The past has a way of hitting you, front on, when you least expect it. On a pilgrimage to Louisa May Alcott's home one summer I came across a book that looked as though it had been there since publication. I asked if I could look inside and, sure enough, there was Alcott's name. The book was by one of the forgotten women of the American feminist movement, Mrs. Caroline Healey Dall. Editor, lecturer, schoolteacher, Mrs. Dall lived apart from her husband, a missionary in India. Her papers in the Massachusetts Historical Society disclose much about her, not least that her correspondence ran to more than 100,000 letters, carefully indexed up to a few years before her passing in 1912 in her 90th year.
The book on the Alcotts' shelves was ''Woman's Right to Labor,'' published in 1860,with acknowledgments to Mrs. Anna Jameson and its ''indebtedness to the English Woman's Journal and its editors, Bessie Rayner Parkes and Madame Bodichon.'' While Mme. Bodichon is now better recognized as an artist (her earnings from her paintings helped Girton College for Women when it opened in Cambridge University), Mrs. Jameson and Miss Parkes are as unknown as Mrs. Dall, even though she herself was described, in 1866, as ''now recognized both in England and America as one of the ablest definers and defenders of woman's rights.'' Dale Spender's ''Women of Ideas and What Men Have Done to Them'' ignores Mrs. Dall and misjudges Miss Parkes (getting her first name and year of death wrong in her ''Chronological Table'').
One of the fascinating things about conducting original research among feminist archives is how often the ''conventional'' view about life and social customs of the period when people were writing to each other - is entirely misplaced. America, to the 20th-century eye, appears so much closer to Europe than would have seemed possible in the 1850s. Yet examination of letters in American libraries often indicates how closely early feminists on both sides of the Atlantic corresponded.
Barbara Bodichon managed to meet with feminists during her American honeymoon in 1857-58. Mrs. Dall corresponded with Barbara and Miss Parkes, as well as others of their circle (''The Langham Place Circle,'' as it was sometimes referred to). The idea for an American Social Science Association came to Mrs. Dall after early correspondence with the secretary, Isa Craig, of the British association of that name. Boston Public Library archives show that Mrs. Dall suggested the idea in the late 1850s, although the association did not appear until 1865 (when Mrs. Dall wrote its first constitution).
Mrs. Dall's acknowledgment of the role of Mrs. Jameson when Mrs. Dall published ''Woman's Right to Labor'' exemplified a debt all feminists owe to this remarkable woman. She typifies the Victorian women who can be labeled ''separates'' - like Mrs. Dall herself, she was separated from her husband, a legal official in Canada. She had had to earn her keep separately from her husband and had firsthand experience of the difficulties facing women who had to support themselves - and tried to keep their earnings. Barbara Leigh-Smith (later Mme. Bodichon) had early caught her attention when attempting to introduce a Married Woman's Property Act to enable women to keep their earnings, and Mrs. Jameson remained a pivotal influence among the younger women for the rest of her life.
The idea for forming the English Woman's Journal as a joint stock company came from Mrs. Jameson, and she supplied guidance as to literary form: ''articles should have a beginning, a middle and an end.'' She also deplored ''puffs'' for other women's activities, unless they warranted the publicity. She was one of the earliest women public lecturers (her ''Sisters of Charity'' attracted some attention when given in 1855 and 1856). Her advice saved the fledgling editors from serious errors. Another supporter, whose letters reveal a much ''tougher'' side than her poetry, was Adelaide Procter. The Journal faded out, but another Circle member, Jessie Bourcherett, took up the reins of its successor, the English Woman's Review, from 1866 until 1871. The Review continued into the first decade of the 20th century.
Although many modern feminists would belittle it, these women gained from the cooperation of what Diane Worzala has called a ''little phalanx of gentlemen,'' and I was reminded of one of them when visiting William Wordsworth's home, Rydal Mount, while touring the Lake District in northern England last spring. In a list of relatives and descendants of the poet the name William Cookson figured prominently; he had, in fact, been the poet's literary executor. Cookson had been one of the ''phalanx'' supporting the Langham Place Circle, so one can imagine how important that connection might have seemed. Several other men's names appeared on the lists of shareholders in the English Woman's Journal Company.
The offshoots of the Langham Place Circle were extraordinarily wide-ranging: the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women and the Ladies Sanitation Society, to name only two. The Circle's efforts in the closing half of Victoria's reign deserve more attention, and some scholars are taking note. The modern feminist, however, feels, as Ms. Spender says, that ''it is tougher to get published if you are a man'' in feminist journals today. So perhaps I will have to wait until, as historian Asa Briggs put it, ''Frederica Hunter'' appears in print. A pleasant irony, considering how many women in the past had to adopt a man's name to gain an audience.