Augusta Mildred Cooper was born on a farm in Croydon, NH, on April 17, 1835, to Otis and Hannah (Powers) Cooper. Hannah, already a mother of eight children from her first marriage whose intellect was praised by her daughter Augusta, supplemented the family income by weaving fine cloths.
This is the story of a young woman, a girl, who, having been her own teacher using her elder brothers’ Dartmouth textbooks, attended KUA for the equivalent of her sophomore year, 1850-1851 and then began her teaching career at age 15 in a one-room schoolhouse in her tiny village of Croydon. By 1884, she had so changed her life that she became, in the presence of 12,000 people, the first “woman to nominate a presidential candidate, General Benjamin F. Butler,” – it would be 26 more years before women gained the right to vote.
Augusta continued to teach in Croydon (for $8 a month), until 1857 when she married Gustavus Kimball, a newspaper publisher, from East Canaan, NH. After the birth of their first child Annie, they moved to Illinois. Augusta hated living there. When the Civil War began, she returned with her daughter to her parents’ home in Croydon. In 1861, Gustavus divorced her on the grounds of desertion.
Augusta’s gift with words came early having written her first poem at age eight; she “ … had a passion for poetry and literature.” She supported herself and Annie by contributing to various New England publications including The Radical. Louis Bristol, a retired engineer and lawyer, living in Illinois, became interested in her through her writing and travelled to Croydon to meet her. They married in 1866 and Augusta soon found herself back in Illinois, a place she still hated and compared to “…living in Egypt.” After her son Otis was born, she published her first book Poems followed by Enlightened Motherhood. One day she gave a speech to some of her neighbors that led to an invitation to speak to another gathering; this was the beginning of her speaking career.
In 1871, the family moved to Vineland, NJ, a progressive town where they joined a local literary circle. Augusta enjoyed her new friends and, although she would always miss her “mountain home” in NH, she enjoyed the warmer climate in Vineland. A third child, Bessie, was born in 1872, followed two years later by the tragic, accidental death of her son Otis. Augusta wrote, “With almost super human effort I gathered up my mental energies, and focused them, in the long uninterrupted winter evenings on the works of Spencer, Carey, and August Comte. They saved me from myself.” From studying these authors, she gained the title, “Social Scientist,” and wrote and published The Relation of the Maternal Function to the Woman’s Intellect in 1876, The Philosophy of Art in 1878 and Science and its Relations to Human Character in 1878.
After a lecture tour in 1878 in New York City and Connecticut, The Woman’s Social Science Society of New York sent her to Guise, France, to report on Godin’s “Familistere” (the Social Palace) which was a cast iron stove factory with homes and enclosed courts containing stores, hospitals, recreation areas, etc. for the workers, “ … an experiment in Utopia.” In 1880, Augusta attended the Congress of Liberals in Brussels as a Delegate of the Society of Humanity. The Journal de Bruxelles commented on her speech, The Scientific Basis of Morality. “The principles of Madame Bristol’s discourse repose upon the philosophy of Comte and Spencer. We discuss not these principles; we disapprove them. We speak only of her oratory. Madame Augusta Cooper Bristol is really the Rachel, the Ristori, the Sarah Bernhardt of eloquent lecturers. The calm gesture, the picturesque inflection of the voice, the majesty of attitude, the complete possession of herself, mingle in this artist with a sweetness and a feminine propriety which is astonishing. Madame Bristol spoke in English, but she held equally well that large majority of the audience who could not comprehend her.”
Returning home, she continued with her busy public life: New Jersey appointed her State Lecturer for Patrons of Husbandry; she spoke at the Ninth Annual Woman’s Congress in Buffalo, NY; she continued her work with the National Women’s Christian Temperance Union and Association for the Advancement of Women, founded by Julia Howe Ward; in 1883, she attended the Eleventh Annual Woman’s Congress in Chicago where she delivered an address, Labor and Capital, to rave reviews from the Chicago papers. Augusta also continued her work in The Society for the Advancement of Women and published a book of poems, Web of Life in 1895.
Not forgetting her roots, Augusta went home to Croydon in 1901 to give the keynote speech at “Old Home Week.” Later, she wrote about a 100 year old man she met there whom she thought was only 75 which led her to “inquire into his manner of life and disposition; I learned that he had followed out-door occupation, and still followed light work in his garden, that he had been all his life of a humorous disposition, rarely ruffled in spirit or temper.”
In 1908 while visiting her daughter Annie who lived in San Diego, Augusta, at the bequest of Susan B. Anthony, spoke on behalf of the suffrage movement. This was to be Augusta’s last tour as she died in Vineland on October 3, 1910, the year women won the right to vote.
[With many thanks to SooNipi Magazine, Spring 2010, for much information into the life of this remarkable alumna of KUA.]
The Croydon Village School, where Augusta taught, is a one-room school house that has been in continuous operation since 1780, although it presently holds only grades 1-3. It is one of only three one-room schools in operation in New Hampshire at this time.
Next time: Jonathan C. Gibbs, class of 1848, an African American born free in Philadelphia, 1821.