Dall, Caroline

Caroline Wells Healey Dall
Caroline Wells Healey Dall

Caroline Wells Healey Dall (June 22, 1822-December 17, 1912), author, journalist, lecturer and champion of women’s rights, was a Unitarian community service worker, minister’s wife and lay preacher. She left valuable memoirs of her elders in the Transcendentalist movement and was heir to the mantle of Margaret Fuller as spokesperson for woman’s access to education and employment.

Caroline was the oldest of 8 children born in Boston to Unitarians Caroline Foster and Mark Healey (1791-1876), a successful India merchant, banker, and, later, investor in railroads. Her father taught 18-month-old Caroline to pick out letters from the large type on the front page of the Christian Register. In a time when most did not take girls’ education seriously, he engaged tutors for her and sent her to private schools. Between ages 13 and 15 she studied Latin and modern languages, notably French and Italian. Because her mother had become an invalid, at 13 she took charge of the household, a burden she felt “unsuitable.” At 15 she learned, from Harvard professor Edward Tyrell Channing’s comments on his students’ papers, how to polish the style of her writing.

When Caroline was 12, she attended a series of lectures given by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Criticized for having given so expensive a ticket to a child, her father said, “I shall expect her to write abstracts of them.” He directed her to concentrate as she listened and, without notes, to write what she remembered the next day. She did take notes as she listened to future Harvard president James Walker deliver his Lowell Institute Lectures in 1840. Walker said they were so accurate that he could not distinguish them from his own.

The Healey family attended the West Church during the ministries of the Revs. Charles Lowell and Cyrus Bartol. Caroline taught Sunday School and, with her mother, attended meetings of the “Tuckerman Circle,” a women’s organization which supported the community ministry of Joseph Tuckerman and the Benevolent Fraternity. By 1840 Caroline was herself working in programs to assist Boston’s working-class poor. She taught Sunday school at the Benevolent Fraternity’s Pitts Street Chapel, ran a nursery for children of working women, and served as a visitor to the poor in their homes.

As a teenager Caroline wrote religious articles for the Christian Register and other newspapers, some of which she included in her first book, Essays and Sketches, 1849. In this publication she declared education to be “every woman’s birthright,” along with the right to find remunerative employment. She claimed as woman’s “legitimate inheritance” the privilege of preaching, the respect of men, and freedom from being considered “a tool or a plaything.” She did not yet call for full citizenship. She wrote, “We doubt very much whether Providence ever intended that women should personally share the duties of the commonwealth. We feel that this is utterly incompatible with the more precious and positive duties of the nursery and the fireside.”

In 1840 18-year-old Caroline began visiting Elizabeth Peabody‘s new Boston bookstore. Peabody greatly impressed her. Here was a model for womanhood quite different from her mother’s example. She wrote in her journal, “I love to hear her talk, to see her smile—although I return from both—amazingly humbled in my own conception.”

Peabody introduced Caroline to Samuel Taylor Coleridge‘s works of literary criticism and urged her to engage in “self-culture.” She at first resisted Peabody’s effort to recruit her into the ranks of the Transcendentalists, writing, “I think she cannot succeed—common sense—I have—and that is apt to look upon the speculations of so styled wiser heads as uncommon nonsense.”

In 1841 Peabody persuaded Caroline, a generation younger than most other participants, to attend Margaret Fuller’s weekly “conversations.” Fuller, once precocious and outspoken herself, was repelled by the younger woman’s assertiveness. Personally uncomfortable as these sessions sometimes were for Caroline—Peabody rebuked her and Emerson looked at her with contempt—the mature Dall credited her association with Fuller as opening for her “all the great questions of life.” When the series ended, she wrote in her journal, “I could have wept . . . never have I enjoyed any society so much.”

In 1841 Caroline also attended Theodore Parker‘s controversial lectures at the Masonic Hall. She was converted to Parker’s “humanitarian” view of Jesus and described herself to friends as a “disciple of Theodore Parker.” To her surprise and relief, she was not ostracized by her friends or members of her church. In 1845, though her father was not in sympathy with Parker’s views, at his daughter’s urging Mark Healey helped to organize a new church which would hold its services in Boston’s Music Hall to provide Parker a prominent pulpit, and also partly underwrote his salary.

As a young woman, Caroline worked in the Georgetown area of the District of Columbia as the vice principal of Miss English’s School for Young Ladies, 1842-1844. In 1844 she married Charles Henry Appleton Dall whom she had first seen at his Harvard commencement in 1837. At once struck by his personal beauty, she later described him as “a young man with the face and figure of a Greek, with a bearing that might have challenged a Phidias.”

Dall was then a social worker and minister-at-large (now called a community minister) in Baltimore. Their marriage was not a success. Charles was unhealthy, unstable, and unsuccessful in his early ministries. Caroline soon treated him as a sick child. They had two children, William Healey Dall and Sarah Keene Healey Dall. A naturalist, William studied mollusks, participated in the United States Coastal Survey of Alaska, and in 1869 was appointed a curator of the Smithsonian Institution.

Between 1846 and 1854 Charles Dall was settled in churches in Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Needham, Massachusetts; and Toronto, Ontario. Caroline helped with parish work, taught classes and sometimes even preached. She continued to write, and was corresponding editor of Paulina Wright Davis’s pioneering woman’s rights magazine, Una. She also worked for a society that helped fugitive slaves get to Canada. When Charles’s ministry ended in professional and physical disaster, the family moved to West Newton, Massachusetts, just west of Boston. In 1855 Charles accepted appointment by the American Unitarian Association as missionary to Calcutta, India where he worked until his death in 1886. In 31 years he returned home only 5 times. Caroline Dall stayed in Boston and raised their children on her own. She published a Memorial to Charles Appleton Dall in 1902.

Effectively abandoned by her husband, Dall was not without financial resources. Her father was at this time a multi-millionaire. But determined to make her own way, she made her living as a lecturer. Her most important book, The College, The Market, and the Court: or Woman’s Relation to Education, Labor, and Law, 1867, grew out of her lectures, given in Boston, 1859-62, in which she called for coeducation, equal vocational opportunities, equal pay for equivalent work, equality of the sexes under the law, and an equal share in the making of laws, which entailed the enfranchisement of women. She described capable and educated middle-class women as underemployed and frustrated, and the lack of access to a livelihood as nothing less than tragic for women of the laboring class. According to Dall, many were driven to prostitution to feed themselves and their children. She wrote of women’s need for meaningful work: “He who never rests has made woman in his image; and health, beauty, force, and influence follow on the steps of labor alone.”

Caroline Dall
Caroline Dall

Dall organized woman’s rights conventions in 1855 and 1859. Overbearing by nature, she soon alienated other leaders of the woman’s movement. Excluded from political leadership and confined to writing, she broadened her interests to include other areas of concern. Consequently, her contributions to woman’s suffrage were neglected by later historians.

In 1865 Dall helped to found the American Social Science Association, an organization for helping the poor, unemployed, imprisoned, and mentally ill, and served on its executive committee for forty years. Alfred University awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1877. She continued to lecture and preach. She was Sunday School superintendent at James Freeman Clarke‘s Church of the Disciples in Boston. She wrote prolifically on a wide variety of subjects, including biography, history, travel, health, literature, religion (for the Index of the Free Religious Association), and Egyptology.

Mark Healy died in 1876. Dall lamented that in his last decade her father had squandered his fortune with ill-advised investments. Although their relations were always affectionate, the two had quite different personalities. They often found each other’s ideas and actions mutually incomprehensible. She wrote of him shortly after his death, “I have thanked him every day of my life for [seeing to my] education, and if when the times came which tried men’s souls, he found it impossible to bear the results of his own loving and strenuous effort, who shall blame him? He was only one of thousands, and in the world which is to come, there will be no shadow between our souls.”

In 1879 Dall moved to live with her son in Washington, D.C. where she taught adult classes in literature and morals and was a friend of First Lady Frances Cleveland.

In 1895 she published Margaret and Her Friends, a book based on her notes of the 1841 Fuller conversations. This account, and her lecture Transcendentalism in New England, 1897, challenged the accepted treatment of the Transcendentalists written by Octavius Brooks Frothingham two decades earlier. Dall made light of German philosophers’ influence on the movement and claimed instead that it was an indigenous product of New England’s history. She proposed Puritan dissident and martyr Anne Hutchinson as Emerson’s spiritual ancestor. She criticized Frothingham’s neglect of Henry David Thoreau and Frederic Henry Hedge. Although she had once herself admired him, she dismissed Bronson Alcott, for his gross irresponsibility towards his family, as a figure unworthy of attention.

Also, unlike any previous writer, Dall insisted on two points: that the Transcendentalist movement was much more a movement for practical social reform than an episode in the history of ideas, and that Fuller and other women were not peripheral to the movement, but central players. Dall’s memoir substantially affected the way later historians would write of the Transcendentalists.

Though apparently troubled by chronic poor health, Dall was quite active until her death of pneumonia at age 90.


There are collections of Caroline Dall papers at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts; the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, Massachusetts; and at Bryn Mawr College in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. There are also some letters at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Her diary, edited by Helen R. Deese, is Daughter of Boston: The Extraordinary Diary of Nineteenth-century Woman, Caroline Healey Dall (2005). Among Dall’s works, not mentioned above, are Historical Pictures Retouched (1859); Woman’s Right to Labor (1860); Life of Dr. Marie Zabrewska (1860); “Margaret Fuller Ossoli” (1860), reprinted in North American Review (1991); Woman’s Rights under the Law (1861); Sunshine, A Name for a Popular Lecture on Health (1864); Egypt’s Place in History (1868); Patty Gray’s Journey to the Cotton Islands (3 volumes, 1869-70); Romance of the Association, or One Last Glimpse of Charlotte Temple and Eliza Wharton (1875); My First Holiday, or Letters from Colorado, Utah, and California (1881); and What We Really Know about Shakespeare (1885).

Dall’s memoir of her youth, written in 1876, is “Alongside” (1900). The relation of Dall to Transcendentalism is studied in Perry Miller, “New England’s Transcendentalism: Native or Imported?” in Carol Camden, ed., Literary Views (1964) and Helen Deese, “Transcendentalism from the Margins: Caroline Healey Dall,” in Charles Capper and Conrad Edick Wright, eds., Transient and Permanent (1999). Dean Grodzins, American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism (2002) tells of the relationship between Caroline and Mark Healey and Theodore Parker. There are biographical articles on Dall by Stephen Nissenbaum in Notable American Women (1971); by Anne C. Rose in American National Biography (1999); and by Helen Deese in Dorothy Emerson, ed., Standing Before Us (2000).

Article by Spencer Lavan and Peter Hughes
Posted March 12, 2004