Women of Petticoat Row circa 1895. Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.

Sailors, Shopkeepers & Scientists: Women of Nantucket Succeeding in a Man’s World

By: Cheyenne Dunham

Women’s history month provides a time to look back on various female role models from our past–women who inspire us, make us think, and perhaps challenge us to question societal restrictions, as they did. These stories of empowerment, leadership, and success don’t always come from the most obvious places.

Nantucket 1792
Map of Nantucket, 1792.

Nearly 30 miles off the coast of southeastern Massachusetts lies Nantucket, a small and unassuming island that hosted an independent and progressive society in which women long played a vital role. In this place, women existed as prominent religious figures, business owners, educators, scientists, and adventurers before the voices of suffrage permeated the political and social dialogue of the late 19th century.

Nantucket thrived as a whaling port until the 1850s. This caused many of its male residents to venture out for years at a time, on voyages across the world, without the guarantee of returning to their home or loved ones. Subsequently, the women of the island were often left solely responsible for their family’s financial, social, and religious well-being.

Women of Petticoat Row circa 1895. Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.
Women of Petticoat Row ca.1895. Courtesy of Nantucket Historical Association.

Women held a prominent presence in the public and commercial spheres. One group of women managed an entire section of the town business strip nicknamed “Petticoat Row.”

The island has always been relatively small. Its population peaks, both in its whaling days and current tourist seasons, at around 10,000. In the earlier years, this population total included many of those away at sea. Nantucket’s isolation and self-sufficiency, combined with its early history of political and ideological separation from the mainland, resulted in a unique environment where a woman’s capability and voice in society often equaled their male counterparts. In the Heart of the Sea, author Nathaniel Philbrick explains,

“Given the island’s place on a map, you might expect Nantucketers to be an independent bunch, and you would be right. …More than anything else, it is this place, ‘away off shore,’ that has determined who the Nantucketer is.”1)Philbrick, Nathaniel. Away Off Shore: Nantucket Island and Its People, 1602-1890. (New York : Penguin Books, 2011): xiii, xvi.

Nantucket produced a wide range of interesting women and influential female leaders. One of the earliest of these notable women was Mary Coffin Starbuck (1645-1719),  the first woman to marry and have a child on the island.
Excerpt from Eliza Brock's Journal Created Aboard the Ship Lexington c. 1853 Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association
Excerpt from Eliza Brock’s Journal Created Aboard the Ship Lexington ca.1853. Courtesy of Nantucket Historical Association.

She was not only greatly responsible for bringing Quakerism to the Nantucket community, but she successfully ran her family’s trading post as one of the earliest authoritative businesswomen in the town. Unlike Starbuck, who oversaw the family affairs while her husband was away, some women chose to go to sea alongside the men. Two such women, Susan Austin Veeder (1816-97) and Eliza Spencer Brock (1810-99), kept detailed journals of their experiences  at sea which are now archived at the Nantucket Historical Association.

Photo of Painting by Mrs. H. Dassel c. 1851 Maria Mitchell Looking Through a Telescope Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association
Painting. “Maria Mitchell Looking Through a Telescope,” by Mrs. H. Dassel ca.1851. Courtesy of Nantucket Historical Association.

Outside of the island’s commercial world, women were just as influential in science, education, and social movements. Maria Mitchell (1818-89) was a brilliant scientist and librarian whose accomplishments included discovering a comet, becoming the first professional female astronomer, and eventually becoming a professor at Vassar College. Mitchell became well-known for her influence in astronomy and education on the mainland. However, her early years on Nantucket and her involvement in its progressive community greatly shaped her outlook and future. She attained unprecedented success in her field. By her own successful example, she promoted the potential for all women.  Throughout her life, she advocated for gender equality in any field and encouraged other women to strive for success.

Anna Gardner. Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.
Anna Gardner. Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.

Another Nantucket educator also fought for equality but in a different scope. Anna Gardner (1816-91) was a teacher at the African School on the island. Gardner left her position as an educator to protest racial discrimination that had been experienced by one of her students and to more fully dedicate herself to the cause of abolition. She eventually helped organize the first Anti-Slavery Convention on Nantucket and would continue her activism by fighting for both gender and racial equality with organizations such as the New England Freedmen’s Aid Society and the Association for the Advancement of Women, an organization partly founded by Mitchell.

These women represent only a few examples of the many incredible women that can be found throughout the island’s history. As time goes on, authors and historians will undoubtedly uncover more inspirational stories while attempting to interpret the unique role women played in shaping Nantucket since the 17th century. But what was so unique about this place that contributed to such a concentration of powerful figures? Whether it was thanks to situational necessity or progressive and inclusive thinking, this island has produced a legacy of individuals well-deserving of our consideration.

Cheyenne Dunham is earning her M.A. in History with a specialization in Public History. She earned a B.A. in History, minoring in Anthropology, from Eastern Washington University. Currently, her work explores Nantucket’s developmental history alongside the Pacific Northwest’s settlement. She is designing a digital exhibit connecting post-whaling industrial and population shifts on the Massachusetts island with the establishment and growth of Washington State in the second half of the 19th century.

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References   [ + ]

1. Philbrick, Nathaniel. Away Off Shore: Nantucket Island and Its People, 1602-1890. (New York : Penguin Books, 2011): xiii, xvi.

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