Eliza Wood Farnham (1815-1864) was already a big-time social reformer at the age of 29 when she was hired to become the matron at the famous penitentiary, Sing Sing (now known as Ossining Correctional Facility).
As a human rights activist, Farnham was appalled when she discovered prisoners were allowed to work and dine together, but in complete and total silence! This inhumane treatment had led to riots in the prison.
Farnham had enough of that. She first added beautiful curtains to make the place look more like a home (she believed if she treated the prisoners with respect their sense of worth would remain high and they would more likely be successfully rehabilitated). She then added in books, flowers, and dolls for the prisoners to enjoy. She is most famous for bringing in a piano and encouraging sing-alongs and other forms of keeping the prisoners social and spirited.
Farnham was at Sing Sing for four years, but then moved to Boston where she briefly worked at the New England Asylum for the Blind (now the Perkins Institute). After her short time in Boston, Farnham was widowed and moved to California and joined her friend (and assistant at Sing Sing) Georgiana Bruce. The women set up house and farmed the 200-acre ranch in Santa Cruz that Farnham’s late husband had left and which she named “Rancho La Libertad”. She also served as matron of the Stockton Insane Asylum.
However, it was in California where Farnham started to notice the lack of positive female influence in California. Farnham called upon women to bring their positive influence to overthrow the immorality caused by a an unbalanced all-male, lawless society. (California’s population was 90% male in 1850).
She started a society to help women without resources migrate west. She also went against the norm during her era and pushed for higher education and careers for women.
Farnham was also a successful author, the controversial Woman and Her Era was widely read:
[In Woman and Her Era] she argued that motherhood was the biological basis for women’s superiority and that women, therefore, should aim not for civil equality with men, but for a “higher” standard. For this reason she opposed woman’s rights advocates whose goal was political equality with men, yet she welcomed the opportunity in 1858 to speak at the National Woman’s Rights Convention about her theory of female superiority. Woman and Her Era also demonstrated the impact of free thought (deism) on Farnham–further distinguishing her from her churchly contemporaries–for it pronounced science to be “Objective Truth” and scorned such “Arbitrary systems” as religion (vol. 1, p. 19). Not easily classified as an enemy of the emerging feminist cause, Farnham considered herself “a sympathetic, yet dissenting spectator” and, in spite of her philosophical and tactical differences with leading activists, expressed gratitude for the “pioneer struggles whose fruits we are now enjoying in the partial emancipation of Women” (Woman and Her Era, vol. 1, p. v.). Her views also presaged the late nineteenth-century feminist conviction that woman’s achievement and use of political rights would “purify” civil society. –Source
You can still find Life in Prairie Land (a travel and nature book and account of the life of a frontier housewife ) in print today.
Unfortunately, Farnham passed away before she could see the fruits of much of her labor:
Farnham’s life ended before she could witness either the schisms in or many of the successes of the woman’s movement. During the Civil War she worked with the Women’s Loyal National League and joined with abolitionists who sought to convince Abraham Lincoln to end slavery. In 1863 she went to nurse the wounded at Gettysburg, where she contracted tuberculosis. She returned to New York City, where she died. She was buried at Milton-on-Hudson, New York. –Source