Learn about the subject of Bob Booth’s latest book, The Women of Marblehead, due out this month. It is published by the Marblehead Female Humane Society, in honor of its bicentennial year and many of its members and activities are featured. During the 19th century women emerged from their oppression in the seafaring culture to a position of working-class autonomy. They led the town of Marblehead into its industrial future as a shoe manufacturing hub.
Booth will discuss the role of women in Marblehead over the course of the 1800s, as a progression from oppression and invisibility to self-sufficiency and autonomy. In the first decades, Marblehead was a seafaring town and women were confined to roles as wives and mothers. Education beyond nursery school was denied to girls, who played no role in the seafaring economy and had no pathways toward a career. The finances of the town and its people were shaky at best, and poverty was pervasive in all neighborhoods. Hundreds of women and children suffered by the loss of men at sea and in war; most of them relied on charity to remain in the community, and many were consigned to the town’s Poor House, a combination hospital, prison, and orphanage. The town’s leading charity was the Female Humane Society, founded in 1816 and operated by women for women, to alleviate poverty and keep widows and their children living in the community.
Beginning in the late 1820s, girls were allowed two hours of class-time in the town grammar schools; and the mass-production shoe industry, booming in Lynn, began to affect Marblehead. By 1830 as hundreds of women entered the workforce as shoemakers, the terms of women’s lives changed dramatically. During the period between 1830 and 1870 Marblehead’s economy shifted from seafaring to shoe manufacturing, with 20 large steam-powered factories producing millions of shoes and more than a thousand women working as factory operatives. Some young women were attending the State Normal School at Salem (teacher’s college) to establish careers in the public schools.
Devastating fires in 1877 and 1888 destroyed the factories, after which the town’s economy shifted once again, toward providing services to new hotels and yacht clubs, and to wealthy families who were summering on the Neck, in Devereux and Clifton, at Peach’s Point, and along the harbor. The directress of the Female Humane Society at that time was Ellen (Chamberlain) Blaney, who had grown up at the King Hooper Mansion, now headquarters of the MAA. During this time, women in Marblehead organized a powerful temperance movement that overwhelmed the men (who yet remained the only voters) and that resulted in a woman being elected to the School Board in the 1880s. By the turn of the century, some Marblehead women were attending four-year colleges, and the town had many female business-owners as well as a female physician and a female minister.
Seating is limited. Please reserve; Call: 781-631-2608, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The MAA is grateful for grant support from the Marblehead Cultural Council & the Massachusetts Cultural Council for this program.
*Starting in the 1840s, Dodge opened her home as a station on the Underground Railroad, providing shelter to enslaved people who had escaped from the South. By 1850, when Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, some local citizens were willing to defy the federal law and help people to get to Canada or overseas, away from the bounty-hunters who pursued them in the North. Betsy was the only woman in Essex County specifically identified as a “runner,” or host, on the Underground Railroad, liable to go to federal prison if caught.