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Women's History in Downtown Boston

Downtown Boston has been the site for many historical women's events and people. Poets, writers, abolitionists who spoke out publicly against slavery, woman suffrage, African American and Native American rights and more -- from before the United States was formed and into the last century.

Here are some noted historical locations relating to women's history within the Downtown Boston BID's 34-block area. The following information has been provided by the Boston Women's Heritage Trail. The Boston Women's Heritage Trail provides guided tours and information for self-guided tours. Click here for more information about the tours and organization.   

Dress Reform Parlors and Milliners 
Hamilton Place
The short streets running between Tremont and Washington Streets— including Hamilton Place, Winter Street, and Temple Place—contained shops for women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many women were successful proprietors of dressmaking and millinery shops, including Irish-born Ellen Hartnett, who rose from being a millinery worker in 1860 to a shop owner with capital twenty-five years later. In order to secure the best class of customers, some dressmakers, like Josephine McCluskey, took on new names— she became “Miss Delavenue.” The area also supported Dress Reform Parlors in the 1880s, where women could be freed from the restrictive fashions of the day. They could purchase or buy patterns for such items as the “emancipation waist.”

Edmonia Lewis Studio 
Corner of Bromfield and Tremont Streets (now Suffolk University Law School)
The studio of Edmonia Lewis (1845-ca. 1909), a member of the colony of women sculptors in Rome gathering around Charlotte Cushman (1816-76) in the mid-nineteenth century, was located in a former building at this site from 1863-65. As a child, Lewis, who had both African American and Chippewa ancestry, lived with her Chippewa mother’s people. Although she was born free, her favorite subject for her sculpture was freedom from slavery, demonstrated in Forever Free, a sculpture depicting a man and woman breaking their chains, made as a tribute to abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. It is now on display at the Howard University Gallery of Art. Her most popular work was a bust of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the white commander of the African American 54th Massachusetts Infantry during the Civil War. Lewis’s identification with her Chippewa heritage caused her also to revere and create a bust of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, author of the poem, Hiawatha. The sculpture is now owned by the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University.

Tremont Temple Women Lecturers 
88 Tremont Street
In an earlier building on this site, nineteenth century women held many meetings urging the abolition of slavery, adoption of woman suffrage, and temperance reform. Mary Rice Livermore (1820-1905) was a prominent national lecturer after the Civil War who often spoke at Tremont Temple. Her first speech there was in 1869 when her subject was woman suffrage. Her Boston speeches in 1874 led to the founding of the Massachusetts Women’s Christian Temperance Union for which she served as president for ten years. Livermore was the first editor of the Woman’s Journal. She later held the office of president of the American Woman Suffrage Association and was first president of the Association for the Advancement of Women.Here, in March 1885, Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910), founder of the Church of Christ, Scientist, was given ten minutes to respond to a barrage of criticism from members of the Boston clergy. Her ideas about God as father-mother and of man and woman as co-equals—both created in God’s image—angered the ministers of the time. Her book, Science and Health, was a best seller. In the years following her talk, Eddy emerged as one of the most important women reformers of her day, pioneering in the field of mind-body medicine. Soon after she spoke in Tremont Temple, she wrote, “Let it not be heard in Boston that woman…has no rights which man is bound to respect….This is woman’s hour, with all its sweet amenities and its moral and religious reforms”

Boston School Committeewomen 
Old City Hall, 45 School Street
Women were elected to the Boston School Committee before they could vote. In 1875, after a drive by the New England Women’s Club, six women took their seats on the Boston School Committee elected by Boston men. Although the Committee was reduced from 116 to 24 members the following year, four women were reelected including Lucretia Crocker (1829-86), who later became the first woman supervisor in the Boston Public Schools, and Abby May (1829-88). May succeeded in starting a separate Latin School for girls, but it was not until 1972 that the two Latin schools became co-educational. When May was defeated for reelection, women all over Massachusetts petitioned the legislature and won the right to vote for school board members, starting in 1879, Julia Harrington Duff, (1859-1932) of Charlestown, a former Boston School teacher, was the first Irish-American woman to be elected to the Boston School Committee in 1900. Her rallying cry, “Boston schools for Boston girls,” expressed her belief that Yankee teachers from outside the city were being hired in preference to the young Catholic women graduates of Boston’s Normal School. Boston women teachers pressed for their rights. Among the women challenging the 1880s School Committee regulation that women resign upon marriage were Grace Lonergan Lorch (1903-74) and Suzanne Revaleon Green. Green’s husband, a lawyer, succeeded in having his wife and two other married teachers reinstated to their teaching positions. The regulation remained on the books, however, until 1953 when a state law required its removal.

Elizabeth Murray,
Corn Hill and Queen Street
 (now, roughly, Court and Washington Streets)
Born in Scotland, Elizabeth Murray (1726-85) came to Boston in 1749. At age twenty-three she established a business selling imported cloth and dry goods from Great Britain. She proved to be such a resourceful business woman that she soon earned enough money to be entirely self-sufficient—a rare achievement for a colonial woman. Although she married three times, Murray remained childless. Still, she oversaw the education and upbringing of her nieces, kindling in them a spirit of self-reliance and self-esteem. She helped them and other needy women set up shops of their own. Murray once wrote to a friend, “I’d rather [be] a useful member of society than all of the fine delicate creatures of the age.”

Old Corner Bookstore 
Corner of School and Washington Streets
Anne Hutchinson lived in a house on this site in the mid 1630s across from Governor John Winthrop. It was here that she conducted women’s prayer meetings. In the mid-nineteenth century, the present building, known as the Old Corner Bookstore, housed the publishing firm of Ticknor and Fields. Annie Adams Fields (1834-1915), wife of publisher James T. Fields, conducted a literary salon for authors in the Fields’ home on Charles Street.

Irish Famine Memorial and Annie Sullivan 
Corner of School and Washington Streets
The Irish Famine Memorial was dedicated in 1998 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Irish potato famine. It honors the arrival of Irish immigrants to Boston and their contributions to the city. Created by sculptor Robert Shure, the sculptures depict a starving family in Ireland begging for help, and one arriving in America.Among the Irish women honored by the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail is Annie Sullivan Macy (1866-1936), known as the gifted teacher of Helen Keller (1880-1968). Born to poor Irish immigrants to Massachusetts, Sullivan progressively became blind. After the death of her mother and her father’s abandonment, she entered an orphanage. In 1880, a supervisor placed her in the Perkins School for the Blind in South Boston. Two operations improved her eyesight enough so she could read, and Sullivan graduated as valedictorian of her class. She became the teacher of Helen Keller, who came from an advantaged family but could not hear, see, or speak. Sullivan devoted her life to Keller, who became a national celebrity, and saw Keller through her education and early career.

Old South Meeting House and Phillis Wheatley 
310 Washington Street
When Old South, the site of mass protest meetings in Revolutionary Boston, was slated for demolition a hundred years later, a group of women bought the building (but not the land) to protect it. Philanthropist Mary Tileston Hemenway (1820-94) then contributed more than half the sum needed to preserve it, becoming an early leader in historic preservation.Phillis Wheatley (ca. 1753-84), the first African American poet to be published in book form, was a member of Old South. While still a child, she was purchased as a slave by the Wheatley family. Her poetry reflects her love of freedom: “Should you…wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung…I, young in life, was snatched from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat…such, such my case. And can I then but pray Others may never feel tyrannic sway?” Phillis Wheatley is one of three women chosen to be portrayed in the Boston Women’s Memorial. An exhibit depicting her life is permanently displayed here.

Birthplace of Jane Franklin Mecom (and Benjamin Franklin),
17 Milk Street
Jane Franklin Mecom (1712-94), Benjamin Franklin’s sister and favorite family correspondent, survived the trials of raising nine children and many grandchildren in eighteenth-century Boston. After Mecom’s husband died in 1765, she opened a boarding house near the Old State House, where legislators stayed frequently and kept her informed about local and national political issues. At the age of seventy-six she wrote: “I have a good clean House to live in…I go to bed Early lye warm & comfortable Rise Early to a good Fire have my Brakfast directly and Eate it with a good Apetite and then read or Work…we live frugaly Bake all our own Bread…a Friend sitts and chats a litle in the Evening….”

Susanna Rowson and Federal Street Theatre 
Federal Street
Susanna Haswell Rowson (1760-1824), a playwright and an actress at the Federal Street Theatre, was the author of the first American best-selling novel, Charlotte Temple, A Tale of Truth. Rowson arrived in America when she was six, but her father was a Loyalist and during the Revolution they returned to England. Not long after her marriage to William Rowson, Susanna returned to America and settled in Boston where they both acted at the Federal Street Theatre. For the five years following 1796, she performed 129 different parts in 126 productions, many of which she wrote herself. Her next venture was to set up a Young Ladies Academy in 1797 near the Theatre. Rowson moved the school out of Boston but later returned. Her academy was one of the first to offer girls education above the elementary level and included instruction in music and public speaking.Another woman playwright whose plays were performed at the Federal Street Theatre in 1795 and 1796 was Judith Sargent Murray. Her satirical plays, The Medium or Happy Tea-Party (later renamed The Medium, or Virtue Triumphant) and The Traveller Returned, addressed class structure and gender roles in the New Republic.Public speakers lecturing at the Federal Street Theatre included Deborah Sampson (1760-1827), considered to be America’s first female soldier. In 1802, Sampson electrified the crowd as she told her story of fighting in the Revolutionary War for eighteen months disguised as a man named Robert Shurtleff.

Federal Street Church 
100 Federal Street
Among the more well-known Boston women who attended William Ellery Channing’s Federal Street Church were abolitionists Maria Weston Chapman (1806-85) and Eliza Lee Cabot Follen. Chapman, a founder of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, was a supporter of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of the famed abolitionist newspaper The Liberator. An inspired organizer and fundraiser, Chapman ran twenty-two yearly anti-slavery fairs in Boston beginning in 1834. One of her colleagues in this venture was Lydia Maria Child (1802-80) whose 1833 publication, An Appeal in Behalf of that Class of Americans called Africans, was the first book to advocate an immediate end to slavery. Chapman’s fairs became a model for women in other parts of the country to raise money for the abolitionist cause. Chapman also published several important anti-slavery tracts including How Can I Help Abolish Slavery? and Right and Wrong in Massachusetts. With Garrison, Maria Chapman supported women’s full participation in abolitionist work—including public speaking, which had been condemned in a pastoral letter from the Congregational ministers of Massachusetts as being outside women’s God-ordained sphere. In 1840, Chapman was elected to the executive committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society.Eliza Lee Cabot Follen (1787-1860) was best known for her anti-slavery writings including Anti-Slavery Hymns and Songs and A Letter to Mothers in Free States. In A Letter, Follen wrote, “…what can women,—what can we mothers do?…you can do everything; I repeat, you can abolish slavery. Let every mother take the subject to heart, as one in which she has a personal concern. In the silence of the night, let her listen to the slave-mothers crying to her for help….” Much of Follen’s writing was designed for children, including songs, poems, and stories that carried a moral lesson.

Franklin Place and Home of Judith Sargent Murray 
Franklin and Arch Streets
The Tontine Crescent was a fashionable place to live in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Boston. The long row of elegant townhouses, designed by Boston architect Charles Bulfinch, was built in 1793 and named Franklin Place after Benjamin Franklin. With the opening of the Back Bay for settlement, they declined in fashion and were demolished in 1872 after the Great Fire. Franklin Street still retains the curve of the buildings.Among the notable women who lived there was Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820), a native of Gloucester, who moved with her husband, John Murray, to No. 5 Franklin Place in 1794. Judith Sargent Murray was already a successful writer, publishing a regular column (“The Gleaner”) in the Massachusetts Magazine, a new literary monthly. Using a male persona, Judith expressed her opinions on female equality, education, federalism, and republicanism. She wrote that not only should a woman be educated to be “the sensible and informed” companion of men, but she should also be equipped to earn her own living. Murray saw the many new female academies as inaugurating “a new era in female history.” In 1798, she published her “Gleaner” essays in a book she also called The Gleaner, selling it to a list of subscribers including John Adams and George Washington. The Gleaner became a minor classic, and Murray became the first woman in America to self-publish. She was also a poet, publishing in various Boston periodicals under the pen names “Honora Martesia” and “Constantia.” An avid letter writer, the copies of letters Murray wrote from 1765-1818 (ages 14-67) were discovered in 1984, and offer a new eyewitness account of early American history.Abby May (1829-88), also an advocate for women’s rights, lived at 5 Franklin Place with her family as a young woman. Among her many achievements, May succeeded in starting a separate Latin School for girls and served as one of the first women on the Boston School Committee.