Marilla Marks Ricker (1840)
It was on this date, March 18, 1840, that Marilla Marks Ricker was born Marilla Young in New Durham, NH. She was the daughter of a “mixed” marriage: a Freethinker father and a devout Free-Will Baptist mother. For 50 years of her life Marilla, as she liked to be called, maintained that if she paid her taxes she was entitled to vote. She had written in a 1909 letter that, “so long as women are hanged under the laws they should have a voice in making them.” “No woman was ever known to escape a criminal statute because its language ignored her sex…. Shall the word he include woman in one set of laws and exclude her in another?” She attempted to register and vote in every election, and was finally able to do so — legally — just months before her death on November 12, 1920.
As a child, Marilla refused to pray at home and, when she became a schoolteacher at age 16, refused to lead her students in Bible readings, as was the custom. Later, in her books, she candidly gave her views on religion, writing,
The greatest danger which confronts our nation today is not political but religious, and the preservation of our free institutions does not depend upon our army and navy, but upon the emancipation of the human mind from ecclesiastical slavery. …You cannot have free schools, free speech and a free press where the mind is not free.
In 1863, she married John Ricker, a successful real estate speculator, but John Ricker died within five years, leaving Marilla a wealthy widow. She traveled to Europe and learned to speak fluent German. She studied law and in 1890 became the first woman admitted to the New Hampshire Bar and one of the first in the US. A formidable-looking woman, while living for a time in Washington, DC, Marilla acquired the reputation as “the prisoners’ friend” by arguing for the rights of prisoners. As a member of the National Woman Suffrage Association, an organization created by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, she fought for women’s rights, too.
Marilla was an enthusiastic Freethinker, strongly influenced by Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll. Several Freethought books she wrote include The Four Gospels (1911), I Don’t Know, Do You? (1915), and I Am Not Afraid, Are You? (1917). “On the question of personal immortality,” wrote a contemporary in September 1905,
Marilla has decided opinions… Marilla puts the argument this way: The belief in ever-lasting life was first evolved by savages, and then taken up by priests who promised an endless life of joy to all who obeyed their edicts. It is a most selfish and harmful doctrine, and by turning man’s attention from this world to another, has blocked progress at least a thousand years.*
Marilla died of a stroke at he age of 80 on 12 November 1920. It was Marilla Marks Ricker who once said, “Nothing grows slower than truth, and nothing faster than superstition.”
Originally published March 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.