil War as abolition and women’s rights—but of course the war heavily shaped what came next. I enjoyed the audiobook, with three narrators. Full of letters and details of these women’s backgrounds and intertwining lives, you get a real feel for the ways in which they transcended the expected roles for women of the time. But Harriet Tubman looms larger than life. I was stunned at how much I didn’t know about her, from her Union position during the Civil War to her activism into her 90’s. So much to learn about even the African Americans we thought we’d studied...

  9. 5 out of 5

    Monica

    https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-re... https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-... 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 Caroli https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-re... https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-... 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.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Kenneth Barber

    This book details the story of three women activists and their relationship to each other and reform movements primarily abolition and women’s suffrage. All three women resided in Auburn, New York. Frances Seward was the wife of William Henry Seward, US Senator and Secretary of State for Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. Martha Coffin Wright, whose sister was also a prominent activist,Lucretia Mott. The third woman was Harriet Tubman, a leader of the Underground Railroad. She advocated for Bla This book details the story of three women activists and their relationship to each other and reform movements primarily abolition and women’s suffrage. All three women resided in Auburn, New York. Frances Seward was the wife of William Henry Seward, US Senator and Secretary of State for Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. Martha Coffin Wright, whose sister was also a prominent activist,Lucretia Mott. The third woman was Harriet Tubman, a leader of the Underground Railroad. She advocated for Black and women’s rights. The book traces their early lives and their road to activism. Frances and Martha were strongly influenced by Quakerism background of their families. Their routes were fairly similar on the way to activism. Harriet entered into the group by way of the Underground Railroad. Auburn was a stop on the Railroad as escaped slave settled there or moved on to Canada. All three women were also heavily involved in women’s suffrage movements and also securing rights for the freed slaves. The book shows the connections of these three with other activists of the era: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B Anthony, Fredrick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. The book shows how the reformers worked together or disagreed. The main issue of dissension was women’s suffrage. Many of the reformers advocated for Black suffrage, but balked at suffrage for women. This book sheds light on two women who weren’t household names in reform, as well as furthering the knowledge about Harriet Tubman.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Joyce

    Imagine going to town meeting in Auburn, NY in the latter half of the 19th century - you might have encountered Martha Wright, Frances (and Henry) Seward, and Harriet Tubman, and they undoubtedly would have made their opinions known. Each woman agitated in her own way against slavery and in favor of expansion of women’s rights. I was especially taken with the words attributed to Tubman, whose lack of literacy didn’t prevent her from being a natural and inspiring leader. Management programs should Imagine going to town meeting in Auburn, NY in the latter half of the 19th century - you might have encountered Martha Wright, Frances (and Henry) Seward, and Harriet Tubman, and they undoubtedly would have made their opinions known. Each woman agitated in her own way against slavery and in favor of expansion of women’s rights. I was especially taken with the words attributed to Tubman, whose lack of literacy didn’t prevent her from being a natural and inspiring leader. Management programs should study her. Frances Seward saw New York emerge as the powerhouse of the U.S., then had a front row seat in the Lincoln administration. Most of the book centers around the lead up to and action of the Civil War. Some of the events were familiar, like the fate of the Black battalion headed by Robert Gould Shaw, but Wickenden contributes a new, fresh perspective. Her depiction of the rabid cruelty and hatred of slave holders, the Border Ruffians attacking settlers in ‘bleeding Kansas,’ the demented rage of John Brown and his family all bring to mind, unfortunately, the present day. Also - who knew that Worcester, Mass. was a hotbed of progressive reform?

  12. 5 out of 5

    Laurie

    People and events we knew about, but from a different point of view. A time in which people expressed their points of view by beating their political opponents with gold tipped canes. White women were considered too fragile to do hard labor, but were expected to go through labor and childbirth and see their babies die of disease or die young in wars. Enslaved women were expected to do hard labor and to let their babies be torn away and sold to faraway owners. I had known that Secretary Seward wa People and events we knew about, but from a different point of view. A time in which people expressed their points of view by beating their political opponents with gold tipped canes. White women were considered too fragile to do hard labor, but were expected to go through labor and childbirth and see their babies die of disease or die young in wars. Enslaved women were expected to do hard labor and to let their babies be torn away and sold to faraway owners. I had known that Secretary Seward was badly beaten and stabbed by a fanatic ally of John Wilkes Booth, but one of his sons who his mother had hoped to save by keeping him out of the Army was also a victim of this attack . Martha Wright, a close friend of Frances Seward, was a fervent suffragist and abolitionist, but also a gentle mother and grandmother who soothed babies by the magic of her touch. Frances herself devotedly nursed her children from disease when they were young and war wounds when they were adults. Tubman Wright and Seward excelled in the "women's sphere" but longed for a wider sphere for women.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Jan Carlson

    I found these intertwined biographies of Harriet Tubman, Frances Seward, and Martha Wright quite fascinating. The three women were friends, neighbors, and agitators, fighting for abolition and women's rights. Although I was quite familiar with Tubman's role in the Underground Railroad, I was surprised at the important roles she played both during and after the Civil War. Seward was the upper class wife and moral conscience of William Seward, Lincoln's Secretary of State. Although forced to stay I found these intertwined biographies of Harriet Tubman, Frances Seward, and Martha Wright quite fascinating. The three women were friends, neighbors, and agitators, fighting for abolition and women's rights. Although I was quite familiar with Tubman's role in the Underground Railroad, I was surprised at the important roles she played both during and after the Civil War. Seward was the upper class wife and moral conscience of William Seward, Lincoln's Secretary of State. Although forced to stay in the background due to her husband's political career, her contribution to overturn slavery and gain women's rights was considerable. Wright was a middle class Quaker who was able to be far more vocal than Seward and has been publicly recognized for her contributions. Well-researched and well-written!

  14. 4 out of 5

    Mary Miller

    Three friends in Auburn New York, Harriet Tubman, Martha Coffin Wright and Frances Seward, fought for women's rights and the abolition of slavery. Carefully researched this work captures 1830s-1860s society, the role of women, the underground railroad, the Lincoln presidency, and the civil war. With insight, the author views this era through the eyes, deeds and words of these three remarkable women. A remarkable read. Three friends in Auburn New York, Harriet Tubman, Martha Coffin Wright and Frances Seward, fought for women's rights and the abolition of slavery. Carefully researched this work captures 1830s-1860s society, the role of women, the underground railroad, the Lincoln presidency, and the civil war. With insight, the author views this era through the eyes, deeds and words of these three remarkable women. A remarkable read.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Mary Wherry

    Although I found parts interesting I often felt overburdened with so many people and so many facts and antidotes about Abolition and Women's Rights. It gave me a sense of how the the fight for one was often a fight for both. Although I found parts interesting I often felt overburdened with so many people and so many facts and antidotes about Abolition and Women's Rights. It gave me a sense of how the the fight for one was often a fight for both.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    As seen in the New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/20... As seen in the New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/20...

  17. 5 out of 5

    Christy-JC Carter

    Very detailed, nicely chronological, clever. II is a good review of the lives of these abolitionists. I appreciate that she makes obvious the intersection of women’s rights and abolitionism.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Dea Spears

    It is an amazing story with great characters, world and storyline. I suggest you join NovelStar’s writing competition this April.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Deborah Gibbs

    Worthy and well done, but kind of an uphill slog. May not finish it. Life is short.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Mary Yram

    The writing is simply beautiful. You can publish it on NovelStar, just submit your story to [email protected] or [email protected]

  21. 5 out of 5

    Nathel Schad Coca

  22. 4 out of 5

    Shuchita

  23. 5 out of 5

    Lauren

  24. 5 out of 5

    Dirtisocks

  25. 4 out of 5

    OTIS

  26. 4 out of 5

    Chris

  27. 4 out of 5

    Johan Baetens-Verbruggen

  28. 4 out of 5

    Jen Jacoby

  29. 5 out of 5

    Gayle

  30. 4 out of 5

    T

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