A Life Remembered: The Voice and Passions of Feminist Writer and Community Activist Flora Kimball
Nye, Matthew, California History
I wished--oh! so ardently--that a moral earthquake would startle the women in this country who are in a death-like sleep, oblivious to the laws that oppress them. Shocks are not harmful, but on the contrary may have the effect of showing us more clearly the "wrongs we know of" in our very midst.
--Flora Kimball, California Patron, 1879 (1)
Flora Kimball was an active and prominent voice in California during the state's early history. In clear, strong language, she articulated the growing views held by both women and men in rural white America in support of women's suffrage and increased independence for women outside of the traditional confines of the family. Kimball carried the banner raised by her contemporaries, including the political writers and activists Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton? A look into her life and writings offers us a wonderful glimpse into the mind-set of a progressive agrarian woman in nineteenth-century California.
Flora Kimball was a writer, a community activist, and a lay horticulturalist. Through her writing, she articulated her views on the changing social and economic dynamics for women and the need for a more equitable society. Through her civic commitments, she activated those beliefs.
She offered her opinions freely, but she was not a maverick, nor was she always unique in her vision. Many politically astute women of the time asked both men and women to rethink their positions and responsibilities in the evolving society of the 1800s, among them Carrie A. Colby, Maria B. Landers, and L. M. Daugherty.
Though her writing and activism were not on the same scale as the era's nationally recognized women in their notoriety or scope, Kimball did help spread the gospel of California's growing woman's suffrage movement. And though she neglected to address the greater range of issues that Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, and others (including twentieth- and twenty-first-century contemporary activists) would consider inclusionary in the capacity of the suffrage movement--such as race and class (3)--she addressed the pressing concerns of rural women: their changing role within the family, work outside of the home, and the right to vote.
In her life and writing, Kimball exhibited contrary aspects of feminist thought, simultaneously championing the importance of women in the home and the need for self-sufficiency outside the home. Through her own example, she encouraged women to achieve mastery over their own lives. A product of, as well as an influence on, the changing society for women in nineteenth-century California, she brought the philosophies of New England liberalism--the antislavery, suffragist politics of the Northeast-to the West. In a style that was often dogmatic and occasionally sentimental, she wrote with passion and persistence on issues that helped to spread these views and propel California into the twentieth century. Kimball's name and voice has gone unheard for many years, and while her work may not necessarily garner a place of academic merit or even recollection, its focus on the role of nineteenth-century women and its fervor and determination do warrant historical attention and review.
THE JOURNEY WEST
Flora Mary Morrill was born in Warner, New Hampshire, on July 24, 1829, one often children of John and Hannah Hall Morrill. Her maternal grandfather was the Revolutionary War surgeon Dr. John Hall. Her paternal grandparents, Zebulon and Mary Morrill, espoused the theological, intellectual, and social reform tenets of Congregationalism. (4) Her older sister Hannah Frances Foster (Brown), the well-known Spiritualist, was, like Flora, an avid abolitionist and women's suffragist. (5)
Embarking on a career at the young age of fifteen, Flora was a teacher in her hometown. She worked for ten years in the schools of New Hampshire, eventually becoming the head of Concord High School. She would draw upon this example of the independent woman working outside the home in her later writings. Her campaign for the independence of women within the family and her advocacy for their equal rights in society began during these early years. She reportedly attributed her awareness of the inequality of women to her experience as a ten-year-old working alongside a neighbor boy to drop corn; she received five cents for her day's work to the boy's ten. She experienced this same ratio as a beginning teacher, earning one dollar a week to the two-dollar weekly salary for men. (6)
In 1855, Warren C. Kimball, from the neighboring town of Contoocook, recruited the young Miss Flora Morrill to come and teach in the town school. Warren had grown up in Contoocook on his family farm with his four brothers, Frank, George, Levi, and Charles, and his two sisters, Mary and Lucy. On December 13, 1857, two years after Flora's arrival in Contoocook, she and Warren married. On that same day, Warren's brother, Levi, married Flora's younger sister, Louisa.
In 1861, Warren and his younger brother Frank arrived in California, having traveled by way of Panama. (7) Joining Levi in San Francisco, the three siblings set up shop as contractors. The Kimball brothers were successful in constructing homes and commercial buildings in the city. (8) In 1862, Frank felt established enough to send for his wife, Sarah Currier. But his mother refused to give Sarah her consent to undertake the dangerous journey until Flora agreed to accompany her sister-in-law on the voyage. Frank noted in his diary: "Sarah writes that she is only waiting for Flora to decide when she will be ready. Hope it will be by the 21st. Bless her." (9)
On December 18, 1862, Flora arrived in California, a land already rich in history, though one wrought with stories of conquest and struggle. The native peoples had been displaced by Spaniards in their conquest for souls and dominion, and the Californios had lost out to the Anglo-Americans in claims over water, land title, and prosperity. It was a land where everyone seemed to be fighting for a place of his own. (10) To this dynamic Flora Kimball brought her own agenda: the fight toward victory for women of her class and race.
The Kimball families had landed in San Francisco during the city's vibrant, formative years. In this new metropolis, Flora noted, "first you will meet but a few old people, for this is a new country and a great way from the old states, and but few old people break early ties and wander so far. The few whose hair is gray and step feeble, feel like the first of a race whose early associates have wearied of life's toils and laid down to rest. So all is a bustle the stir of more than a hundred thousand souls, in the beginning and prime of life." (11)
Kimball found the San Francisco of the 1860s a contradiction of wealth and poverty. Her observations in some of her early writing reflect her humanity. She wrote about the downtrodden, such as the homeless "Ragged Frenchman ... his eye fixed on the ground, ready to spy out any pile of dirt, and eager to seize on any mouldy [sic] crust that might be found therein ... and his locks long and shaggy, straying over his face and shoulders, combed only by the wind, and powdered with sand ... did I not see in that once fine form, and through the dirty face, traces of beauty and intellect?" With poetic observance, she described two young men walking down the street "... each with a cigar in his mouth, the latest Paris cut clothes and his kid gloves. One of them took his cigar between the ends of the first two fingers of his right hand, gradually expelling the smoke from his mouth." (12)
Kimball was first published during these years in San Francisco, when she and Warren rented, for ten dollars a month, the back parlor of Frank and Sarah's place at 16 Tehama Street, just south of Market and only five blocks from the bay. (13) She wrote letters to young readers in the East about the adolescent city for the publication Rising Tide, which published her accounts in columns with such titles as "California Sketches," "Letters from California," "Little Neighbor," "Shells and Sea-weed," "To the Children," "From Aunt Prudence," and "Our California Correspondent." Her early journalism style was typical of the period in which she wrote: eloquent, yet in a manner often thick with extended descriptive sentences. As a correspondent, she chose subject matters that reflected her passions: plants and horticulture, education, and, most strongly, "the new woman" and her role in society and the home.
In one of her "California Sketches," Kimball offered a glimpse into one of the most important issues of the day, the Civil War. Her response to the Confederate defeat at Charleston, South Carolina, which she considered cause for celebration, reveals her view of the event in its broader implications for women. "God and men grant that the good old flag may again continue to float over Sumter until every intelligent citizen of our country, male and female, shall enjoy the rights of suffrage, then we may properly be called what we never were--a Republic," she yearned in one of her early ventures into the body politic of women's suffrage. (14)
The travesty of war was a theme in Kimball's personal writing as well. In a private letter she sent back Fast, she wrote: "Peace 'reigns within our borders' and all we see of war, are the daily telegrams which bring us news of carnage and bloodshed. Those who have visited the Atlantic States the past year, return almost regretting the journey. Brave brother had fallen in battle, fathers and mothers prematurely gray, friends all mourning the loss of some household treasure, and our beautiful country one vast funeral and burying ground." (15)
During her years in northern California, Kimball often touched upon the topic of children; she recognized the consequences of the environment in their formation and championed the advantages of solid morals. As witness to the devastating effects of mining on families in post-Gold …
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Publication information: Article title: A Life Remembered: The Voice and Passions of Feminist Writer and Community Activist Flora Kimball. Contributors: Nye, Matthew - Author. Magazine title: California History. Volume: 87. Issue: 4 Publication date: September 2010. Page number: 48+. © 2009 California Historical Society. COPYRIGHT 2010 Gale Group.
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