Nancy Hewitt’s Radical Friend Wins the 2019 James Bradford Best Biography Prize

Nancy Hewitt’s Radical Friend: Amy Kirby Post and Her Activist Worlds (University of North Carolina Press, 2018) has won the 2019 James Bradford Best Biography Prize from SHEAR. The prize committee, including April Haynes (Chair), Manisha Sinha, and Jeffrey L. Pasley, found it to be a stellar biography of one of the most important abolitionist feminists of the nineteenth century. In this deeply researched and acutely analyzed book, Hewitt not only recovers the relatively forgotten activist milieu of Post in Rochester, New York, but through a careful and thorough examination of her wide-ranging activism reveals the nature and extent of radical social movements of her time. Post, she shows, was a central figure in multiple, overlapping social movements like abolition, women’s rights, temperance, and health reform, and a champion for the rights of Seneca Indians. Her activism and championing of what Hewitt terms “universal reform,” like that of some other prominent abolitionists, especially Garrisonians, knew no bounds.

In this important biography, Hewitt challenges the conventional wisdom on the rise of abolition in upstate New York as merely an offshoot of religious revivals and moral reform movements. Instead, she traces the longer lineage of Quaker abolitionism to iconoclastic figures in the eighteenth century and to the Hicksites, the Quaker sect to which Amy and Isaac Post belonged. Later their religious views became more eclectic; they dabbled in spiritualism and belonged to the Progressive Friends society. Rather than conventional, social control-oriented evangelical religiosity, the Posts exemplified a sort of new age religiosity.

Their home at Sophia Street, Rochester, was the center for not just their extended Quaker family and kin but also numerous black and white activists. Hewitt’s deep knowledge of Rochester allows her to situate Amy Post in this dense and widespread network of activism expertly. Based on a close reading of Post’s correspondence, Hewitt unpacks Post’s familial relations as well as her relationship with some of the leading figures of Rochester, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, and many other abolitionists and women’s-rights activists such as William Cooper Nell, Harriet Jacobs, and Sojourner Truth. Hewitt reveals Post’s central role in the Western New York Anti Slavery Society, in the women’s convention movement in the 1850s, and in cultivating an interracial radical milieu in Rochester. Despite the schisms between abolitionists and some women’s-rights activists after the war, Post retained her intersectional commitments to black and women’s rights. There is much that we can learn from her extraordinary life, Hewitt concludes.

Many thanks to the prize committee members for their hard work in selecting Hewitt’s book and in drafting this citation.

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