A Lively Experiment

Notes on collections at the RIHS

Faith & Freedom Friday:A Petticoated Dorrite

Catherine R. Williams, oil on canvas by Susannah Paine. RIHS 1885.4.1

Catherine R. Williams, oil on canvas by Susannah Paine. RIHS 1885.4.1

In a time when women were rarely published and could not vote, Catherine Read Williams was a self-supporting author and ardent supporter of the Suffrage movement. She was born in 1787, the daughter of sea captain Alfred Arnold. After the death of her mother, she was raised by two very devout Christian aunts, and it was Sidney Rider’s opinion that this early atmosphere contributed to the “mournful spirit” of her early poems.

After the death of one aunt, and the marriage of the other, Miss Arnold met a Mr. Williams, a sixth-generation descendant of Roger Williams. They were married in New York, by Episcopal Bishop Benjamin Onderdonk. After living in western New York state for several years with Mr. Williams, Mrs. Williams fled for Providence with their infant daughter; Sidney Rider judged the marriage ‘a most unfortunate one.’ Mrs. Williams petitioned for divorce, with the support of her Providence friends, and though denied at first, persisted, until she won.

She supported herself by opening a school, and with her writing. In addition to a book of poems and a novel, she wrote histories, drawing on the Revolutionary past that was only fifty years past. She became part of Providence’s literary and intellectual circles, and developed an interest in in politics. Catherine Williams was not the only woman who supported the suffrage movement and Thomas Wilson Dorr: the women were described in the anti-Suffrage press in Providence as “Dorrites in petticoats,” but at least one- half of the attendance at public suffrage meetings were women.

Might and Right: By A Rhode Islander. RIHS Library

Might and Right: By A Rhode Islander. RIHS Library

Called a “warm politician, Democratic to devotion,” Catherine Williams began a correspondence with Thomas Dorr as early as 1842, and continued into the 1850s. She provided him with lists of the female suffrage leaders, and details of a meeting with President Tyler in Washington, D.C., where she pleaded the cause of the Suffrage Party of Rhode Island.

The RIHS Library holds this intriguing volume, written by another Rhode Island woman author. Might and Right, by A Rhode Islander, published in 1844, was  written by Miss Francis A. Whipple (1805-1878). She married Charles C. Green in 1842, but divorced him five years later.

These divorced, political women writers must have scandalized Providence society, even as they commanded its respect. They were on the leading edge of change, and thanks to them, we live in a very different world.

~Kirsten Hammerstrom, Director of Collections


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