Pioneer Women: Eliza Farnham

FlowerEliza Farnham was just 28 when she was appointed Women’s Warden of New York’s infamous Sing Sing prison in 1844, a post she was sacked from within four years because of her passionate prison reform views. In the interim she gave birth to a disabled son, her second living child. Her husband Thomas Jefferson Farnham, a lawyer and noted travel writer, went to California to prepare for the family’s planned move there. She needed to work; Thomas wasn’t sending any money home. In late 1848 she was teaching in Boston when she learned that Thomas had died in San Francisco, leaving some real estate to be settled. By now, the gold discovery in California was drawing hordes of would-be prospectors aboard every ship. Eliza and her two sons finally left the East in May 1849. For most of the 1850s she lived on the 2,000 acre ranch her husband had purchased in Santa Cruz. She farmed the land, taught elementary school, and published California, In-doors and Out, the first book about California written by a woman. She re-married, had two children with an abusive husband whom she later divorced. In the mid-1850s Eliza Farnham embarked on a series of well-attended lectures throughout Northern California, promoting her views on Spiritualism, women’s health issues, and other social concerns of the time. She addressed the Woman’s Rights Convention of 1858 in New York. However, Mrs. Farnham angered many of her fellow feminists with her famous statement that “women didn’t need to fight for equality because they were already superior to men.” Eliza Farnham died in 1864 in New York, aged 49, survived by only one of her children. Today she is acknowledged as a pioneer feminist. March is National Women’s History Month.