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Abigail Hopper Gibbons (7 December 1801 – 16 January 1893) was an abolitionist, activist, and a nurse during the American Civil War.
Gibbons grew up in a Quaker family, and her father, Isaac Hopper, spent much of his time and money aiding runaway slaves. Abigail was to share her father's beliefs and spent much of her life working for social reform. Over the course of her life, Gibbons pushed for prison reform, welfare, civil rights, and care for soldiers returning from the Civil War. Eventually, a political shift in the Quaker organization resulted in Gibbons' father, as well as her new husband, James Gibbons, being disowned by the society for their anti-slavery activities. Abigail Gibbons left the organization, which she had been a leading member in, and never returned. Although a controversial figure, she was highly successful in her many efforts.
Abigail Hopper Gibbons was born in Philadelphia in 1801, the third of ten children. Her father, Isaac T. Hopper, was of the Hicksite branch of Quakers and became an active and leading member of The Pennsylvania Abolition Society, often in direct confrontation with slave kidnappers who had deluged Philadelphia. Hopper also sheltered many poor Quakers in his house, despite his family's large size and unstable financial status. The Hoppers were frequently called upon to protect the rights of African-Americans and garnered a reputation as friends and advisers of the "oppressed race" in all emergencies. Hopper was also an overseer of the Benezet School for African-American children and a volunteer teacher in a free school for African-American adults.
Women's Prison Association
Abigail Hopper taught school for several years in Philadelphia and New York. In 1833, she married fellow Quaker, James Sloan Gibbons, who was also an ardent abolitionist. In 1836, the pair moved to New York City, where they had six children. Two of their sons died in infancy, and a third died suddenly after an accident in which he was involved while attending Harvard University.
Gibbons and her father founded the Women's Prison Association (WPA) of New York City in 1845. She lobbied for improvements in the city's prisons, advocated the hiring of police matrons, and urged the establishment of separate prisons for women. She frequently visited the various prisons in and about New York. For twelve years, she was also president of a German industrial school for street children.
In 1853, the Women's Prison Association separated from its parent, the Prison Association, and Gibbons obtained a New York State charter for her group. Under her leadership, the WPA undertook an aggressive program of legislative lobbying. She protested jail overcrowding and demanded that women prisoners be searched only by female matrons.
At that time, most of the WPA’s clients were Irish immigrants struggling with alcohol dependency, made worse by the extreme poverty in which they lived. Gibbons and her staff worked tirelessly to provide these women with a place to stay, a supportive community, and practical skills training. They created programs for these women, who had previously only known poverty and trouble in their lives.
With the coming of the war, Gibbons knew that nurses would be needed to care for the wounded. The United States Sanitary Commission was established in 1861, shortly after the Civil War began, with the purpose to recruit nurses and to provide adequate medical care to the Union wounded. When the Commission set up a training base at David’s Island Hospital in New York, Gibbons was among the trainees.
She traveled to Washington D.C., to help at the Washington Office Hospital, helping the wounded and distributing supplies. She also helped to establish two field hospitals in Virginia.
At Point Lookout, Maryland, the government took over a hotel and 100 guest cottages and converted them into a hospital complex with accommodations for 1500 soldiers. It was named Hammond General Hospital. Gibbons vied with Dorothea Dix, the Union Superintendent of Nurses, for control of the hospital, and Gibbons was finally appointed its head matron. She left the hospital in 1863, when it was converted into Point Lookout Confederate Prison.
Following the war, Gibbons was involved in several New York charities, including the "Labor and Aid Society," which helped returning veterans find work. She aided in founding the Isaac Hopper Home, named for her father, which helped former women prisoners to return to society.
In January 1893, Gibbons died at the age of 92. She was eulogized in her obituary as "one of the most remarkable women of the century." She was not only one of the founders of the WPA, she was also the founder of the New York Diet Kitchen for infants and the sick and the poor, and president of the New York Committee for the Prevention and Regulation of Vice. A friend once said of the Hoppers and Gibbonses "they had a natural love for sinners."
Today, the Women's Prison Association still provides programs through which women can acquire the life skills necessary to lead a productive life and to make good choices for themselves and their families. It is the nation’s oldest advocacy organization working exclusively with women prisoners. Over the past 160 years, the WPA has adapted to the changing needs of its clients and offered them alternatives to their previous lives of crime.
- Gibbons,Sarah Emerson: “The Life of Abby Hopper Gibbons as Told Chiefly Through Her Correspondence,” (1896)
- Becker,Dorothy G.: Abigail Hopper Gibbons (New York, 1989)
- Martin, Edward Sandford: The Life of Joseph Hodges Choate: As Gathered Chiefly from his Letters (New York, 1920), 2 Vols.
- Gray,Christopher: Streetscapes/Readers' Questions; Lamartine Place, and Women Running Elevators, New York Times, Sunday June 7, 1998
- Sacks,Marcy S.:Before Harlem: The Black Experience in New York City Before World War I.(University Pennsylvania Press,2006)
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