"When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you, till it seems as though you could not hang on a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn."
Those inspirational words were written by a woman so influential she was once credited with starting the Civil War.
Harriet Beecher, one of eleven children and the daughter of a Protestant minister, was born and raised in Litchfield Connecticut. Her mother died when she was five years old, and though Beecher's father did remarry (and Beecher liked her new stepmother), she was predominantly raised and influenced by her sister, Catherine. Catherine was a pioneer in women's education and had opened her own school for women, called Hartford Female Seminary.
As soon as Harriet was old enough, she was enrolled there. At Hartford, Beecher was an avid student and reader, and proved a star pupil -- so much so that she even taught a class while still enrolled.
In 1832, Harriet's family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio (Walnut Hills); there, her father took a job as president of a local theological seminary. Catherine founded another girls' school there, and, again, Harriet enrolled; she also joined a literary club, and taught more extensively. In time, she went on to cowrite a geography textbook with Catherine, publish her first article -- about grammar and punctuation -- and write her first story, "A New England Tale." By the mid-1830s, her career as writer was well underway.
While living in Cincinnati, Harriet befriended a woman named Eliza Stowe; when Eliza later died, Harriet helped take care of her friend's widower husband, Calvin. In 1836, Harriet Beecher married Calvin Stowe. Harriet and Calvin went on to have seven children; all the while, Harriet continued pursuing her writing career -- with her husband's blessing. In an 1840 letter to his wife, Calvin wrote: "My dear, you must be a literary woman. It is so written in the book of fate…Make all your calculations accordingly."
She wrote romantic short stories and magazine articles that paid fairly well, but found herself increasingly disturbed by the institution of slavery. She listened in horror as friends told stories of slaves risking life and limb to escape; she learned from her own housekeeper, herself a runaway slave, about the abominable, inhumane treatment that slaves suffered at the hands of their masters.
Though Stowe left Cincinnati with her husband and children in 1850 (Calvin took a faculty position at a college in Maine), the stories she heard while there continued to haunt her. In 1851, she began publishing weekly installments of Uncle Tom's Cabin; based on the first-hand accounts and stories she'd learned about slavery, the series eventually grew into a book. By the start of the Civil War, the two-volume novel had sold three million copies and been translated into thirty-seven different languages. "According to legend," reads Harriet's Life and Times, "when Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1862 he said, 'So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!'"
Stowe instantly became a champion of the abolitionist movement; she was asked to speak the world over and traveled to Europe three times, where she met the Queen of England and befriended poet Lord Byron's widow, Lady Byron. Even as the Civil War began drawing to a close, Stowe did not give up the cause; after purchasing a winter home in Mandarin, Florida, she helped found a school there for former slaves.
Throughout it all, Stowe continued writing; by the time her career ended, she had published thirty-two different fiction and non-fiction books, works of poetry, and short story collections. She also wrote and published countless articles, including a New York newspaper column encouraging women to help abolish slavery.
In 1896, after a long and industrious life, Harriet Beecher Stowe died in her sleep. Her husband had died a decade before and only three of her children survived her, but Harriet Beecher Stowe's writings are still some of the most important historical documents recounting slavery today.