Q&A with Dorothy Wickenden, author of ‘The Agitators’

Three women who became friends – Harriet Tubman, Frances Seward, and Martha Coffin Wright – agitated to end slavery and to bring women’s rights.

Simon and Schuster/Jayme Grodi
Dorothy Wickenden appears with her new book, "The Agitators: Three Friends Who Fought for Abolition and Women’s Rights."

In the 19th century, three American women bonded over the fight for freedom: Harriet Tubman, Frances Seward, and Martha Coffin Wright. Tubman helped hundreds of enslaved people escape to freedom. Seward was an outspoken abolitionist and wife of an influential senator. And Wright was a feminist and abolitionist. Dorothy Wickenden, executive editor of The New Yorker magazine, tells their stories in “The Agitators: Three Friends Who Fought for Abolition and Women’s Rights.” 

Q: What drew you to write about these three women?

Their voices are amazing. Harriet Tubman is absolutely fearless. Frances Seward’s letters are so frank and open, and Martha Coffin Wright’s letters reveal her to be hilarious. She writes about white men and all the rules that have been put in place to keep women in their kitchens. 

They had more influence than you would ever expect in a time when women had no official power at all. I looked for a way to put them together and explore many different topics at once: How did the Underground Railroad work? How did abolitionists work with women’s rights advocates? How and why did these groups come to blows later on? I knew there was an epic story about antebellum America and the Civil War years that hadn’t been told.

Q: These women became friends in the central New York town of Auburn. Why was this state open to opposing slavery?

New York was radicalized in 1850 by the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed [enslavers] to pursue runaways in other parts of the country. People like Wright risked fines and prison terms [to help fugitives].  

Q: What drove these women?

When you are the most despised members of society, you have this constant sense of rage and injustice. Tubman was almost superhuman in how her rage never really manifested itself. She knew how to channel it. But Seward and Wright were transparently furious.

Q: What surprised you about Tubman?

She was an incredible force of nature. We know that from her Underground Railroad exploits. But I was astonished by how she decided on her own to go down to the South and become a spy for the Union Army. She helped lead a stunning raid where soldiers torched plantations and liberated about 750 enslaved people in South Carolina along the Combahee River. She continued to speak up on behalf of women and African Americans throughout her long life.

Q: Was it challenging to write about Tubman?

I had to piece her together from others who listened to her speak and then wrote down what she said. She was incredibly shrewd and wanted to be remembered. She went about doing this by telling the kinds of stories that she knew would be indelible. She was a fabulous raconteur, such a good storyteller. She also had this very wry, irresistible sense of humor.

Q: How did Seward work behind the scenes to influence her husband, a powerful abolitionist senator?

When the Civil War breaks out, she’s writing these letters to her husband arguing that it was a war [at that point] to save the union, not to free the slaves. She thought that was a complete betrayal of everything he had ever stood for: When there are 400,000 enslaved human beings, you don’t compromise. You destroy slavery.

Politicians like her husband had all kinds of good reasons to wait to shut down slavery. It’s a fascinating look at how outside dissidents go about fixing what they see is wrong while politicians feel they have restrictions. 

Q: What is the legacy of these women?

Even though it may appear that you have no power at all, there’s a lot you can do to overturn an unjust system.

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