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Pioneering Women North of Boston

March 9, 2021

Much has been written about our Founding Fathers, but pioneering women have shaped the region and the country. The Greater Salem area is infamous for its prosecution of “witches” in 1692, many of whose only crime was that they were outspoken, owners of coveted land, midwives and healers, or just living outside the conventional norm.

In honor of International Women’s Day, we recognize some unique women who made history locally and celebrate their determined spirit.

When the Everett Mill’s power looms suddenly fell silent on January 11, 1912, a mill official demanded to know why Lawrence mill workers were standing motionless next to their machines. Their response: “Not enough pay.” A recent Massachusetts law had cut the workweek of women and children weavers from 56 to 54 hours, which mill owners used to cut the worker’s wages proportionally. Word quickly spread through Lawrence’s tenements, rioting workers shattered windows with bricks and ice, and police beat them back with billy clubs. By the next day, more than 10,000 workers were out on strike. As the strike continued, women marched in picket lines and parades carrying banners that demanded both living wages and dignity: “We want bread, and roses, too.” News of the walkout went viral in newspapers around the country. President Taft asked his attorney general to investigate, and Congress began a hearing on the strike. On March 14, the nine-week strike ended. The Bread and Roses Strike was not just a victory for Lawrence workers. By the end of March, 275,000 New England textile workers received similar raises, and other industries followed suit.

Hannah Jumper, a 75-year-old seamstress, led Rockport’s women in a rebellion on July 6, 1856 against “demon rum” and took hatchets to any keg, jug, or cask containing alcohol. This temperance movement was in direct response to the seasonal nature of the local fishing industry that gave a three-month “vacation” to the townsmen who idled time away by consuming enormous amounts of liquor. As a result, Rockport remained a “dry” town until 2005, when voters approved the sale of alcoholic beverages in local restaurants.

Lydia Estes Pinkham, a resident of Lynn, was a patent holder and promoter of “pink pills for pale people.” She developed home remedies and mass marketed them from 1875 on. Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, which claimed to cure any ‘female complaint,” used ground herbs in a solvent of 18 percent alcohol. During Pinkham’s life, the business expanded from a cellar kitchen to a laboratory that brewed, bottled, and shipped enough compound to gross just under $300,000 a year. She also printed a free book that helped educate women about the female reproductive system from puberty through childbearing and menopause. Testimonials from grateful customers made her product one of the best known medicines of the 19th century.

To children worldwide, Virginia Lee Burton (Demetrios) is the beloved author of classics, including Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Katy and the Big Snow, and The Little House. But she was also the leader of the Folly Cove Designers, a group of 45 designer-craftsmen who collaborated between 1938 and 1969 to produce carefully wrought designs cut into linoleum blocks and printed on fabric. Lee devised a  course for her friends and neighbors in the Folly Cove neighborhood. Though many had no artistic training prior to joining the group, their talent earned accolades and participation in 16 museum exhibits. They also supplied designs to wholesalers and retailers such as Lord & Taylor and Skinner Silks. Today, the Cape Ann Museum houses the largest collection of their work and is worth a visit for any lover of graphic design.

Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy called the seaside city of Lynn home. She founded the popular religious movement during the 19th century to help promote healings through mental and spiritual teachings. An influential American author, teacher, and religious leader, she outlined for her groundbreaking ideas in her major work, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, first published in 1875. Four years later, she founded the Church of Christ, Scientist. Over the years, Eddy taught her system of healing to hundreds of women and men who established successful healing practices across the United States and abroad. In 1908, she launched The Christian Science Monitor, a leading international newspaper, the recipient of seven Pulitzer Prizes.

Hannah Dustin was a 40-year-old mother living in Haverhill with her husband Thomas, and their nine children, when the town was attacked by members of the Abenaki tribe on March 15, 1697. Hannah, her six-day-old baby Martha, and her nurse Mary Neff were captured. After walking for days, Hannah and Mary escaped from her captors by killing them in the night and fleeing in their canoe. Hannah Emerson Dustin was viewed as a frontier hero, and her story soon became part of American folklore, due in part to Cotton Mather’s account in 1702. Hannah became more famous during the nineteenth century, when her story was retold by Henry David Thoreau. She is believed to be the first woman honored in the United States with a statue.

Abolitionist and author Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery beliefs turned the public tide of opinion firmly in favor of emancipation with her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, one of the country’s first best-sellers. She moved to Andover in August 1852 when her husband Calvin Stowe became a professor at Andover Theological Seminary. Mrs. Stowe’s life in Andover became very public as abolitionists including William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth journeyed to Andover to visit her. She is buried in Phillips Academy Cemetary.

Judith Sargent Murray, who lived and was educated by her father in Gloucester, MA, was an early American advocate for women’s rights, an essay writer, playwright, poet, and letter writer. She was one of the first American proponents of the idea of the equality of the sexes—that women, like men, had the capability of intellectual accomplishment and should be able to achieve economic independence. Among many other influential pieces, her landmark essay “On the Equality of the Sexes” paved the way for new thoughts and ideas proposed by other feminist writers of the century.

Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672) was the most widely read 17th-century New England poet, and the country’s first female poet. Originally landed in Salem at Pioneer Village, she lived in both Ipswich and Andover, after emigrating with her family at the time of the founding of Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. Her first volume of poetry, The Tenth Muse Lately Spring up in America, was first published in England. In it and in later collections, the well-educated Bradstreet struggles with faith in the face of tragedy, thanks God for her recovery from illness and, touchingly expresses her love for her husband in poems. Historians believe her body is in the Old Burying Ground at Academy Road and Osgood Street in North Andover.

Charlotte Louise Bridges Forten Grimké was an African American was an anti-slavery activist, poet, and educator. In 1854, Forten attended the Higginson Grammar School, a private academy for young women in Salem. She was the only non-white student in a class of 200. After Higginson, Forten studied literature and teaching at the Salem Normal School, which trained teachers. Her first teaching position was at Eppes Grammar School in Salem, becoming the first African American hired to teach white students in a Salem public school. She taught school for years, including during the Civil War, to freedmen in South Carolina. Later in life she married Francis James Grimké, a Presbyterian minister who led a major church in Washington, DC, for decades. Her diaries written before the end of the Civil War have been published in numerous editions in the 20th century and are significant as a rare record of the life of a free black woman in the antebellum North.

A wealthy philanthropist from Salem, MA, Caroline Osgood Emmerton, established The House of the Seven Gables as a combined historic site and settlement house in 1907. With a fortune inherited from her grandfather, maritime trader John Bertram, Emmerton carried on her family’s tradition of endowing and supporting charitable good works, including the Bertram Home for Aged Men, the Salem public library, the Seaman’s Widow and Orphan Society, the Family Service Association, the Salem Fraternity Boys Club, and the city’s Public Welfare Society, as well as the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England), of which she was a founding member. By the age of twenty eight, she was a board of director for the Charter St. Home now the North Shore Medical Center/Salem Hospital. In 1907, she joined with a group of women to explore forming a settlement house in Salem and to do “experimental work.” By the following year, these women had begun to offer classes in sewing and other crafts and activities in an old Seaman’s Bethel next to the historic Turner-Ingersoll Mansion, which was also known as the house that Nathaniel Hawthorne had written about in his novel The House of the Seven Gables.

Harriet Prescott Spofford (1835-1921) was a prolific author of Gothic short stories, which she began publishing to help support her family in Newburyport. Prescott’s stories appeared in the top magazines of the time: The Atlantic, Harper’s Monthly, Galaxy, Lippincott’s, Scribner’s, Century, and Harper’s Bazaar. Her most often anthologized stories are “Circumstance,” a psychological drama in which a country woman is trapped outdoors by a beast overnight, and the darkly feminist “Her Story,” about a woman driven to insanity by her marriage. Her family home was on Deer Island in the Merrimack River between Amesbury and Newburyport.

Elizabeth Peabody (1804-1894) and her sister Mary Peabody Mann (1806-1887) were both major forces in the field of early childhood education. Sophia Amelia Peabody Hawthorne (1809-1871) was an American painter, illustrator and writer as well as the wife of author Nathaniel Hawthorne. Raised in Salem, MA, Elizabeth opened and ran two schools of her own and was involved with Transcendentalist Bronson Alcott’s Temple School. She opened the nation’s first English-language kindergarten in Boston in 1859, a venture in which she was supported by her sister and brother-in-law, the father of American education, Horace Mann. Elizabeth ran the literary journal The Dial for many years. There is a plaque to commemorate Sophia’s accomplishments and mark the place where she once lived, at 105 Essex Street, Salem MA.

Leading Salem philanthropist Caroline Plummer (1780-1854) was born in Gloucester, MA, the oldest daughter of Dr. Joshua Plummer; a noted Salem physician who graduated from Harvard in 1778. She inherited her brother’s estate and endowed the Plummer Hall at the Salem Atheneum, and established the Plummer Farm School of Reform, now the Plummer Home for Boys in Salem.  She was a close friend of Nathaniel Bowditch as well as several learned men of her day.  In the 1850s, a bequest from Caroline Plummer enabled the Salem Athenæum to erect a brick building in the Italianate style at 132 Essex Street which was its home for fifty years. Now the building is owned by the Peabody Essex Museum.

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