Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Georgiana Bruce Kirby, 1818-1887
By Carl Guarneri, Saint Mary's College of California
Georgiana Bruce was born December 7, 1818, in Bristol, England. Her father, a merchant seaman, had perished at sea three months earlier, and her mother's second husband squandered the family's resources. After two years of formal schooling, Bruce spent several dismal years in a small English seaport before leaving home for a string of positions in other households. At fourteen she became a governess for an English family who took her to Paris and then Melbourne, Canada, where she taught school and learned the rudiments of frontier farming. In 1837 she returned to London, where she worked for the family of the American Unitarian minister Ezra Stiles Gannet, who brought her to Boston.
In 1841 Bruce joined the Transcendentalist community of Brook Farm at West Roxbury, Massachusetts, whose liberal religious views and commitment to cooperative living she embraced. She studied at the community's celebrated school, took over its nursery, and enjoyed discussions with Brook Farm's literary members and visitors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Henry Channing, and Margaret Fuller.
Although Bruce supported Brook Farm's conversion to the doctrines of the French utopian socialist Charles Fourier in 1844, she felt that the community's reorganization suppressed its spontaneity and charm, and she moved to New York City. Through her friend Margaret Fuller Bruce met Eliza Farnham, the matron of the Female State Prison in Sing Sing, New York, who recruited her as her assistant. Bruce worked at Sing Sing for a year, then, continuing her pattern of restless migration, left to teach at schools in Illinois and Missouri before returning east to serve as a public school teacher and governess in Pennsylvania and New York.
Years of Experience, Bruce's autobiography, ends in May 1850 when she left New York for California with funds borrowed from Horace Greeley. Eliza Farnham, driven from Sing Sing for her radical views and recently widowed, had preceded her to the West. Bruce joined Farnham at Santa Cruz, and for a time they merged households and jointly operated a farm. In 1852 Bruce married local tanner Richard Kirby and began raising a family. Busy with their ranch and five children, Georgiana Bruce Kirby kept abreast of the women's rights movement through correspondence with Brook Farm friends and reform papers such as Greeley's New York Tribune and the National Anti-Slavery Standard. While her friend Eliza Farnham proclaimed her belief in women's moral superiority and fitness for domesticity, Kirby endorsed the equal rights and suffrage demands of the 1850 Worchester Convention platform. Farnham publicized the two friends' debates over women's rights and roles in California In-Doors and Out (1856).
The abolitionist movement and the Civil War furthered Kirby's conviction that women were enslaved, and after the war she joined the movement to secure women's rights through the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. In 1869 she founded California's first local woman suffrage society at Santa Cruz. In January 1870 she served as vice-president of the San Francisco Women's Rights Convention. Writing in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, Kirby reported on local lectures by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, criticized a California judge's decision that prevented women from voting, and debated woman suffrage with opponents. In 1874 she organized the Santa Cruz Temperance Union, which became an affiliate of the national WCTU. Kirby died on January 27, 1887 at Santa Cruz.
JoAnn Levy, Unsettling the West: Eliza Farnham and Georgiana Bruce Kirby in Frontier California (Berkeley, CA: Heyday Books, 2004) is a colorful joint biography. Farnham's account of her relationship with Georgiana Bruce Kirby was published as The Ideal Attained: being the story of two steadfast souls and How They Won Their Happiness and Lost It Not (New York: C.M. Plumb & Co., 1865). Kirby's autobiography, Years of Experience: An Autobiographical Narrative (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1887), tells her story to 1850; her diary (1852-1860) has been published as Georgiana Bruce Kirby: Feminist Reformer of the West, Helen S. Giffen et al., eds. (Santa Cruz: Santa Cruz Historical Society, 1987).