Changing Lives and Scholarship Forever
Philosophy professor Lydia Moland finds inspiration—and the subject of her new book—in abolitionist Lydia Maria Child
Professor of Philosophy Lydia Moland spent the first two decades of her career “very happily” writing about male German philosophers.
“But I felt the need to make a change in my scholarship as a result of the moral emergency our country is going through,” she said, citing what she sees as a lack of moral courage and conviction among many U.S. politicians and citizens. “I wanted to write about an American topic, and I wanted to write about women. But since my scholarship is in nineteenth-century philosophy, I knew that would be tricky, because there are so few recognized women philosophers from that period.”
She found one in Lydia Maria Child, an anti-slavery abolitionist from Massachusetts. Though not recognized as a philosopher , Child used moral and philosophical arguments to advance the abolitionist cause. In November, the University of Chicago Press will publish Moland’s biography, Lydia Maria Child: A Radical American Life.
In advance of the publication, Moland has written essays about Child in mainstream media outlets and scholarly journals. In a coup for Moland and her book, the literary critic Brenda Wineapple wrote about A Radical American Life in the Nov. 3 issue of The New York Review of Books.
Moland will give a reading of the book at Colby at 4 p.m. Monday, Nov. 14, in Miller Library. In addition, she will discuss the book with writer and historian Megan Marshall at 6 p.m. Nov. 16 at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, a discussion that will be available remotely.
“What I found in Lydia Maria Child was a woman who devoted her life to ending slavery in every way she knew,” Moland said. “She changed my scholarship and the rest of my life forever.”
Prior to aligning herself with abolitionists, Child had become—quite remarkably for her time—a popular, self-sufficient female author. She wrote children’s books, novels, and poetry. Her self-help guide, American Frugal Housewife: Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy, was an exceptionally popular manual for homemakers. Today, many people recognize her popular Thanksgiving poem for its opening lines, “Over the river and through the wood, to grandfather’s house we go.”
In 1833 she wrote the book-length argument against slavery, An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans. She understood that she was advancing an unpopular opinion and challenging her readers to confront injustice by reforming their own lives. She believed that standing up for the moral future of the country was worth the risk.
Child lost friends, readers, and status among some segments of society. But she became a leading author and activist in the anti-slavery movement and influenced other abolitionists, including Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Wendell Phillips, and Charles Sumner.
Moland hastens to add that Child was not perfect: she shared some of her white contemporaries’ prejudices and moral blind spots. But she was impressed with Child’s courage and conviction. Moreso, she was impressed at how well Child used philosophical arguments to make her case. Moral philosophy involves using morality and the appeal of personal responsibility to support ethical decision-making.
“Child was someone who struggled with what motivated people most to act. Was it argumentation? An appeal to sympathy? An appeal to integrity? She was good at all of them. But as a philosopher, I resonate most with her ability to argue in a way that could leave politicians speechless. She was good at taking on politicians and besting them in arguments,” Moland said.
“She didn’t go rushing into action in ways that were enthusiastic but irresponsible. She knew the power of argumentation to precipitate change. She listened to what people were saying, and she crafted arguments to meet them where they were, and she staked her reputation on saying what she believed.”
Moland sees Child as a personal role model: a female philosopher who was motivated to act on her beliefs by the power of conviction and because it was simply, morally, the right thing to do.
“The way she speaks to the dangers of moral complacency in the face of what is obviously a rolling disaster is really inspirational for our times,” she said. “She is really good at saying to all of us, ‘I know you know this is desperately wrong and you have allowed yourself to be lulled into accepting it.’ And then she powerfully shows us how we can change.”
Already, Moland has woven Child into her moral philosophy course. “She makes a wonderful case study for any number of moral questions that come up,” she said. “When I think about what I want for my students, it’s in part to give them the tools they need to think clearly and make arguments that allow them to act responsibly.”
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