Their legacy marches on: Celebrate Women’s History month with a look at historic South Shore figures
By VALERIE A. RUSSO
For The Patriot Ledger
Weymouth native Maria Weston Chapman became involved with the abolitionist movement – as an organizer, writer and editor of antislavery publications.
"Remember the ladies,” wrote Abigail Adams in a famous letter to her husband, John, a delegate from Massachusetts to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
That letter, penned in 1776, is a treasured historical document, rediscovered in recent years by a generation inspired to celebrate women’s accomplishments.
As we celebrate Women’s History Month, it’s fitting to remember our local ladies. Many women on the South Shore have made noteworthy contributions to our nation’s history, from Pilgrim days to the 21st century - in education, religion, social reform, environmental preservation, the arts and other fields.
Women of state
Quincy is a virtual who’s who of notable women. Best known is Abigail Adams (1744-1818), the Weymouth woman who became the wife of our second president and mother of our sixth president. She was a supporter of the patriot cause, a legendary letter-writer and advocate for women’s rights.
President Harry Truman once said that Abigail Adams “would have been a better president than her husband.” However, her role was to guide from behind the scenes in an era when women were not supposed to concern themselves with politics. This parson’s daughter educated herself by reading books in her father’s library. She was a tremendous help to her husband John Adams, both before and after he was elected the nation’s second president. It is probable that the family stayed solvent
largely through her resourceful management of the farm in Braintree (now Quincy) during his many months away from home, first at the Continental Congresses and then as president.
It was when her husband was a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, which was drafting a federal constitution, that she wrote her famous letter urging him and his fellow delegates to “remember the ladies.”
Although history books devote fewer paragraphs to Louisa Catherine (Johnson) Adams than to her famous mother-in-law, Louisa made significant contributions to the nation and to the career of her husband, John Quincy Adams.
During John Quincy Adams’s tenure in the House of Representatives, Louisa supported his fight for abolition by sorting and summarizing the many antislavery petitions that came across his desk.
She was one of the best liked and most respected first ladies. On the day she died, both houses of Congress adjourned, the only time the wife of a president was so honored.
Amelia Earhart (1897-1937) and Harriet Quimby (1875-1912) are commemorated at the Aviation History Information Center at Beechwood on the Bay in Squantum. The center is on the former site of Dennison Field, Quincy’s only commercial airport, open from 1927 to 1941.
Earhart, one of the five founding stock-holders, flew the airport’s first official flight in 1927. Quimby, the first American woman to earn a pilot’s license, came to this site in 1912 (when it was called Harvard Aviation Field) to compete in an air show. She was killed when her new Bleriot mono-plane crashed in Dorchester Bay.
Quincy native Ruth Gordon (1896-1985) was a famous Broadway and Hollywood actress from 1914 to 1985. She appeared in many films, including the 1971 cult classic “Harold and Maude,” and won an Academy Award as supporting actress in “Rosemary’s Baby.”
She was honored by the city of Quincy on her 80th birthday, and the Ruth Gordon Amphitheater was built in the city’s Merrymount Park, near the Wollaston neighborhood where she was born, and dedicated in her honor.
Standing up for freedom
Religious reformers Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643) and Mary Dyer (1611-1660) made an historic trek along Indian paths through the woods of Southeastern Massachusetts when they were exiled from the state for expressing their religious beliefs.
The Hutchinsons, originally from England, lived in Boston until their banishment in 1638. They also owned a 600-acre farm in Wollaston. A plaque in front of the fire station at Beale and Arlington streets marks the approximate site of their farmhouse.
The Rev. Olympia Brown (1835-1926), who became pastor of the First Universalist Church of Weymouth Landing in 1864, holds the distinction of being the first female pastor in any church in Massachusetts.
Another crusader for human rights was Weymouth native Maria Weston Chapman (1806-1885). She married in 1830, raised a family and became involved with the abolitionist movement - as an organizer, writer and editor of antislavery publications. -
In 2004, the Maria Weston Chapman Middle School in Weymouth was named for her.
Anna Boynton Thompson, Thayer Academy’s first female faculty member, was a leading educator in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her methods at Thayer Academy in Braintree were so highly regarded that they were used as entrance requirements for history at Harvard College.
Another advocate for education was Sarah Langley Hersey Derby (1714-1790). In 1784, she founded the Derby School in her hometown of Hingham. It was the first co-educational school in New England.
First best-seller in America
Hull’s two famous daughters are author/actress/educator Susanna Haswell Rowson (1762-1828) and opera singer Bernice James DePasquali (1873-1925). English-born Rowson was the author of “Charlotte Temple,” the first best-selling novel in America.
Rowson came to America when she was 5 and spent most of her childhood in Hull. Her house was where the Hull Public Library stands today.
Bernice DePasquali was a coloratura soprano who sang with Enrico Caruso and under the baton of Gustav Mahler. She received 26 curtain calls after her debut with the Metropolitan Opera in 1908.
Every Christmas she returned to Hull to sing “Silent Night” in Elm Square, at Main and Spring streets.
DePasquali was the great-niece of the lifesaver Joshua James, who is commemorated at the Hull Lifesaving Museum. She is buried in Hull Cemetery, on Gallop’s Hill behind the Lifesaving Museum.
Adelaide Phillips (1833-1882) was another well-known opera singer who lived on the South Shore. Born in Bristol, England, she purchased a farm in Marshfield in 1880 that became her permanent home.
Phillips is buried in Winslow Cemetery in Marshfield. There is an oil portrait of her near the entrance to the Ventress Memorial Library in Marshfield.
Turning back the troops
Abigail and Rebecca Bates were the daughters of the keeper of Scituate Light. During the War of 1812, they spotted boats loaded with British soldiers heading toward their lighthouse from a British warship. The resourceful young women (who were 17 and 21 at the time) played military tunes on fife and drum so the British would believe American soldiers were drilling nearby. The British decided not to chance a landing and rowed back to their ship.
Painters of merit
The South Shore has been home to many female artists over the years, among them portrait painter Josephine Miles Lewis (1865-1959). Lewis was the first woman to receive a bachelor of fine arts degree from Yale University, in 1891. After college, she studied at the Julian Academy in Paris and subsequently returned to the United States. She maintained a studio in New York and a summer studio in Scituate.
Lewis’ portraits of two Scituate children, Frank and Mary Vinal, as well as a self-portrait are on display at the Scituate Historical Society. Lewis is buried at Union Cemetery in Scituate.
Another notable artist who lived on the South Shore was Elizabeth Weber-Fulop (1883-1966), whose paintings were exhibited in Vienna, New York, Boston and posthumously at the Duxbury Art Complex Museum. Her studio was in the rear wing of the house, which is now owned by the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society.
Saving the natural world
Olga Owens Huckins (1901-1968), a retired literary editor for two Boston newspapers, was upset about the deaths of numerous birds and harmless insects caused by the aerial spraying of pesticides over her Duxbury home and adjoining 2-acre private bird sanctuary. She wrote a letter about the incident to the Boston Herald, where it was published in 1958, and she sent a copy to her friend, Rachel Carson, who worked with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington.
Carson went on to write “Silent Spring,” a book that caught the attention of the American public and led to a ban on DDT and controls on other contaminants. In the preface to the book, Carson credited Huckins for her role in inspiring it.
Two other South Shore women who worked on behalf of their feathered friends were Harriet Lawrence Hemenway (1858-1960) and Mildred Morse Allen (1903-1989).
Hemenway and her cousin Minna Hall founded the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the oldest organization dedicated to bird conservation and public education in the United States.
Hemenway lived in Canton for the last 29 years of her life.
Allen was a pioneer in the field of natural history filmmaking. She won the Grand Award in the 1966 New York International Film and TV Festival for her first movie, “Nature Remains.” The 28-minute color film about environmental destruction and pollution was filmed on 130 acres of woodland behind her Canton home, which she bequeathed to the Massachusetts Audubon Sanctuary.
Plymouth’s women leaders
A number of sites in Plymouth are connected with women’s contributions to American Indian and early Colonial history. When you visit the Wampanoag homesite at Plimoth Plantation, be sure to ask about two female Wampanoag chiefs - Awashonks and Weetamoo - and the role that women played in Wampanoag life.
Awashonks (circa 1620-84), was female sachem, or leader, of the Saconnet band of the Wampanoag people. She was an important figure in the Indian uprising known as King Philip’s War.
Unlike Awashonks, who befriended the English, Weetamoo, female sachem of the Pocasset band of the Wampanoag, sided with King Philip. She was the widow of King Philip’s brother (who was widely believed by the native inhabitants to have been poisoned by the English) and sister to King Philip’s wife.
Her loyalty had tragic consequences: the English chased her from her lands, and she drowned while trying to escape across the Taunton River on a small raft.
Barbara Leudtke (1948-2000), professor of anthropology at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and a Quincy resident for 25 years, conducted the first major archaeological survey of the Boston Harbor Islands, in 1975.
Luedtke also directed archaeological projects at World’s End in Hingham and at the Wampanoag homesite at Plimoth Plantation, where many of her findings are used by the Wampanoag program.
On display at Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth is the first embroidered sampler in America, made by Loara Standish (1627-1655 or 1656), daughter of Myles Standish, and a needlework table once owned by Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814).
Warren is best known for the poetry and plays she wrote in support of the American Revolution and for her three-volume history of the war. In 1754, she and her husband, General James Warren, bought the gambrel-roof house at 65 Main St., which remained in the family until 1828. Currently, the building contains retail establishments, including the Dockside Café, which has a plaque on the front wall that reads “Winslow/Warren Building, 1726” and a “Winslow Skillet” on the breakfast menu. The grave of Mercy Otis Warren is in the Burial Hill cemetery in Plymouth.
Also from Plymouth was Hannah Thomas, who is believed to be America’s first female lighthouse keeper. While her husband was fighting in the American Revolution, she carried on his duties at the twin towers of Gurnet Light at the end of Duxbury Beach in Plymouth.
A cookie is born
Ruth Wakefield (1904-1977), co-owner (with her husband) of the Toll House Restaurant in Whitman, is famous for having invented the chocolate chip cookie in 1930. According to the story, she was experimenting with a Colonial cookie recipe and decided to substitute bits of semi-sweet chocolate for nuts. -
It became the most popular cookie in America and later was designated the official state cookie of Massachusetts. The restaurant burned in 1985, after she and her husband had sold it.
Deborah Sampson Gannett (1760-1827) believed so strongly in the patriot cause that she disguised herself as a man and fought in the American Revolution, using the name of her deceased brother, Robert Shurtlieff. She was one of America’s first female soldiers and designated the official heroine for the commonwealth of Massachusetts. Deborah Sampson Gannett Day is celebrated on May 23, the day she enlisted in the Continental Army. She is buried in Rock Ridge Cemetery in Sharon.