The abolitionist movement of the early nineteenth century. The Seneca Falls Convention for women’s rights in 1848. The women’s suffrage movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. What do these have in common?
You would be correct if you answered that each profoundly changed the face of the United States. You would also be correct if you said that Nantucket women led each of these movements. How did a small island twenty-seven miles off the Massachusetts mainland play such a vital role in shaping the United States today?
The answer to this question began at the dawn of the eighteenth century, even before the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, first established a monthly meeting on Nantucket. John Richardson, a Quaker traveling minister who preached on the island in the first two years of the eighteenth century, believed that the spiritual center on the island could be found within Mary Coffin Starbuck, whom he named “Great Mary.” Richardson believed her conversion would lead to Quakerism taking hold on the island. He would be proven correct. By 1704, Mary Coffin Starbuck was a devout Quaker. By 1708, the island received permission from the New England Yearly Meeting, based in Newport, Rhode Island, to es-tablish a monthly meeting for Nantucket Friends. For most of the first decade of the meeting until her death in 1717, Starbuck kept careful watch on the faith of the island, opposing the establishment of an ordained minister or the preaching of another denomination. The first meetings were even held in her home before a meeting house was built to host services.
Mary Coffin Starbuck may have been Quaker Nantuck-et’s first mother, but her leadership would carry on with other strong Quaker women after her death. A new generation of women would ascend to positions of lead-ership within the meeting. The families of these women read as a Who’s Who of early Nantucketers, as Starbucks and Swains, Coffins and Colemans, Folgers, Macys, and Gardners were all represented in the early leadership of the women’s meeting.
What was the role of the women’s meeting? After its establishment in 1708, the women’s meeting collected money for the benefit of widows on the island and for the construction of a new meeting house. This fundrais-ing was independent of the men’s meeting. For some ventures, the collections of the women’s and men’s meetings would be pooled together, such as for the building of a new meeting house, the first of which was constructed in 1711. The women’s meeting, however, handled all charitable efforts for women without co-ordination with the men’s meeting. In 1761, for exam-ple, the meeting first set aside “four Dollars to Eunice Guinn She being in need of Help.” The women’s meeting also collected money to pay for the care of the meeting house, as it would when it paid Mary Gardner for her sweeping of the meeting house floor.
The financial autonomy of the women’s meeting gave Quaker women on Nantucket an independence few reli-gious groups afforded their female followers. The wom-en’s meeting had established itself as the moral compass for eighteenth-century Nantucket. It also established the authority of the meeting over its membership.
Nowhere was the moral authority for the women’s meet-ing greater than when it came to regulating marriage. Friends established a specific procedure for marriage within the meeting, and the women’s meeting was cen-tral to ensuring strict adherence to that procedure. The very same Eunice Guinn who the women’s meeting aid-ed during her time of need in 1761 would be disowned (a less severe form of excommunication) five years later for exogamy—in other words, marrying a non-Quaker.
The conventional process for a Quaker marriage began when a couple would present themselves to both the women’s and men’s meetings to declare their intentions. The women’s meeting would appoint a committee that would be charged with ensuring the prospective bride’s “clearness,” which meant she was not married at that time, as the men’s meeting did the same for the pro-spective groom. The women’s meeting would also en-sure the bride-to-be had the permission of her parents, if still alive, to marry, regardless of her age, as the men’s meeting would for the groom. Once these questions were answered, the couple would for a second time declare their intentions to both the women’s and men’s meetings. At that time, the meeting as a whole would either bless or refuse the couple’s intentions. Most often, couples that had encountered concerns would address those questions with the meeting before reap-pearing to declare their intentions a second time.
There were instances when the meeting would offer its blessing, but not unanimously. In an insular communi-ty like Nantucket, especially in a meeting that disowned members for marrying outside of Friends, the spousal pool was shallow. This led to some marriages being between partners who were deemed to be too close in relation for the meeting. For example, in 1721, Abigail Folger and Daniel Folger, her first cousin once removed, sought the blessing of the meeting for their marriage. They would receive the blessing of the meeting, but the meeting records showed that some Friends were concerned with their “being ney of kin.” The meeting would note that this approval was “not in full unity of friends.”
Women who did not go through the full Quaker pro-cess were disowned. In most cases, women who did not follow the proscribed Quaker marriage process did so because they were “marrying outside of Friends,” as had been the case with Eunice Guinn. On Nantucket, even though Quakerism would be the dominant religion of much of the eighteenth century, the arrival of new de-nominations would increase the chances of marrying outside of Friends. Conversely, a woman who was not a Friend but wished to marry a Quaker man would have to go through the process of becoming a Friend before being permitted to marry into the meeting.
When a Quaker couple had received the blessing of the meeting, a wedding would be held with members of both the men’s and women’s meetings. If either the bride or groom came from another Quaker meeting, it was customary that members from that meeting would be in attendance to witness the proceedings. After the wedding was completed, both the men and women in attendance would bear witness to the wedding, signing the marriage certificate.
The wedding itself would not end the women’s meet-ing’s oversight role, however. When questions emerged within a marriage, the women’s meeting would have a role in regulating the conduct of the wife. With newly-weds, such questions could arise when a wife gave birth to a child too soon after marriage. The process for de-claring intentions to the meeting at two monthly meet-ings, along with the investigatory process, receiving the blessing of the meeting, and marrying before the meeting could take months. For those couples that had either decided to marry out of necessity or did not wait for the process to be finalized before consummation, the proof was undeniable. The women’s meeting would seek a public acknowledgment of the offense for the meeting’s records. When this was received, the offense was often forgiven. Disownment was reserved for when the offenders did not submit to the will of the meeting by making a public admission of guilt.
Other offenses, including bigamy, would occasionally arise. Tabitha Trott, daughter of one of the earliest and most esteemed female Friends on Nantucket, Anna Trott, was disowned by the meeting after her first hus-band, John Frost, a schoolteacher, left home to become a privateer. Believing herself abandoned or her hus-band lost at sea, she remarried Joseph Brown. When John Frost reappeared, Trott was disowned by the meet-ing for bigamy, and her mother’s esteem in the meeting was lost.
The women’s meeting had become the guardians of the Quaker family unit and morality on the island. Its mem-bers had the authority to aid the poor, investigate young couples seeking to marry, call for the disownment of members for offenses, and govern the daily lives of its substantial membership throughout the eighteenth century. Female Friends held this power on Nantucket for two specific reasons. The first reason was that Quak-erism was far more gender egalitarian than many other Protestant denominations in New England and through-out other parts of the colonies. From its inception, female Friends were empowered by the outspokenness of Margaret Fell, the wife of founder George Fox. The second reason was that the whaling empire that would take hold on Nantucket by the middle of the eighteenth century would cause much of the island’s male popula-tion to be away at sea far more often, and for far longer periods of time, than in many other communities. Quak-er women were ever-present on the island, practicing a faith that allowed for greater female participation and empowerment than most of its contemporaries.
As both whaling and Quakerism became more prom-inent on Nantucket during the eighteenth century, female Friends took on a more visible presence in the island’s public affairs. Whaling wives’ duties as depu-ty husbands afforded them a status few other women at the time had. While denied official political power to either vote or hold public office, Nantucket women served a vital role to the island’s social and cultural life.
Women kept detailed account books, transacted busi-ness, and even traveled to the mainland in the service of the family’s economy. Even Great Mary kept a detailed account book of her own at the beginning of the eigh-teenth century. As whaling voyages increased in length by the last two decades of the eighteenth century, these account books were vital to women serving as deputy husbands or engaging in business on the island. Judith Macy, for example, kept her own account book from 1783 to 1805, a daybook that contained the personal finances for her dry goods and spinning businesses.
Most whalers’ wives had the financial support to han-dle the affairs of the household by being granted either partial payment of their husbands’ wages, or by receiv-ing credit on the guarantee of those wages. As women assumed greater roles in handling the personal family finances, coinciding with the extension in the length of voyages, this was essential to the family being able to support itself for long periods of time. For ships’ cap-tains, the family often had sufficient wealth to provide for those needs and for that of the community. This gave captains’ wives greater flexibility at transacting business and expanding on the family’s wealth while husbands were at sea.
When a husband would return from sea, he would once again assume control over the family’s purse strings, at least by appearances. The wife would often be praised for her work as a deputy husband running the family’s business in his absence. Publicly, he would resume his place as head of the household. Since many whal-ers would only remain home a few months at a time between voyages, it would not be long before the wife would once more control the family’s business. This raises the question of whether it is better to be in actu-al control of the family’s economy but appear to play a helpmate’s role, or if it was preferable to hold the for-mal position of being the head of the household. For some Nantucket families, the husband’s role as head of the household was merely ceremonial, while the wife truly wielded the financial power.
For girls and young women raised on Nantucket in the eighteenth century, the answer to that question came in the influence older women had over them in their for-mative years. These young females would come of age on an island, and in a Quaker meeting, that perhaps more than anywhere else in the English-speaking world was populated by strong, independent women. The major institutions that were a part of their everyday lives, their house of worship and the business being conducted in the shops, had a tremendous number of female role models. The first generation of younger Quaker women could look to Mary Coffin Starbuck as their inspiration. Her legacy would be passed on to a new generation of Quaker women who became the new leadership of the women’s meeting. Mary Starbuck Folger, granddaughter of Mary Coffin Starbuck, would rise to importance with-in the women’s meeting, serving on investigative com-mittees and wielding influence over Nantucket’s female Friends. Successive generations of Quaker women on the island would similarly become the new leadership of the meeting.
There may be no greater example of how this combina-tion of strong female Quaker leadership and economic independence could influence young women than in the case of Lucretia Mott. Born Lucretia Coffin, daugh-ter of Anna Folger Coffin and Thomas Coffin, Lucretia would spend only her first eleven years on Nantucket before her family moved to the mainland. During those eleven years, Lucretia would witness her mother run-ning the family’s economy while her father was at sea. She also would be raised in a family with strong Quaker roots on Nantucket. The experience of growing up on an island with such powerful examples of strong, inde-pendent, religiously devout women would shape her entire life. More than a half century later, Mott would reference the lasting impression made by her mother and other Nantucket women in a series of correspon-dences with Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She would carry the inspiration of her mother and the other Nantucket women with her to Philadelphia and to Seneca Falls.
This influence was also present in her younger sister, Martha Coffin Wright, who was born after the family had relocated from Nantucket, but nevertheless was still influenced heavily by her mother and older sister. Wright would join her sister as an advocate for wom-en’s rights and abolition in the early nineteenth centu-ry. Both attended the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 and signed the Declaration of Sentiments, with Lucre-tia Mott offering her own oration at the convention, no doubt influencing future champions of the women’s suffrage movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Other female descendants of the eighteenth century Quaker meeting on Nantucket would become involved in activist movements of the nineteenth century. Anna Gardner would become an outspoken advocate of the abolitionist movement after, at age six, she witnessed her parents, Oliver Gardner and Hannah Macy Gardner, helping hide an escaped slave from Virginia, Arthur Cooper, his pregnant wife Mary, and the couple’s chil-dren. She even witnessed her father and his brother Thomas disguise Cooper in a coat and Quaker hat to avoid detection. These events of her youth would lead her to fight for the racial integration of Nantucket’s pub lic schools in the 1840s, as well as during the same peri od helping to organize Nantucket’s anti-slavery conven tions. The 1841 convention at the Atheneum, of which she helped organize, launched the public speak-ing career of Frederick Douglass.
Eliza Starbuck Barney, born in 1802 into a wealthy whal-ing oil family and raised in the Quaker meeting, was an early advocate for women’s suffrage. Her family roots included both the Starbuck and Gardner lines. Her ear-ly advocacy for women’s suffrage was quite public, as she attended an 1851 convention dedicated to the issue, the first in Massachusetts. She was an influential mem-ber of the Nantucket Women’s Suffrage League and the Massachusetts Suffrage Association, two organizations dedicated to this issue. She would see the island adopt the right for women to vote for school committee, and she would cast a ballot in that first election. Beyond her advocacy for women’s suffrage, her legacy also lives on today in the Barney Genealogical Record, a thorough documentation of the genealogy of the island she first penned that is housed by the Nantucket Historical Association.
Another Coffin and cousin to Lucretia Coffin Mott and Martha Coffin Wright, Phebe Hanaford, would continue this legacy of female advocacy. Born in 1829 and despite her Quaker roots, she would marry a Baptist and later become ordained as a Unitarian minister. Her activism would lead her to pen the tract Lucretia, the Quakeress, inspired by her cousin, but deviating from Lucretia Mott’s life story to become a cautionary tale against slavery. In this story, the title character, a devout abo-litionist, rejects the courtship of a wealthy slave owner. Only when the slave owner repents, freeing his slaves and paying them as agricultural labor does Lucretia agree to marry him, with the couple and their gainful-ly employed laborers living happily ever after on his plantation. In addition to her writings, Hanaford would also serve as vice president of the Association for the Advancement of Women, an organization founded in 1873 to promote greater female engagement in intel-lectual and public endeavors. Among the organization’s founders was Maria Mitchell, esteemed astronomer, educator, and activist. Mitchell was yet another woman who was raised in the Quaker meeting on Nantucket.
For the Nantucket Quaker meeting to have influenced so many women who would shape the nation is no co-incidence. From the abolitionist movement of the early nineteen century to the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention to the women’s suffrage movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Nantucket women have been leading the charge for social activism. These movements succeeded in their missions of expanding women’s rights, including the right to vote, and ending slavery in the United States. The visible leadership roles women played in the Quaker meeting of the eighteenth century would combine with the business acumen of whalers’ wives conducting the family’s financial inter-ests in the absence of their husbands to forge genera-tions of empowered women from the island.
From the Summer 2020 issue of Historic Nantucket, read here.