Elizabeth Keckley and Women’s History Month

For our last blog, we talked about the special occasion of listening to Dolores Huerta speak on International Women’s Day. Today, we want to continue to celebrate Women’s History Month by honoring a lesser known, but incredibly important voice: Elizabeth Keckley. 

If you’ll recall our last blog post of 2022, I highlighted my top 5 history books of 2022, one of them being Keckley’s autobiography. Her story is incredible. From that blog: 

Picture of Elizabeth Keckley

“Wow. Keckley’s experience as an enslaved, then free, seamstress was riveting. Put simply, there needs to be a movie about her. A seamstress for Jefferson Davis’s wife before the Civil War, she refused to go with them once the war began. Through her own grit, she became Mary Todd Lincoln’s seamstress during Lincoln’s tenure in the White House. She was a confidant for Mrs. Lincoln and was often “in the room” with President Lincoln at critical personal moments. I could not put her book down.”

Keckley’s life story is truly incredible. I was blown away by her story and how she was able to be such a crucial part of the Lincoln family’s life while they were in the White House. She witnessed so much! She spent so much time in the presence of the first lady and her husband, the president, that she offered such fascinating insights into the inner workings of Lincoln. For instance, read her perspective on his integrity and trust in others:

OFTEN Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln discussed the relations of Cabinet officers, and gentlemen prominent in politics, in my presence. I soon learned that the wife of the President had no love for Mr. Salmon P. Chase, at that time Secretary of the Treasury. She was well versed in human character, was somewhat suspicious of those by whom she was surrounded, and often her judgment was correct. Her intuition about the sincerity of individuals was more accurate than that of her husband. She looked beyond, and read the reflection of action in the future. Her hostility to Mr. Chase was very bitter. She claimed that he was a selfish politician instead of a true patriot, and warned Mr. Lincoln not to trust him too far. The daughter of the Secretary was quite a belle in Washington, and Mrs. Lincoln, who was jealous of the popularity of others, had no desire to build up her social position through political favor to her father. Miss Chase, now Mrs. Senator Sprague, was a lovely woman, and was worthy of all the admiration she received. Mr. Lincoln was more confiding than his wife. He never suspected the fidelity of those who claimed to be his friends. Honest to the very core himself, and frank as a child, he never dreamed of questioning the sincerity of others.

Elizabeth Keckley in many ways was an American hero. The stability and restraint that she brought to the White House flies flat in the face of the “get ahead however you can” culture that often runs our world. Her empathy for others is worth emulating. 

In our middle school Civil War DBQ, students are asked to look at the various experiences of women during the Civil War, one of whom is Elizabeth Keckley. Teachers, if you would like to introduce Keckley’s story and efforts to your students, please download this document analysis worksheet that highlights her efforts during the Civil War. 

Happy Women’s History Month!