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Hannah Lee Corbin: Forgotten Feminist Foremother

A forgotten feminist foremother hides amid the members of the Virginia gentry who helped to shape the ideals of the American Revolution. When pioneering women’s suffrage leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton spoke at the “First Foremothers’ Celebration” in New York City in 1892, she reached back to the Virginia Tidewater of the Revolutionary era to place Hannah Lee Corbin alongside of Abigail Smith Adams and Mercy Otis Warren as among the earliest advocates for women’s rights in the new nation.

As our new biography of Hannah Lee Corbin, contributed by Cynthia Kierner, details, Corbin was born to the elite of what was then the Virginia Colony. Her mother was Hannah Ludwell Lee Harrison whose Harrison and Ludwell kin included many of the wealthiest and most influential members of the colony, including burgesses and members of the governor’s Council. Her father was Thomas Lee, who was president of the Council and acting governor when he died in 1750. Hannah Lee grew up at Stratford Hall, the family’s imposing mansion on a bluff overlooking the Potomac River on Virginia’s Northern Neck. (It was here in 1807 that Robert E. Lee would be born to Corbin’s cousin, Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, and his wife Ann Hill Carter Lee.)

Hannah was steeped in the language of the Revolution. Five of her brothers were leading revolutionaries, including Francis Lightfoot Lee and Richard Henry Lee, who each signed the Declaration of Independence. It was to her brother, Richard, that Hannah wrote two years after the Declaration was signed asking why she, as a propertied widow—her husband Gawin Corbin had died and left her in control of a large estate—should be taxed since she did not have the right to vote, applying, as Kierner notes, “the Revolutionary dictum of no taxation without representation to propertied single women and widows.”

By doing so, noted Stanton, Corbin “proclaimed the basic principles of a republic” as applying to women. This put her alongside Mercy Otis Warren and Abigail Smith Adams, who famously told her husband, John Adams, in March 1776, to “remember the Ladies” as the plans for a declaration of independence and a new code of law were underway. “Do not put such unlimited power in the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could,” she wrote to Adams in Philadelphia. If attention was “not paid to the Ladies,” she cautioned, “we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice or Representation.”

Lee’s brother was sympathetic to Corbin’s plea, responding that he didn’t see anything in the “doctrine of representation” that would “forbid Widows having property from voting, notwithstanding it has never been the practice either here or in England.” He suspected that it in part had to do with being “thought rather out of character for Women to press into those tumultuous Assemblies of Men where the business of choosing Representatives is conducted.” Protecting women from the raucous revelry that characterized election days would be a primary reason women were denied the vote for the next 140-plus years. 

He then went on to explain that since she held only a life interest in her property—as was common for widows who inherited—and was therefore taxed only on the annual profits of the estate, not its value in perpetuity, she was actually more financially secure than if she had the vote. This, according to Lee, was completely different from men’s desire to be free from British taxation without representation since Parliament and its representatives wouldn’t “pay a farthing of the Tax they imposed on us.” The result would be “Oppression therefore without end” had the Revolutionaries “submitted to British usurpation.” 

We don’t know what Corbin thought of her brother’s rather convoluted logic that the same injustice that would compel American men to “loose blood” was somehow protective of women, and, as we know, the founding documents would fail to “remember the Ladies” until Stanton and others did indeed foment their own rebellion.

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