Quakerism, with its emphasis on universal education, female participation in business, and other factors, contributed to a high degree of independence among Nantucket women. This small island produced some amazing women, particularly in the fields of science and social reform. From Maria Mitchell, America’s first professional female astronomer, and Lydia Folger Fowler, the first American-born woman to receive a medical degree, to activist leaders like Lucretia Coffin Mott, Eliza Barney, Anna Gardner, and Reverend Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford, the influence of Nantucket women spread beyond the shores of Nantucket to other places in America.
Nantucket’s active role in the anti-slavery movement also introduced island women to a broad ideology of social reform. After ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, which granted African American men the right to vote, the women’s rights movement took on a renewed sense of urgency, viewed by many as the final hurdle to a truly democratic society. Decades of struggle lay ahead and it was not until 1920 that all American women achieved the right to vote.
“Indeed, it is probable that no other community in America of the size of Nantucket has ever given the country so many extraordinary women.”
— William Oliver Stevens
Mary Coffin Starbuck (1645–1717)
Quaker – Community Leader – Businesswoman
Known as “The Great Mary of Nantucket,” Mary Coffin Starbuck was a woman of power and influence. A charismatic personality, Starbuck converted to the Quaker faith at 56 and brought much of the island’s white population with her. Meetings were initially held in her home, and she became the first recognized minister on the island.
Starbuck also ran the family’s trading post, the island’s commercial center at the time. As she could read and write when her husband was illiterate, she kept the store’s account book, now held in the NHA’s collection. The volume illustrates the vital nature of her business to both the white and indigenous populations of the island, including accounts for as many as 200 Wampanoag customers.
Kezia Folger Coffin (1723–1798)
Loyalist – Businesswoman
Like many women of early Nantucket, Coffin found a great deal of economic power managing the family shop while her husband was at sea. Not content to rest in this position, it seems Kezia considered it her duty to supply the island with necessary foods and goods – a difficult task during the American Revolution. Nantucket’s economy depended on British trade, and in 1779 she was suspected of smuggling, allegedly importing fresh flour through British connections. This was hardly treason; historians have noted that if no one had “moved more rapidly than the law,” there would have been much suffering on the island. The General Court in Boston understood this, despite the heated partisanship, and refused to convict her.
Kezia Coffin Fanning (1759–1820)
Fanning is notable for the diaries she kept from age 16 until her death. Living during a period of dramatic change for both Nantucket and the American republic, Fanning keenly observed and documented many of the family’s activities, from her mother’s devotion to supplying the island with food during the war for independence, to her sons’ travails during the golden years of the whale-fishery.
Her diaries were noted for their importance almost immediately, and eagerly sought by family and national historians alike. Passing through so many hands – they were an invaluable source for Alexander Starbuck’s History of Nantucket – the diaries were eventually lost. But a few original pages remain, narrating the Nantucket bank robbery of 1795.
Lucretia Coffin Mott (1793–1880)
Quaker Preacher – Abolitionist – Women’s Rights Leader
Lucretia Mott was mentor to women’s activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, co-organizing the first women’s rights convention in the U.S. at Seneca Falls in 1848. She also contributed to the Declaration of Sentiments, the conference manifesto asserting women’s equality in politics, family, education, jobs, religion and morals.
“Resolved, therefore, that, being invested by the Creator with the same capabilities and same consciousness of responsibility for their exercise, it is demonstrably the right and duty of woman, equally with man, to promote every righteous cause by every righteous means; . . . and this being a self-evident truth growing out of the divinely implanted principles of human nature, any custom or authority adverse to it, whether modern or wearing the hoary sanction of antiquity, is to be regarded as a self-evident falsehood, and at war with mankind.”
Eliza Starbuck Barney (1802–1889)
Abolitionist – Suffragist – Historian
Well known as an “agitator” for temperance, equal rights, and women’s suffrage, she attended the first women’s suffrage convention in Massachusetts in 1851 and was among the first women to vote on Nantucket (for school committee) in 1880.
Her later years focused on her “life’s work,” The Eliza Starbuck Barney Genealogical Record. This compilation of family records and the genealogies of 40,000 islanders, rests in the NHA Research Library and is the cornerstone of all Nantucket genealogical research.
She ended her days living here at Hadwen House with her son Joseph Barney, nephew of William Hadwen.
Anna Gardner (1816–1901)
Teacher – Abolitionist – Suffragist – Leader
At the 1876 Fourth Women’s Congress held in Philadelphia, sixty-year-old Anna Gardner, active in the Association for the Advancement of Women, delivered a forcefully impassioned speech calling for the vote for women.
She predicted that “Woman Suffrage, the most advanced reform of the age, will surely be fulfilled . . . Meanwhile let Woman continue to avail herself of every opportunity to show what she can accomplish. The world will not always resist the logic of facts. The time is rapidly approaching when women, as well as men, will be gauged by mental culture and the attainment of a lofty character.”
Maria Mitchell (1818–1889)
Astronomer – Professor – Women’s Rights Activist
A woman of firsts, Maria Mitchell was the first woman to discover a telescopic comet in 1847. She became one of the first woman members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848; was the first female government employee in 1849 in the Nautical Almanac Office; and became professor of astronomy at Vassar Female College, the first school entirely for women.
Most importantly, she used her celebrity to champion women in the sciences and advocate for women’s rights, co-founding the American Association for the Advancement of Women in 1872 and remaining active in its work until 1888.
She maintained that, “Until women throw off reverence for authority they will not develop. When they do this, when they come to truth through their own investigations, when doubts lead them to discovery, the truth they get will be theirs, and their minds will go on unfettered.”
Lydia Folger Fowler, M.D. (1822–1879)
Physician – Professor – Lecturer – Writer – Activist
In 1850, Lydia Folger Fowler was the first American-born woman to receive a medical degree. In 1851, she became the first woman professor of medicine at a U.S. college. She specialized in the health of women and children, and wrote and lectured on hygiene, nutrition, physiology and phrenology. In later years, she served the poor and needy of the slums where she eventually contracted blood poisoning which led to her death at 56.
She championed opening the medical profession to women, became active in the temperance and women’s rights movements, and attended the Seneca Falls women’s right conference. Later, Elizabeth Cady Stanton dedicated The History of Woman Suffrage (1881) to her, among other pioneers of the suffrage movement.
Eunice Ross (1824–1895)
Student – Education Advocate
Communities across America in the 1840s saw the bitter divisions of slavery, and racial prejudice dominated public debate. On Nantucket in 1840, Eunice Ross, a 17-year-old student of Anna Gardner at the African School, by vote of a town meeting, was denied admission to the Nantucket High School because of her race. Five years of hot debate followed the ban, bringing to light ugly prejudices and deeply ingrained fears within the community. Finally, in 1845, frustrated by the delays of the Nantucket School Committee, Edward J. Pompey and 104 other black citizens, including members of the Ross family, submitted a petition to the Massachusetts State House requesting that admission to public schools be extended to all children. Ross submitted her own poignant petition, pictured here. Ross was 24 when the school system finally integrated, but she made history
as an advocate for equal education.
Reverend Phebe Coffin Hanaford (1829–1921)
Minister – Author – Women’s Rights Activist
“I was the first woman ordained in Massachusetts. The first woman in the world to open a legislative session composed of men only . . . The first woman, I suppose, to respond to a toast at a Masonic Supper. The first woman to perform the ceremony of marriage for my own daughter . . .
“That I have been successful as a preacher is largely owing to the fact of my Quaker birth, and my early education on the Island of Nantucket, where women preach and men are useful on washing days, and neither feel themselves out of place.” — Phebe Coffin Hannaford
Margaret Swain Getchell (1841–1880)
Math Teacher – Retail Executive
Credited with many of the store’s marketing innovations, in 1866, she was promoted to superintendent at Macy’s Department Store in New York City, making her one of the first women to hold an executive position in American retail, managing the store’s routine operations and nearly 200 employees.
“Be everywhere, do everything, and never forget to astonish the customer.” — Margaret Getchell
Anne Ring (1865–1953)
Tuckernuck Teacher – NHA Member – Select ”Woman”
In 1926, Nantucketers elected educator Anne Ring to the Board of Selectmen, the first woman so elected not only in Nantucket but in the whole Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Legend has it that the selectmen had to remove their spitoon from the selectmen’s room!
Since then eight more women have been elected to what is now the Select Board, and currently, for the first time, women members are in the majority.
Clara Parker (1877–1970)
Atheneum Head Librarian – “New Voter”
Following the ratification of the 19th amendment in August 1920, Clara Parker and her stepmother Harriet Parker registered to vote in the national elections. They were listed together in the Inquirer and Mirror as two of sixty-nine Nantucket women registered as “New Voters.”
Clara Parker was head librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum for fifty years, serving three generations of Nantucket readers. Upon her retirement she was named Librarian Emerita.
Florence E. Clay Higginbotham (1893–1972)
Businesss Woman – Property Manager – Cook
Born in Virginia, Florence Clay made Nantucket her home. After formally training at the Boston Cooking School, she arrived on island in 1911 to work as summer staff in ‘Sconset. In 1920, she was hired to manage the Underhill Cottages in the village, where she lived with owner Evelyn Underhill, and purchased the historic Seneca Boston home, in the New Guinea neighborhood closer to town, which she used for rental income. After the stock market crash of 1929, she moved to the Boston house permanently, with her former employer Underhill in tow. In 1933, she purchased the adjoining historic African Meetinghouse, which she also rented out for storage and, once, as a studio. Higginbotham lived at the Boston house until her death in 1972. Her son, Wilhelm, retained ownership of the house, until it was sold to the Museum of African American History (MAAH) in 1989. The MAAH has recently completed an award-winning restoration of both properties, ensuring her legacy.