How the seeds of feminism in America first took root on Nantucket.
When more than four hundred people gathered in the courtyard of the Atheneum this past January as part of the nationwide women’s march, they were continuing a long and rich legacy of feminist activism on Nantucket. Throughout the 1800s, the island was home to more history-making feminists than perhaps anywhere else in the country.
At the time, American women could not vote, own property, access higher education, or even claim legal rights and protections. Puritanical beliefs across New England held that women existed as a moral counter-balance for men and that their “nature and destiny” was to be confined in the home. Yet on Nantucket, revolutionary women led by Lucretia Mott had a very different vision.
“I long for the time when my sisters will rise, and occupy the sphere to which they are called by their high nature and destiny,” Mott declared to a gathering in Boston in 1848. “What a change would then appear in the character of woman! We should no longer find her the mere plaything of man, and a frivolous appendage of society.”
During her childhood, Mott’s father spent years at sea, and her mother kept a shop on Petticoat Row, the street named for the successful string of female-owned businesses on Nantucket. With as many as a third of island men working offshore as whalers, women tended to business and domestic affairs that would have otherwise been off-limits. “During the absence of their husbands, Nantucket women have been compelled to transact business, often going to Boston to procure supplies of goods,” Mott wrote to fellow feminist Elisabeth Cady Stanton. “They have kept their own accounts, & indeed acted the part of men.”
Mott’s mother hosted visiting Quaker ministers in her parlor, exposing her daughter to the outspoken “Quaker-Lady Preacher” Elizabeth Coggeshall. Quakerism helped champion the relative independence and autonomy enjoyed by Nantucket women during the whaling period. As Quakers, Mott and her contemporaries learned to follow an “inner light” that allowed for direct communication with God. This was in stark contrast with Puritans on the mainland who believed God’s messages could only be received by male ministers. Not only could Quaker women communicate directly with God, but they could also be ministers themselves. Moreover, Quakerism insisted that boys and girls received the same education, and Mott and other island girls grew up learning the story of Mary Starbuck, an influential woman credited with converting most white islanders to Quakerism in the early 1700s.
Mott’s upbringing on Nantucket propelled her into a lifetime of activism. In 1821, she became a minister and delivered anti-slavery speeches around the country. She eventually co-founded the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, sheltered fugitive slaves in her home and attended all the major anti-slavery conferences of the day. Despite being a married Quaker minister, Mott was slandered and called “promiscuous” for speaking in public. Later in her life, she would take many trips back to the island and continue her famous speeches at the Atheneum.
From the 1840s onward, Nantucket was a hub for the intertwining social movements of abolition and women’s rights. Seventh generation islander Anna Gardner personified this union. As the secretary of the Nantucket Anti-Slavery Society, she helped organize three anti-slavery conventions at the Atheneum between 1841 and 1843, twenty years before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation declared an end to slavery.
Frederick Douglass spoke at all three of these conventions, sharing his own experience as a former slave with a captivated audience in the Great Hall of the Atheneum, which became a kind of Mecca for this early activism. Douglass extended his message of justice and equality to women. In 1848, he attended the first sizeable women’s rights meeting known as the Seneca Falls Convention, organized by Mott, Stanton and other women’s rights leaders. There he signed their official declaration of equality with men.
Three years after Douglass’s appearance at the Atheneum, a famous women’s rights activist and abolitionist named Lucy Stone gave a speech on those same steps. As the first woman to earn a college degree in Massachusetts, her speech had gravitas that reinforced the radical notion of women’s intelligence and capabilities.
One young Nantucketer knew this struggle all too well. For years, Eunice Ross, a young African American woman, petitioned for entry into Nantucket High School, and, in 1847, she succeeded, some ninety-eight years before Brown v. Board of Education made school segregation nationally illegal.
That same year, Maria Mitchell discovered a comet and leveraged her instant celebrity to advocate for women in the men’s clubs of science and academia to which she now belonged. She fought pay discrimination at Vassar College and taught the first generation of female PhD science students.
Yet as with most studies in history, there are some uncomfortable truths about power and oppression on Nantucket during this period. Quakers held racially segregated meetings and exploited the native Wampanoag people. Women were excluded from some abolitionist activities, including participation in the first World Anti-Slavery Convention. Both feminism and abolition espoused justice and equality, but selectively favored and excluded certain members, causing rifts and in-fighting in both movements. To gloss over or over simplify these unpleasant parts of our history would be dangerous, as they help explain present day social inequalities.
Nevertheless, Nantucket women and the island itself played a pivotal role in demanding that women
were no longer considered a “frivolous appendage of society.” In 1920, women gained the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment. In 1926, Anne Ring was not only the first woman to be elected to the Board of Selectmen on Nantucket, but the first to be elected in all of Massachusetts.
Feminism is making slow but steady progress toward a society where women are paid equally and hold equal representation in public office and corporate leadership. From the pulpit of the Atheneum steps, the women’s march of 2017 raised awareness about women’s rights, safety and health, especially for groups that have been historically marginalized, even within the feminist movement. While much has changed about Nantucket since the mid-1800s, the Atheneum and the island at large continues to attract and gather those who believe in equal rights. Only time will tell what will come from the women of this era.