Lexington Woman’s Hidden Life Revealed

Author, Mary Keenan

By Judy Buswick |  “Keep your focus.” That’s what retired Lexington teacher Mary Keenan told herself. Like other researchers who rely on original source material to write new accounts of the past, she encountered tantalizing, curiosity-tickling tidbits that might have lead her away from her intended target. She had plenty of material to draw on for her new book, including 158 letters from the Lexington Historical Society’s collection of Robbins-Stone Papers. “In Haste, Julia” (Puritan Press, 2011) took Ms. Keenan almost twelve years to write and pulled her into the daily interactions and social upheavals of the nineteenth century. A Belmont resident with an AB in History and a M.Ed. from Tufts University, Keenan came to Lexington to teach English and History at the William Diamond Junior High in 1964; and in 1972 she went to the new Jonas Clark Junior High to teach history. As these schools became “Middle” schools in 1986, Keenan moved into Lexington High School where she helped develop the history curriculum and taught until her retirement in 1999.

She dedicated her book “to the hundreds of Lexington students who learned that both men and women are significant in American History.” As a history teacher in a town where local history is national history, Keenan realized early on that she should join the Lexington Historical Society. She found rich material about the men involved in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, as she worked with her students; but at one point she asked, “Where are the women?” Her quest for the answer led her to introduce a Women’s History Course at the high school and eventually set her on another course – that of book author. A quote from “Middlemarch” by George Eliot showed Keenan that to study women’s history she had to seek hidden lives lived faithfully. Eliot had written, “For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Ruth Morey, the first woman president of the Historical Society, and S. Lawrence Whipple, an archivist treating Lexington history as if it were his own family history, had suggestions for women that Keenan might research. They brought out large boxes of Robbins-Stone family documents – “journals, ledgers, letters, wills and deeds, [and] memorabilia.” Ellen Stone was the first woman on the Lexington School Committee and might have been a subject, but she just didn’t strike Keenan as the one for her. Then she found the small diary written between October 1850 and November 1851 by the aunt of Ellen Stone. This undersized window into the life of Julia Robbins (1819-1900) convinced Keenan that she had found her subject. A maiden lady for many years taking care of her parents and sisters, Julia Robbins was interested in the political and theological issues of her day. Some of the people she knew included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott and his daughter Louisa May, the abolitionists Sarah and Parker Pillsbury, and Rev. Theodore Parker, another abolitionist.

Julia’s father Eli Robbins was a successful businessman and “a strong believer in freedom of speech and thought.” He built an elegant Grecian style hall in East Lexington for public speakers to share their views, and Julia was regularly in attendance. She had an Academy education in Derry, New Hampshire, and attended the School of Design for women in Boston, with the latter leading her to a career as a carpet designer for the Lowell Company in Lowell, Massachusetts. She intended to make herself self-sufficient. \When on May 17, 1860, she married John Barrett (1826 – 1890) of Concord, she continued her anti-slavery interests, followed the States’ rights controversy over slavery, and advocated for municipal suffrage for women, even as she took on duties as a farmer’s wife. The story of this independent-minded woman thus includes both Concord and Lexington social history, commentary on city and country living in the nineteenth century, and how one socially-aware woman followed her conscience and made a contribution to the liberties our nation enjoys today. Keenan faced the problem, as do all writers, of finding the best means to convey her research in a manner that would engage readers. Should she fictionalize her memoir with quotations she could never know her characters actually spoke? How much could she infer from the letters about emotions and family dynamics? She opted to exclude dialogue and to provide “thoughts and feelings of individuals … inferred from the factual evidence found in the primary sources and in the historical record.” Her extensive endnotes categorized by topics provide readers with her source material. Keenan found that the nineteenth century newspapers “had incredible, detailed stories” and she was able to read some original copies at the Boston Public Library. The Schlesinger Library at Harvard University had copies of the “The Woman’s Journal,” the weekly women’s suffrage newspaper to which Julia subscribed. The Boston Athenaeum allowed her to use the “Boston Almanacs” from the day; and so if she said there was heavy snow, then there really was. She read Lowell Company business documents at Harvard’s Baker Library. The papers of Parker Pillsbury are in the Wardman Library of Whittier College in California and librarians there searched for Julia’s letters written to Pillsbury and his wife. The New Hampshire Historical Society and several Massachusetts public libraries provided valuable source material; but Julia’s small diary from 1850-51 had two key components that Keenan used heavily. The seventeenth American Anti-Slavery Bazaar was held in Boston in December of 1850 and Julia spent several days working at it. She records who gave speeches, how Daniel Webster had abandoned the abolitionists by signing the Compromise of 1850, how the hall was decorated, and that the event was the social highlight of the season. Julia worked at the glassware table selling genuine Bohemian Glass and Britannia ware and raised $110. Other items sent from Ireland, England, Germany and France were also for sale. Autographs of Sir Walter Scott “sold for $5 each — a princely sum …when coffee was 12 cents a pound and molasses 27 cents a gallon.”

The other key information included in the diary was about Julia’s School of Design classes in 1851. Miss Ednah Littlehale intended her Boston school “to widen women’s opportunity for paying work,” and independent Julia aspired to do just that. From this training, Julia lived and worked for five years in the city of Lowell, earning her way and spending her money as she pleased. Mary Keenan knew that nineteenth century women did not just stay at home and care for children. They followed political interests like abolition and women’s suffrage and so Julia Robbins Barrett “was not alone in her beliefs.” She and others followed Ralph Waldo Emerson’s encouragement to “Build, therefore, your own world.” In so doing, Julia helped build ours. “In Haste, Julia” is available ($19.95) from the Lexington Historical Society, PO Box 514, Lexington, MA 02420. Or contact them at www.lexingtonhistory.org. Judy Buswick writes frequently for Colonial Times and is writing a book about Sally Palmer Field who championed quilting in New England. Contact Judy at jt.buswick@verizon.net.

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