Editor’s note: As Newburyport celebrates its 250th anniversary this year, The Daily News is publishing a series of articles that looks back on the city’s history. Today we focus on notable women who made significant contributions over the years. Compilation of this list was made with the assistance of local historians including Jean Foley Doyle, Marge Motes, Skip Motes, Michael Mroz and Ghlee Woodworth.
Newburyport has had strong, capable women since its inception in 1764, but their greatness is not easily documented because many are not in the history books.
Women stayed in the home during the 18th and 19th centuries. Indeed, women didn’t have the opportunity to vote in this country until 1920, and few held positions of civic power before that.
(One exception occurred in 1887 when Hannah Lunt was elected to the School Committee. Women could not vote, but they could run for office. Lunt was elected for five straight years, according to local historian Joe Callahan).
In this nation’s early years, they were not part of “the making of history” as seen by historians.
Local historian Skip Motes addressed this situation in a presentation at the Custom House Maritime Museum last year, and noted that the role of women was to support the husband and children. Few engaged in politics or public events.
His research showed that the one place the woman belonged was in the home.
In the 18th and early 19th centuries, “she was to be educated in morals, domestic arts, social graces and reading.”
Her day-to-day role should be “nurturing children, supporting their husbands, running the household and raising patriotic sons.”
Young Newburyport residents of today who notice that the mayor, Donna Holaday, and the area’s state senator, Kathleen O’Connor Ives, are women might find such conditions hard to believe.
But records throughout this community and many others in New England reflect that the lives of women were played out in the home — albeit with skill.
The Essex Journal (in Newburyport) published this homey analysis in 1786, according to Skip Motes: “She should be like a town clock, always keep time and regularity, but she should not be like a town clock to speak too loud that all the town may hear her.”
In the late 18th century, a man and woman were one legal entity: “The wife could not sign a contract, file a lawsuit, purchase property or vote,” according to research by Skip Motes and his wife, Marge Motes.
All this said, many historians who view domestic roles in anecdotal terms say that many Newburyport women of the 18th and 19th centuries must have been excellent managers, to wit, raising numerous children on small incomes required brains, frugality and imagination.
Some of the most written-about events in local history, such as the Revolutionary War and the events leading to the Civil War, enabled men to march off to battle — but women had to manage alone.
When the men went off to their patriotic duty as they saw it, women were left to cope with little support in running the household, raising the children or generating money to survive.
Drew Gilpin Faust, who was an established historian before she became president of Harvard, wrote several books about how the departure of men for war was devastating to the family he left behind.
Most historians who have considered the role of females in New England history say that the women’s tasks were arduous, complicated and never-ending.
Still, numerous Newburyport women have left their marks in local history.
Two names that resonate today are Anna Jaques, whose generosity marked the beginning of Anna Jaques Hospital, and Emma Andrews, an educator after whom a library branch here is named.
According to Woodworth, in 1881-82, a young ladies association held a series of fundraisers to build a hospital. Anna Jaques (1827-1911), a single woman and lifetime resident, gave $22,000 to get the project started.” Others followed, and today a modern medical center of that name serves the region and employs close to 1,000.
Emma Lander Andrews (1852-1928) was a teacher at the Johnson Grammar School on Hancock Street and a co-founder of the South End Reading Room. She led the drive to provide families in the South End with reading materials. In 1905, a house at the corner of Purchase and Marlboro streets was purchased. As her health deteriorated in the ’20s, the reading room became a branch of the Newburyport Public Library.
Other notable women whom we know about include the following:
Jane Andrews (1833-1887) was an educator and author. She was a member of the first class to graduate from the Putnam Free School in 1850, and she taught under nationally known educator Horace Mann at Antioch College. After returning to Newburyport, she opened one of the city’s first girls schools in her family home at 188 High St. She published several volumes of children’s stories, including “The Seven Little Sisters Who Live on the Round Ball that Floats in the Air” (1862).
Minnie Atkinson (1868-1958) was a journalist and author. She is known for her book, “Newburyport in the World War,” which discussed the community’s contribution to the World War I effort. She also wrote a text titled “A History of the First Religious Society in Newburyport.” Atkinson, whose grandfather was the founder of Atkinson Coal and Lumber Co., also wrote for the Newburyport Daily News.
Elizabeth Bray was a diarist and world traveler who in 1854 boarded a ship captained by her husband, Stephen Bray, and embarked on a trip that took them halfway around the world. It was unusual (though not unheard of) for a woman to travel on commercial ships in the mid-19th century, but Bray, 39, embraced the moment. In doing so she left her sons, 11 and 10, with relatives in Newburyport. The couple took their 5-year-old daughter, Fanny. The Custom House Maritime Museum recently discovered one of her diaries, and staff members are transcribing it.
Alice Gray Brown was another woman who took to the sea. Her father was a sea captain whose ship was burned by the Confederate raider Alabama in China seas in the mid-1860s. Her father took her on distant voyages to the Orient. Young and highly artistic, Alice took advantage of her worldly exposure in the form of her art, clothing design and a “crazy quilt” she made from exotic fabrics, materials and notions collected at ports of call. She had been around Cape Horn five times and once around the world while she was still a child.
Hannah Colby Fowle (1838-1929) was one of the early businesswomen of her day. She rain Fowle’s News Company at 17 State St. after the death of her husband, Stephen Fowle, in 1895. It was known for its broad inventory of newspapers and periodicals. It also had a soda fountain and it sold a variety of popular chocolates. Mrs. Fowle retired in 1916, and the store was taken over by Nicholas Arakelian, an employee. He later established the Mary Alice Arakelian Foundation in memory of his wife, Mary Alice, also an employee at Fowle’s.
Mary Newton Lunt Graves sailed with her husband, Capt. Alexander Graves, on many journeys. In 1860, about to enter the port of Liverpool, the ship encountered a severe storm, and the captain was disabled. Having 10 years at sea, Mary Graves took control of the ship and brought it safely into port.
Dr. Abby Noyes Little (1872-1952) was the only woman physician of Newburyport to go abroad for service during World War I, historians say. She wrote, according to Minnie Atkinson, “I was soon assigned to a hospital in Evreux, Normandy. After we entered, our Red Cross took it over. Here I did whatever came to hand, dressings, anaesthetizing ... and soon had two pavilions for French colonials assigned especially to my care. The colonials were largely Senegalese and Algerians, and a sturdy, wild, primitive lot they were! I was here through the Armistice and until January 8th, 1919, when the French army took the hospital over, and we all returned to Paris.”
Ethel Parton (1862-1944) was a journalist and author. She wrote a half-dozen books about growing up in Newburyhport, including “Melissa Ann,” “The Last Locket” and “The House Between.” She also published several novels, including “The Mule and the Parthenon” and “Year without Summer.” She was an early suffragist and the first woman to serve on the board of directors of the Newburyport Public Library.
Euphemia Vale Smith was a local historian known as Mrs. E. Vale Smith. In 1854, she wrote the text, “History of Newburyport, from the earliest settlement of the country to the present.” It is still considered one of the finest books about the city.
Harriet Prescott Spofford (1835-1921) was a writer who attained national prominence. Publications that carried her work included The Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Bazaar. A resident of the local Deer Island, she wrote several novels and poetry including “Sir Rohan’s Ghost” and “The Amber Gods.” In the Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1875, she wrote a nonfiction piece titled “Newburyport and Its Neighborhoods.”
Martha Wheelwright (1804-1888) was a philanthropist and longtime supporter of The Society for the Relief of Aged Females. She also lived a life of international adventure. She was married to William Wheelwright (1798-1873), a businessman, and they spent much of their time in Panama, Chile and other countries. The couple came home for periodic visits, and they bought a house at 75 High St. In 1888, after Mrs. Wheelwright died, the house was left to the Society for the Relief of Aged Females, which served older women until about 2006.
In recent years, the city has had three female mayors: Lisa Mead, Mary Carrier and Holaday. Numerous women sit on local boards, and hold positions of authority in city government and with the School Department.
In looking back on the subject of notable local women, one finds there hasn’t been a lot written on the subject.
We know they worked hard, accomplished much and prevailed under difficult circumstances.
Historians say there needs to be more to documentation of those who engaged in notable personal journeys.