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Nantucket Women who
flouted conventions and
blazed trails...

By the 1840s nearly half of the world’s whaling ships sailed out of Nantucket. Usually left ashore while their men sailed the seas were the women who raised large families, managed their households and ran
island businesses. In the early 18th century Nantucket was a predominantly Quaker community. A tenet of the Quaker religion was that men and women were socially and spiritually equal. During the height of
the whaling industry, women outnumbered the men four to one.
J. Hector St. John de Creve Coeur visited Nantucket in the 1770s. He wrote that the women of Nantucket “were justly entitled to a rank superior to that of other wives.” Travel writer William Oliver Stephens wrote: “Indeed, it is probable that no other community in America of the size of Nantucket has ever given to the country so many extraordinary women.” The first English settlers came to Nantucket in 1659. The men and women who decided to make this island their home had to work hard to make the fledgling settlement survive. When whaling became the dominant industry, whaling husbands would be away from the island for years at a time. Women had to fill the breach and did so in remarkable ways, raising large families, managing their households, supplementing their incomes by starting businesses, and still found the time to become involved in the
social movements of the day.

Wonoma - Mid-1600's

In the early 17th century there were several thousand Wampanoags living here. The island was divided between two sachems: Wauwinet was the leader on the eastern side. Wonoma was his cherished daughter, well known as a healer with great knowledge of medicinal plants and their healing powers. Autopscot was the leader to the west. There were wars over hunting grounds among the two tribes. When a terrible sickness befell the people of the west side, she was summoned to assist them. There she met Autopscot and fell in love with him, in addition to saving the western tribe. Wonoma returned home and shortly thereafter learned that her father was planning to attach Autopscot’s village. Wonoma set out on a starlit night to warn her lover and to make a plea for peace. Not only did
Wauwinet and Autopscot agree to make a pledge for peace, they agreed to unite their people with an
intertribal marriage. 


Mary Coffin Starbuck - (1645-1717)

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 the age of fifty-six 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. She also ran the family’s trading post, the island’s commercial center at the time. As she could read and write while 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.


Abiah Folger Franklin - (1667-1752)


Franklin was the mother of Benjamin Franklin. She had ten children, Benjamin being her eights. In his
biography Franklin described his mother, “she suckled all ten of her children, and was never sick a day inher life until she died at the age of eighty-five.


Kezia Folger Coffin - (1723-1798)

Kezia Coffin, wife of a whaling captain, ran a lucrative international trading business before and during
the American Revolution that made her and her husband the island’s wealthiest residents. Not content
to rest in this position, Kezia considered it her duty to supply the island with necessary foods and goods during the Revolution. Nantucket’s economy depended on British trade, and in 1779 she was suspected of smuggling, allegedly importing fresh flour through British connections. Coffin was tried for treason, but historians have noted that if no one had “moved more rapidly than the law”, there would have been much suffering on the island. The court found her not guilty.


Lucretia Coffin Mott - (1793-1880)


Lucretia Mott was mentor to women’s activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, co-organizing the first women’s rights convention in the U.S. in Seneca Falls, NY 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.

Image credit: 

Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association, CDV1327.


Eliza Starbuck Barney - (1802-1889)


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 a genealogical record of 40,000 islanders dating back to the original settlers. The seven volumes now rest in the NHA Research Library and are available online for all Nantucket genealogical research.

Image credit:

Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association, F6742.


Eliza Ann Chase McCleave - (1811-1895)


McCleave was the wife of whaling captain Robert McCleave. Captain McCleave brought souvenirs and curiosities from his whaling voyages to his wife as a way of sharing his experiences visiting exotic places. As the collection grew, McCleave displayed her collection on the second floor of her Main Street home. For a fee, Elliza gave guided tours to the public. Her museum had benches and a daily “lecture” describing her artifacts. She gained a reputation for giving colorful, theatrical tours.

Image credit:

Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association, GPN243.


Susan Veeder - (1816-1897)


Veeder accompanied her whaling captain husband Charles on the whaleship Nauticon in 1848. She kept a journal of her experiences. She illustrated her journal with watercolors and careful penmanship, chronicling a voyage that lasted almost five years. Beyond the notations of wind and weather, Veeder described life at sea, including joys, hardships and discoveries. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the voyage was the birth and subsequent death of her baby girl born in Talcahhuano, Chile. She then chronicled the highs and lows of the crew in their pursuit of whales. In the summer of 1851, the Nauticon went north to the Arctic where the ship was stuck in the ice for thirteen days. Her journal provides a fascinating window into the lives of women who went to sea. [Other Nantucket women who went on whaling voyages with their captain husbands include Mary Hayden Russell, Azubah Cast, Malvina Pinkham Marshall and Helen Marshall.]

Image credit:

Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association, GPN768.


Maria Mitchell - (1818-1889)


Maria Mitchell was a trailblazer. In 1847, she became the second woman to discover a comet, and, the following year, was the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. As the Atheneum’s head librarian, she was one of the first women in the world to lead a public library. Concurrently, she was the first professional woman employed by the U.S. government, hired in 1846 by the Coast Survey and in 1849 by the American Nautical Almanac Office. In 1864, as a professor of astronomy, she was the first person appointed to the faculty at Vassar College. She championed women in the sciences and advocated for women’s rights, co-founding the Association for the Advancement of Women in 1873 and remaining active in its work until 1888.

Image credit:

Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association, CDV1370.


Lydia Folger Fowler - (1822-1879)


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 the age of fifty-six. She was also active in the temperance and women’s
rights movements.

Image credit:

Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association, F900.


Eunice Ross - (1824-1895)

In the 1840s, communities across America saw the bitter divisions of slavery, and racial prejudice. On Nantucket in 1840, Eunice Ross, a seventeen-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 prejudices 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 school be extended to all children. Ross submitted her own petition. Ross was twenty-four when the school system finally integrated, but she made history as an advocate for equal education.


Mary Ellen Pleasant - (1812-1904)

Mary Ellen Pleasant, a Black woman, came to Nantucket in 1827 as a bonded servant to the Hussey family. She worked out her bondage, then became a family member and lifelong friend to Phebe Hussey Gardner. The Husseys were involved in the abolition movement, and Pleasant met many famous abolitionists. She worked in the Underground Railroad, transporting slaves to Ohio and Canada. She took her abolition work to California during the Gold Rush era. In California, she ran a men’s dining establishment and identified herself as a capitalist by profession. In 1866, Pleasant successfully attached racial discrimination in San Francisco public transportation after she was ejected from a city streetcar.


Anna Gardner - (1816-1901)

Born on Nantucket, Gardner grew up in an abolitionist Quaker family. At the age of twenty-two, she began to teach at the African School. She had fifty pupils in one room and taught all levels up to the ninth grade. She was at the center of the segregation issue, as one of her students, Eunice Ross, was denied entry to the Nantucket High School. Anna resigned her teaching position, not just in protest, but to devote herself to the cause of equality for African Americans. Gardner also helped initiate Nantucket’s first anti-slavery convention. The convention included speeches by many well-known abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. She later worked in the south, establishing and teaching in schools for Black children.

Image credit:

Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association, GPN1319.


Reverend Phebe Coffin Hanaford - (1829-1921)


Born a Quaker in ‘Sconset, Coffin became the first woman in New England to be ordained as a Universalist minister in 1868. Hanaford had both public and private schooling and studied an advanced, classical curriculum. Raised in the Quaker tradition, she was accustomed to hearing women speak and preach in Friends meetings. At the age of sixteen took a teaching job in ‘Sconset. During the 1850s and 1860s she wrote many books, including The Life of Abraham Lincoln, the first biography published after his assassination. She left the Quaker faith to join her husband Joseph in the Baptist church, but eventually she turned to Universalism. Hanaford had a long ministerial career, while writing prolifically and working for women’s rights, antislavery and temperance.

Image credit:

Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association, CDV15556.


Margaret Swain Getchell - (1841-1880)


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.

Image credit:

Courtesy of Macy’s Archive


Reverend Louise S. Baker - (1846-1896)


A former teacher, Baker was engaged as the minister of the First Congregational Church in 1880. After four years, the church found her ministry to and preaching to be “most acceptable” and voted unanimously to grant her the right to administer the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, to admit members of the Church, and to perform all duties of the ministerial service. After her ordination, she refused several calls from other churches. Baker had a deep interest in literature. In 1838, she published a volume of her collected poems entitled “By the Sea”. She also wrote a book of fiction, Eunice Hussey: A Nantucket Story.

Image credit:

Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association, GPN1558.


Anne Ring - (1865-1953)


In 1926, Nantucketers elected educator Anne Ring to the Board of Selectmen, the first woman elected not only in Nantucket but in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Ring was a teacher at the Tuckernuck School.

Image credit:

Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association, P1564.


Clara Parker - (1877-1970)


Following the ratification of the 19th amendment in August 1920, Clara Parker registered to vote in the national elections. She was listed in the Inquirer and Mirror as one of sixty-nine Nantucket women registered as “New Voters”. Parker was head librarian at the Atheneum for fifty years, serving three generations of Nantucket readers.

Image credit:

Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association, GPN1031.


Gertrude Monaghan (1887-1962) and Hanna Monaghan (1889-1972)


Quaker sisters Gertrude and Hanna Monaghan arrived on Nantucket at the time when Nantucket had ceased to be a whaling center and was beginning to be a summer resort destination and an art colony. Gertrude was an accomplished artist, and Hanna, the more dramatic of the two, was devoted to the arts. Hanna said she and her sister were affected by “a virus struck under the pseudonym of ART”. When they first came to the island, the sisters from Pennsylvania rented a studio on the wharf. On a return visit in 1929, they followed a farmer leading cows up Main Street to a barn on Howard Street. The sisters fell in love with the building and decided it would be perfect for their summer home. As religious women, the sisters believed that everything in their lives happened through divine influence, and the creation of their home was no exception. They named their new home “Greater Light” from Genesis, “And God made the two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night.”

Image credit(s):

Hanna Citation:

Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association, P16954.

Gertrude Citation:

Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association, P16956.


Florence Clay Higginbotham (1893-1972)


Born in Virginia, Higginbotham made Nantucket her home. After training at the Boston Cooking School, she arrived on the island in 1911 to work as a summer staff in ‘Sconset. In 1920, she was hired to manage the Underhill Cottages where she lived with owner Evelyn Underhill, and purchased the historic Seneca Boston home, in the New Guinea neighborhood, which she used for rental income. After the stock market crash of 1929, Higginbotham moved to the Boston house permanently, with her former employer Underhill. In 1933, she purchased the adjoining historic African Meeting house, which she also rented out for storage.

Image credit:

Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association, P19179.


Mildred Jewett (1907-1990)


Jewett, known as “Madaket Millie”, was a lifelong resident of the island, spending most of her life at her grandmother’s homestead in Madaket. As a child she dreamed of a career in the U.S. Coast Guard. The American services did not accept women until the outbreak of WWII; however, Jewett was denied enlistment due to health concerns. She spent most of the war years training dogs, running her ice cream stand and patrolling the coast for shipwrecks, spies, and vessels in distress. Due to her forty-year dedication to the mission of the Coast Guard, Jewitt was made and honorary Chief Warrant Officer in 1984.

Image credit:

Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association, P21503.


Lucinda Cooper

Our next notable woman is Lucinda Cooper. She was born in Africa and abducted by slave traders when she was in her teens. She lived on two continents, survived the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the American Civil War. Lucinda Cooper, or “Aunt Lucy” was the second wife of Arthur Cooper the fugitive slave who Anna Gardner’s family helped. Lucinda was known to the neighborhood as a caring friend and a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. In 1833, she and her husband purchased a house on Angola Street, known as Allentown. An 1858 map shows the home of the Coopers on the north side of Angola Street. Aunt Lucy was a favorite of the island children who were fascinated by the brand on her forehead which looked like cluster of grapes. Lucy survived her husband and islanders said she was on hundred ten years old at the time of her death in 1866.


Ruth West Coombs (1891-1964)


When the original English settlers arrived in 1659, it is estimated that there were approximately 2,000 Wampanoags living on the island. In the mid-1700s an epidemic took its toll on the Native American population. Today there are no Wampanoags on the island. However, Nantucket’s Native American population heritage lives on through interracial marriages and Nantucket’s Wampanoags who joined other communities on Martha’s Vineyard and the mainland. Late in the 1800’s the West family with descent from Martha’s Vineyard Wampanoags moved to Nantucket. Ruth West Coombs was part African American and part Wampanoag, born on Nantucket in the 19th century. Ruth West married Wampanoag Darius Coombs from the mainland and they moved to Nantucket along with several members of his family. She was a singer, touring New England under her native title, “Princess Red Feather”. Ruth’s concerts raised awareness and appreciation for the Wampanoag culture. Ruth was also on the costume team for the Nantucket Theater Workshop. Her costumes were described as “outstanding in their flamboyance” in the local paper. She is buried here with her family. Today it is estimated that 4,000 to 5,000 Wampanoags live in New England.

Image credit:

Photo by Louis Davidson, courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association, PH165-P178H.


Gwen Gaillard (1921-2005)

Gwen Gaillard, regarded as the Grand Dame of Nantucket, is remembered for being the legendary Opera House restaurant owner and she was known to be the inspiration behind the Opera House Cup, a classic wooden sailboat race on Nantucket. A socialite and maternal figure, Gwen shared recipes with James Beard and Julia Child and was known to have greatly influenced the Nantucket food scene. People adored and respected Gwen, she was a true Nantucket treasure.


Edith Andrews (1915-2015)


Edith Folger Andrews first came to Nantucket on a postgraduate trip after receiving her bachelor’s degree in biology and nature study in 1938. It was on this trip that Edith fell in love with the island, its birdlife, nature, and the Maria Mitchell Association. Edith was later invited to teach nature classes at the Maria Mitchell Association and this is where she continued to work for over 60 years. Edith was a teacher, an observer, an advocate and an inspiration to many people within the community. She spent much of her time marveling at and observing the island’s birdlife and started a column “Island Bird Sightings” in the Inquirer and MIrror which her daughter still writes today. During WWII she was involved with a local network of spotters who watched for enemy craft and she also stepped in and taught biology, physics and chemistry for the drafted science teacher at Nantucket High School. Just as she was inspired by the remarkable Maria Mitchell, Edith went on to inspire students and researchers and never stopped observing, learning or  being curious about the natural world that surrounds her. Deeply connected to nature, the island and the community, Edith Andrews, a celebrated ornithologist, is highly regarded as a notable Nantucket woman. 

Image credit: 

Jim Powers

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