How an 1870 Suffragist’s Diary Helped a Modern Mormon Feminist Find Her Voice

Inspired by a 100-year-old diary, this founder of the Mormon feminist movement encourages everyone to keep journals and record their own history.
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Photo by spxChrome / iStock.

Claudia Lauper Bushman had planned to donate the hundred-year-old diary to Harvard’s library. But the librarian was a little snippy that day, and Bushman really loved that diary.

Beyond loving the diary, Bushman had grown to love the diarist as well. 

The diarist, Harriet Hanson Robinson, had been a child laborer in the mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, and later a suffragist. Most of her writing—27 journals and 39 scrapbooks—was archived safely at Schlesinger Library, then part of Radcliffe, Harvard’s former women’s college. Bushman had gotten the diary from Robinson’s grandson-in-law. He searched the dusty shelves of his old New England home, and found three more of Robinson’s diaries, accidentally left behind when the rest of her papers were sold to an old Boston bookstore named Goodspeed’s. He gave Bushman the diaries to keep.

It was the mid 1970s, and Bushman was a Ph.D. student, writing her dissertation on Robinson’s life. At that time most Ph.D. students were men. Bushman was a woman in her mid-40s, a mother of six, and a Mormon.

Beyond loving the diary, Bushman had grown to love the diarist as well. Plus, 1870 was the year Robinson committed to suffrage for women, and she’d recorded all of her work in that journal.

Bushman donated two of the three diaries, but kept the 1870 diary for herself. “It was just a moment’s stinginess,” she said about her trip to the library that day. “I probably should have given it to them, but I didn’t want to.”

That was thirty-six years ago. Now, at age 81, Bushman is writing a book on the diary and its long-deceased writer.

A life worth recording

By the time Robinson recorded her 1870 journal, she was 45 years old. Her family was poor as she grew up, and she began working at the age of 10 in a textile factory.

Harriet Hanson Robinson

Robinson kept a book in her lap as she worked, a practice forbidden in most mills. But her job consisted of sitting on a stool, away from the machinery, threading a loom with a crochet-like hook, so she offered herself reading breaks. She only attended school three months a year because that’s what the mills allowed their school-age employees. As a teenager, she won two years of high school in a competitive exam, but afterward returned to work at the mill. Robinson married at 23, in part to provide a stable home for her widowed mother.

“And yet she carves this good life for herself out of that,” said Bushman. “I just admire that a lot.”

She wrote about how she loved to take care of her chickens and tend her backyard garden, where she grew asparagus and raspberries. She loved her husband, and he was in love with her. She loved riding the train—only a 15-minute trip—from then-bucolic Malden to bustling Boston.

“If they don’t write it, they will be forgotten.”

In the years following the Civil War, women pushed for their right to vote, and Boston was a center for their movement. In 1870, Robinson took on the work of co-planning a major bazaar to support the cause. The proceeds funded leading activist Lucy Stone’s feminist newspaper, The Woman’s Journal. The bazaar was a success, and after the event Robinson became president of the Middlesex County Suffrage Association. In that role, she hosted three major meetings and gave speeches, drawing many new members to the cause.

Yet Robinson’s work went mostly unrecognized. Stone not only sent Robinson a bill for $200 for travel costs to the meetings but also neglected to credit Robinson’s work in her newspaper. Angry, Robinson defected from Stone’s group and joined Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony’s competing organization. She continued to work hard, give speeches, and write about women’s rights. But though Anthony was much more polite than Stone had been, Robinson never got much recognition for her work in the suffrage movement.

Robinson found peace in her house and yard, with her husband, and perhaps in writing her many journals. She recorded all of her work—from her garden to the suffrage movement—in the journal Bushman has.

“I believe that everyone should tell his or her own story—that it’s the best story they ever will have to tell,” said Bushman. “If they don’t write it, they will be forgotten. But if they do write it, they have a chance to be immortal in some serious way.”

Journals as history

Bushman is a third generation Mormon, and was raised in San Francisco, where her mother put on operettas for the church and neighborhood kids each summer. In high school, her guidance counselor handed her an all-in-one application to seven prestigious east coast women’s colleges. “I put Wellesley first because I liked the name better,” Bushman said. “And it was closer to the ocean.” Wellesley offered her a generous scholarship.

Richard Bushman, her future husband, made his way to greater Boston in a similar fashion. While he was in high school in Portland, Oregon, a Harvard recruiter showed up asking to meet any qualified students. Richard was qualified. Neither Claudia nor Richard had traveled east before their freshman years. They met at the Mormon Church in Cambridge.

Richard fell in love with Claudia immediately, but it took him two years to win her over. “I didn’t aspire to Richard,” said Claudia. “I thought he was beyond me—too smart, too spiritual, too intellectual. You know.”

“Claudia had this magical allure,” said Richard. “Everyone was falling in love with her. It was quite a hazard.”

What started as awkward study dates grew gradually into a relationship that’s lasted more than five decades. They married in 1955, when Claudia was a junior in college and Richard had just graduated. By the time Claudia walked across the graduation stage at Wellesley, she was five months pregnant.

Claudia Bushman

The couple went on to have six children. Richard earned his Ph.D. in history and became a professor while Claudia kept house and raised their children. They’d been married for more than 10 years when Claudia decided to go for her Ph.D. because, she said, she needed something to think about while doing the family ironing. Richard said, proudly, “She was a prefeminist feminist.”

Bushman was, in fact, one of a small group of women in Cambridge who founded the Mormon feminist movement, which remains robust and active to this day. They read the writings of the polygamous Mormon women of the 1800s, who argued that being just part-time wives afforded them greater autonomy in both work and managing their households. The Mormon feminists were radically inclusive of women who wanted to stay home and raise children, who were often shunned by other feminist groups. They also welcomed women so fed up with the patriarchy of Mormonism that they’d left the church.

Several of the Mormon feminists were writers and scholars, or had accompanied their scholarly husbands to Boston as they pursued Ph.Ds in various topics. And, like Bushman, a lot of them were stay-at-home mothers yearning for a way to express their intellect, so they created their own outlets. In 1976, Bushman edited the group’s first book, Mormon Sisters: Women in Early Utah, and was the founding editor of a Mormon feminist magazine, Exponent II, which has been in continuous publication ever since.

Pulitzer-prize winning author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, one of Bushman’s best friends and early collaborators in the founding of Mormon feminism, admired Bushman’s decision to earn the highest possible degree.

“I see how easy it is for everything that’s in somebody’s mind to just suddenly be gone.”

“One day, Claudia told me she had decided to do a Ph.D.,” said Ulrich. “I asked her in what field. She said, ‘Something nobody has thought about yet. Women’s history.’ That was true. A few people had begun work in the field, but it wasn't well known.”

Inspired by her friend, Ulrich went on to earn her own Ph.D. Though Bushman’s doctorate is in American Studies and Ulrich’s is in History, both women focused their research on the lives of everyday women. Ulrich went on to write an incredible account of the life of Maine midwife Martha Ballard, based on Ballard’s own journal. Bushman published a full biography of Robinson in 1981. (Her current project is to write the story of just Robinson’s 1870 diary.)

In the intervening years, Bushman transcribed her own mother’s handwritten journal, and edited her frontier-woman grandmother’s writings into a book . Altogether, she has written eight books, several of them based on journals. She thinks oral histories are “pure gold,” and with that in mind founded a major Mormon women’s oral history project.

Writing your own story

Bushman was well into her 40s before she began keeping her own journal. The epiphany came to her while she was driving down to Maryland to give a talk about a Civil War-era journal by a woman named Mary Chesnut. The trip was proving to be a bother. What’s more, Chesnut had kept her diary in poor order.

“As I was driving down to Maryland,” said Bushman, “I thought, ‘Here I am, going to all this trouble, driving this whole long way, so that people will know about Mary Chesnut, and she didn’t even work hard enough to get her own diary in shape to publish it.’”

“But no one will remember me,” concluded Bushman, “because I haven’t written a journal myself.”

Upon returning from her talk on Chesnut’s diary, Bushman started a diary of her own. Now she thinks of two topics to write about every morning while brushing her teeth. As soon as she opens her computer, she writes two paragraphs—one for each topic, and sometimes more. Bushman routinely advises others to do the same: plan out their daily journal entry while brushing their teeth.

Keeping Robinson’s 1870 journal all those years ago has given Bushman the chance to delve back into work that meant so much to her at the start of her career. Her husband was the one to insist she write a book on the diary. She, in turn, assigned her husband the project of writing his autobiography.

“I see how easy it is for everything that’s in somebody’s mind to just suddenly be gone, and can never, ever, ever be recovered,” said Bushman. “Everyone’s take is different, and to lose a voice of somebody is very sorrowful to me.”