Georgiana, Pioneering Feminist
by Debra Staab
In the 1800s, women didn’t wear pants, but Georgiana did. In the 1800s, women didn’t construct their own house, but Georgiana did. In the 1800s, women rarely questioned church doctrine, moral values, or societal norms, but Georgiana questioned them all. Georgiana Bruce Kirby was more than a pioneer woman, she was a pioneering feminist.
Georgiana Bruce’s birth on December 7, 1818 in Bristol, England was a mixed blessing—her father had perished at sea just three months prior. Even so, living in a loving household with her mother and sister offered smooth sailing during Georgiana’s earliest years. At age five her mother remarried and the family entered choppy seas. They relocated several times just to stay afloat which disrupted life and interrupted Georgiana’s education. By age 15 she was forced to quit school and become a fulltime governess. Although Georgiana missed learning, she enjoyed teaching children and gained the opportunity to travel to France, Canada, and eventually New England.
While working in Boston, Georgiana received an invitation to join Brook Farm, a society that promoted mental stimulation and spiritual expansion. It was a progressive community—a transcendentalist society— visited by many literary and scholarly figures of the time such as Margarete Fuller, John Sullivan Dwight, Charles Dana, Nathaniel Hawthorn, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and others. Georgiana thrived at Brook Farm where she studied music, German, and other topics for three years. When the group shifted their philosophy to Fourierism, Georgiana decided it was time to leave. At age 25, a fateful meeting with Eliza Farnham facilitated the change Georgiana was looking for.
Mrs. Eliza Farnham, estranged from her husband and with two young children, was appointed the matron of the Female State Prison at Sing Sing, New York in 1844. Mrs. Farnham’s challenge was to implement humane practices, rehabilitate the occupants, and to treat them as women, not prisoners. She played soothing melodies on a piano, read Dickens aloud, and softened discipline rules. Georgiana became an assistant to Mrs. Farnham, and together they worked to promote order and improvement for the inmates. The two bonded over their beliefs in empowering women.
Georgiana enjoyed helping women, but the stress of working in a prison was too much. After a year, she resigned and made plans to meet her brother in Illinois. Regrettably, he died just after Georgiana arrived. She stayed, and with a friend’s referral, found a teaching job. Here she came face to face with both slavery and the abolitionist movement. When asked to judge the color of her student’s skin based on tinted cards, Georgiana became so outraged that she resigned and headed back to the East Coast. Now an affirmed abolitionist, Georgiana taught mixed-race children in Philadelphia for some time before returning to New York. At this juncture Georgiana unexpectedly received an invitation from Eliza Farnham to come live with her on a 200 acre ranch in Santa Cruz. The appeal was irresistible, and in May, 1850 Georgiana headed West.
While men hastened to California to stake a claim in the gold fields, women often went to stake a claim to equality and to redefine the role of womanhood in the West. Eliza had inherited El Rancho La Libertad from her late husband a year earlier, and she was attempting to live there and farm the land. Eliza was out of her element since all of her past education, experience, and refinement were of little use in her new environment. Homesteading was physical and backbreaking, and she was largely alone. Many people had left Santa Cruz to mine for gold in the Sierras, and those who stayed behind were for the most part uneducated. This caused a great deal of friction between Eliza, who looked down on them, and the community, who considered the newcomer to be arrogant and unfriendly. Eliza wanted help, and Georgiana was just the friend she desperately needed.
Georgiana arrived at Eliza’s El Rancho La Libertad from San Francisco on horseback, starving and nearly frozen after being stranded overnight in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Eliza’s warm reception was salve to her aches and pains, and they immediately rekindled their friendship. They were comrades in arms on such topics as prison reform, the anti-slavery movement, women’s education, and dress reform, amongst others.
In the matter of dress reform, the two women happily tossed away their petticoats for Turkish pants and tunics. As Georgiana put it “After six months freedom from petticoats you will permit me to say that you don’t know what you suffer.” It was a practical decision that allowed them to ride a horse comfortably. In 1850 Santa Cruz had but 643 residents, no wharves, no bridges, only a few poor roads, and no clear path over the mountains to San Jose. Riding horseback was an essential form of transportation.
Their outfits also made it significantly easier to perform physical labor, an endless job for pioneer women. They had to haul water, plant and harvest crops, tend to small livestock, cook, wash and iron clothing, keep the hearth burning, and perform a myriad of other daily tasks. Eliza and Georgiana went far beyond that norm and took up hammer and nail to build themselves a small cottage. Women acting as carpenters were unheard of at the time.
Both women loved their freedom and independence, yet they both craved intellectual stimulation and the latest news from the East. Both had been raised in large social circles, a sharp contrast to the sparsely populated West. Where Eliza had largely failed to engage the local community, Georgiana, with her milder demeanor, was able to win over some of their neighbors. Within two years, both women would find partners and be married on the same day.
On March 23, 1852 Georgiana wed Richard Kirby and Eliza Farnham married William Fitzpatrick. At this point, the lives of the two women diverged. Eliza’s marriage failed, and she lost her property to bad decisions. The reformer than penned three books titled Women and Her Era, Eliza Woodson, and The Ideal Attained. She toured the country to promote women’s rights, especially suffrage, and actively joined the abolitionist movement. The feminist even volunteered as a nurse on the battlefields of the Civil War. Eliza died at the end of 1864, at age 49.
Georgiana’s successful marriage to Richard Kirby produced five children over their 35 years together. He was the owner and operator of a profitable tanning business, and they lived at Rancho La Salud in Santa Cruz. Even without Eliza, Georgiana carried on the torch and continued to advocate for women’s rights. She wrote convincing editorials for the local papers, founded the first regional suffragist society in 1869, supported various women’s movements, and mingled with national feminists such as Susan B. Anthony. Georgiana completed her autobiography, Years of Experience, just before her death in 1887 at age 68. It wasn’t until 1911 that California passed women suffrage, and the Nineteenth Amendment wasn’t ratified until 1920, which finally granted all American women the right to vote.
Source: Santa Cruz County Historical Trust. Georgiana Feminist Reformer of the West. Santa Cruz, 1987.