As an intensely precocious and devout child, Elizabeth Oakes Smith learned to read at the age of two by overhearing her older sister's lessons in their home in Maine, and she imitated the heroines in Foxe's Book of Martyrs by fastening a large mustard plaster to her leg and bearing the pain until she fainted. Intellectually ambitious, she dreamed of going to college and running her own girls' school, but, at her mother's insistence, married Seba Smith when she was sixteen.
Seba Smith was then an editor and contributor to several Portland journals, and while Elizabeth Oakes Smith managed a household that included several of her husband's apprentices and five sons, she began writing poems and sketches for local periodicals. Her husband went bankrupt after the panic of 1837. In 1839 they moved to New York City, where she continued to write to help support the family. A popular member of the New York literati, she published children's books and volumes of poetry as well as poems and stories that appeared in magazines.
As the women's rights movement gained momentum in the 1840s and 1850s, she committed herself to the cause. Though dismissed by such leaders as Susan B. Anthony for her fancy dress and traditional, feminine appearance, she penned a series in the New York Tribune entitled Woman and Her Needs, in which she wrote that "there are thousands capable of a sphere beyond the fireside and being thus qualified, they hold a commission from God himself to go out into this broader field." In 1851 she became the first woman to join a public lecture tour and spoke on prison reform, abolition, and women's rights. A popular speaker, she also preached religious sermons from pulpits across New York state. She died at the age of eighty-seven in her son's home in North Carolina.
Other portraits appear in: