Margaret Hope Bacon: an Interview
By Angelina Conti
Margaret Hope Bacon is perhaps one of the most prominent living Quaker historians. Her books The Quiet Rebels: The Story of Quakers in America, Mothers of Feminism: Quaker Women in America, and numerous biographies of historic and 20th century Friends like Lucretia Mott, Robert Purvis and Henry Cadbury continue, in some cases even decades after first being published, to be definitive resources for Quakers and non-Quakers alike.
Drawing upon a lifetime of activism, much of her work as an historian, journalist and fiction writer explores the historic and contemporary role of Quakers in movements for women’s rights and racial justice, including the dialogue and common causes between those movements. Some of her most recent books include But One Race: The Life of Robert Purvis, about the African American abolitionist and orator, and Sarah Mapps Douglass, Faithful Attender of Quaker Meeting, a biography of the first known African American Friend to leave behind a journal and correspondence.
Much of Margaret Hope Bacon’s other work, beyond her many published works, has and continues to focus on social justice. She worked at the American Friends Service Committee for many years and has long been instrumental in the Fair Hill Burial Ground, a historic Quaker cemetery in North Philadelphia that has been reborn as a community resource emphasizing racial justice and cooperation. She also helped envision and was a board member of Women’s Way, the country’s oldest and largest funding federation for women’s organizations.
Margaret Hope Bacon lives with her husband, Allen Bacon, in farm country outside Philadelphia near where part of her most recent book, a novel, takes place. Continuing in the vein of her recent books, The Back Bench tells the story of 14-year-old Quaker Myra Harlan and her experience of the racial and social ferment of Philadelphia and the Quaker community there in the 1830s. The novel, available from QuakerBook of FGC, recreates nineteenth-century Philadelphia and brings to life historic Friends like Lucretia Mott, while confronting issues of racial justice, equality, integrity and cultural and theological diversity that are still relevant today.
Angelina Conti: Let’s begin with your new novel, The Back Bench. What do you hope readers, Quaker and non-Quaker, will take away from it?
Margaret Hope Bacon: Obviously I’m proud of the child [Myra, the protagonist] for being friends with someone of a different skin color, which was so unusual in those days, and for reaching out in such a courageous fashion. I hope I’ll reinforce that view.
AC: Is there anything in particular you hope Quaker readers will get from it?
MHB: Well, [equality] is a testimony that supposedly the Society of Friends has held for many, many years but has not always acted on – and that needs to be reinforced all the time.
AC: What do you think the relationship should be between modern Friends and their history? Are there ways that Quaker history can help modern Friends, or ways that it can hold us back?
MHB: I hope that some of these stories are inspiring. They are to me. When I started writing it was about those Friends who inspired me, and that’s pretty much been the theme of my biographies – much of my writing, really, has been looking back to inspiration. Because we have their letters and papers, we can often look back and get a better judgment of how their life has spoken than we can from our contemporaries, because their life is still in process.
AC: Thinking about Friends who have inspired you, I know that your scholarly work focused on racial justice and women’s rights is only small part of larger life work for you.
MHB: My father came from the South. He was born in Georgia but grew up in Florida. I didn’t know very much about it – he was an artist and lived in New York City, and I went to a progressive school. We were not Quakers. We were fairly distant from religion – I wont say agnostic, just not terribly interested. I didn’t know anything about racial problems, we didn’t have any blacks at my school – it was a private school in Greenwich Village – and then rather abruptly during the Depression we went to Florida. There of course the racial divisions were sharp and racial privileges were strong, and to my horror I discovered my father, once back in his hometown, began to say things, like I shouldn’t go out at night after dark because black men were around, etc. I was very unhappy with that move anyway, I was an adolescent, and I just latched onto this sense of injustice. I remember once watching a fat, red faced Florida man chasing an old black man with car around a parking lot for fun. I remember the boiling rage. So that began that feeling.
Allen and I went to Antioch College, and it was founded as an integrated college, but it was all white when we were there. So we decided we ought to do something about integrating it. We started meeting with black people in the village and black schools. It didn’t actually happen when we were there – we had a committee set up, and we had money raised – Margot Scott came in a few years later. So it was a big interest of mine, both intellectual and in a more engaged way.
When my husband started working at Friends Neighborhood Guild, we started having a lot more contact with black social workers. He eventually became the director of all the settlement houses in Philadelphia, so we had a lot of contact at that point. We had been living out in Radnor, and one thing we tried to do was to integrate the suburbs by bringing black families who might enjoy the suburbs out to them. We helped to found an organization, which is still going, focused on fair housing. It didn’t happen in our time there, but then we moved in Mount Airy and had black neighbors, and our kids went to Germantown Friends and had black classmates. It was a gradual transition. The last part of our life in Philadelphia we lived downtown, and our neighbor was the granddaughter of a slave and the mother of Chaka Fattah.
AC: How has an interest in women’s rights and feminism been a part of your life?
MHB: My mother wasn’t much of a feminist, and now that I look back on it the school in Greenwich Village was run by the first wave of feminists. Our principal had a female [partner], who always dressed in men’s clothing. I guess it just seeped in. I didn’t have any strong feelings of being ignored or mistreated because I was a woman [in New York]. When I moved to Florida I discovered that there was a very distinct role for women in the South and I didn’t seem to fit it. I didn’t get really into women’s right until the second wave. I have a book on pioneers of the second wave – and I’m in that book, somehow.
AC: How did you first find Lucretia Mott?
MHB: I was beginning to write biographies that were supposed to be aimed at high school students, junior biographies, and I was being interviewed by a television network about these biographies. They asked me who the most outstanding Quaker woman was and I said Lucretia Mott, and they said “Why don’t you write about her?” I didn’t know that I was qualified. I’m not a historian really – I was a journalist and a fiction writer, I wrote lots of short stories. So I didn’t feel like I was really qualified to do it, but then nobody else was doing it, and I got plenty of help from historians learning how to do historical research.
Lucretia Mott has just opened a whole world for me of Quaker women and involvement in racial justice and feminism – she’s still very much with me. I have her picture up over my computer.
AC: You said that you’re parents weren’t Quaker. How did you come to Quakerism?
MHB: By marrying my husband, Allen. We met at college and he was a Quaker – actually, I had started attending Quaker meeting, it’s the way I met him. I liked the silence. It took me a long time to decide to become a Quaker, for some reason. Like a lot of people, I thought I wasn’t really good enough to be a Quaker. After we had our children they complained that they wanted to be something, so we decided to send them to Quaker Sunday school and we joined a meeting.
AC: Of all the scholarly work that you’ve done, what is a book that think you could write but haven’t? What is your best unwritten book?
MHB: Well, I have to answer that a little differently. As I’ve said, I’ve published a good amount of short fiction. I really wanted to be a novelist. I only have two published novels, but I wrote a lot of novels that didn’t quite make it. They would be praised and in some cases the publisher would want to interview me, or say “We won’t take this book but please send us your next book.” It was sort of maddeningly close, but never close enough.
I tend to do things pretty fast, and I think that novel writing takes a little bit more thoughtful consideration. I was raising children and I was freelancing for the newspaper to make some income for the family, and trying to fit novel writing in. Not too long ago I made a big stack of all of my unpublished novels and sent them to my daughter. She put them in her basement and I think her basement flooded – we haven’t discussed it, but I think they’re not there anymore.
So, of all those, probably the one that I kept thinking about and going back to was one that I wrote that took place at the time of the 1876 Exhibition. I tried to write about a Quaker family and an Episcopal family and a black family and how they all interwove in this big excitement in Philadelphia. That’s the one I really regret not publishing, not staying with longer. I started to try to turn it into a teenage book, something along the order of The Back Bench, but it didn’t seem to come to life the way I wanted it to. That’s an unfinished project that I think is going to stay unfinished.
AC: Are there particular themes in your fiction that you often deal with? Not your published fiction, but your unpublished fiction?
MHB: Well, in terms of personal stories, that move I made from New York to Florida and the sense of being in a foreign country and the sense of being discriminated against because I was so queer, from their point of view, had a big effect on me. So in a lot of my fiction there’s an outsider who longs to be part of the larger group and longs to belong, and can’t quite make it and is discriminated against in one way or another. So that’s a theme. Using the energy of that rejection to try to do something useful is another theme, I guess.
AC: Does your fiction often have Quaker characters?
MHB: The first one didn’t, the second one did, the third one didn’t. Not often, sort of every other story. In the short stories I’ve published I didn’t have Quakers that I recall, maybe the ones that didn’t get published did have Quakers.
I felt perfectly free about The Back Bench, but for some reason in earlier times – I guess because I was a new Quaker – I didn’t want to insult the Quakers. I wanted to be very careful about the way I portrayed them, so there may have been a little bit of stiffness.
AC: Can you say more about the feeling of not being good enough to be a Friend? Both what your experience with that was and also where you think that comes from? I think that it’s a fairly common experience.
MHB: Allen’s family is an old Quaker family that goes back to the very birth of Quakerism. They’re very proud of it, or at least his parents, aunts and uncles were. Before I got to know the Bacons, I felt as though I wasn’t sure if I could really measure up to their standards, and I wondered if the ideas which I had absorbed from the progressive school I attended – the emphasis on creativity, and the liberal political slant – would be incompatible with their ideas. Later I learned that they too had sent their children to a progressive school, and were interested in the arts (Allen's father was an architect) and that Allen's mother shared my parents' political views.
AC: How have you been changed by your studies of historic Friends. Has knowing about their lives and decisions influenced decisions that you’ve made?
MHB: There’s an organization in Philadelphia called Women’s Way, which supports organizations that serve women. A friend and I conceived the idea of that when she was trying to raise money for choice issues and other organizations that were trying to get along on a shoe string. I said “Well, I know what Lucretia Mott would have done: she would have approached and organized women to support women’s organizations.” So in that instance I got on the board of Women’s Way and helped – so that particular biography inspired me directly into social action. Even earlier than that I had been doing Pendle Hill workshops for Quaker women on Quakerism and relating the past to the present. It was a clear path to me – the second wave of feminism was coming in – and I felt Quakers should be really active.
AC: And now we’re in the third wave. There’s a passage in Mothers of Feminism that I really loved about how it’s important for Quaker women to own their values when they’re taking part in secular feminist organizing and organizations. I wonder if you could say more about that in particular, but also more broadly about Quakers owning their values when doing work with broader groups of people, and what you’re experience of that has been?
MHB: I was originally, I think, disappointed: it didn’t seem to me that a lot of Quaker women were moving into the second wave of feminism as I hoped they would, or didn’t see, as I did, a historical need to play that role. I think by “owning” that I meant let’s not make it lip service, let’s let our lives speak. So it was kind of a pep talky thing, to get women to move into action.
You’re too young to have participated, but there was this endless, endless sitting around and sharing our feelings, feelings about your mother, and feelings about your body. I did some of that, but I was more interested in [action]. In fact I organized a group of Quaker women to talk about Quaker feminism and nonviolence, and how we could use those concepts, like through counter picketing protesters critical of choice.
AC: I want to be mindful of the time, and I’ve actually asked all of my questions. Is there anything else you’d like to add, about your work or The Back Bench, or anything?
MHB: I’ve written a child’s version of my book on Robert Purvis, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to get that published. Up in the Fair Hill Burial Ground we have an annual contest for people to write an essay about Robert Purvis, and I thought a book might be helpful.
My agent died, and I was lazy about getting another one. Despite having published however many books, you can’t just send something in without some lead or something. I feel like I’m kind of too old to have that particular battle, and I’m a little frustrated trying to figure how to use some of my work.
AC: That reminds me: Could you say more about Fair Hill? What has that been like for you, to be involved in a site that is a historic Quaker site but is now in a pretty poor African American neighborhood? My understanding of the vision for Fair Hill is that it be both a historic site and useful to people who live in the neighborhood. What has that been like?
MHB: It’s been wonderful. As I say, it all began when I went out to find Lucretia Mott’s grave. The burial ground was not as bad as it became, it was still being maintained by Green Street Meeting. It was pretty bad though, the neighborhood was definitely on its way down. A lot of people urged me to get her grave moved down to Center City somehow, so that more tourists could visit it, and to help elevate her.
I felt she communicated with me, and said “No, I don’t want to move. Do something about the neighborhood.” So I began buttonholing people and going to Green Street Meeting. It took almost fifteen years from that moment until when we finally organized, but I just kept nagging at people. So eventually we did form a group that bought the property from the man who was abusing it and started the restoration. It was like a dream come true in a way, and a culmination of a lot of the things I believe in and want to have happen. My husband is also very much involved and working on it, and my friends from Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting. It’s been one of the most – maybe the most – gratifying experience of my life. I’ve spent lots and lots of time over there, and also writing the newsletter and going to board meetings. It’s just been a rich experience.
AC: When you talk about Lucretia Mott communing with you, it made me think about leadings, and how Quakers use the word leadings. What have been things in your life that you’ve been led to do, and how does that relate to your writing?
MHB: I feel leadings about my writing. Like I said, now I would like to do something about Robert Purvis. It’s not just sort of a wish. I feel like I have some duty to do that. It’s hard to separate out one from the other. I did feel a leading about going to work for the American Friends Service Committee, and travelling for the Service Committee. And other things at AFSC: I and another woman organized the first women’s collective on the staff. And courses I taught at Pendle Hill.They all felt like leadings, pouring one from the other, rather naturally.