Women's History

Sepia image of six women, gathered at docks in front of ships.
Six women on the dock, 1922. Photo courtesy: New Bedford Whaling Museum
With their whalemen husbands away for years at a time, women had to assume the responsibilities not only of heading households, but of running businesses and family farms. The progressive Quaker attitude towards gender equality encouraged the development of this female strength and capability. As one young bride wrote to her captain husband, “I do not know how now, but I think I shall learn, and I try very hard to do as I ought.”
In order to make ends meet, women were often forced to find new sources of income. Some women ran boardinghouses, often paying rent to a separate homeowner to do so. In the early part of the 20th century, the influx of immigrants to New Bedford led to a real need for housing. Abbie Gant, a 43-year-old African American widow housed the entire crew from a single whaleship in her boardinghouse at South Water Street.
Portrait of Anna Murray.
Anna Murray Douglass. Image courtesy: NPS
Anna Murray Douglass
Anna Murray aided Frederick Douglass' escape from slavery. She later married the future abolitionist and participated in anti-slavery activities herself. More information.
Sketch of a young Hetty Green.
Hetty Green. Image courtesy: New Bedford Whaling Museum
Hetty Green
Recognized as the richest woman in the world at the turn of the 20th century, Henrietta "Hetty" Howland Robinson Green was a financial genius in the areas of real estate, railroads, and money lending. More information.
Black-and-white photo of Maria F. Soares
Maria F. Soares. Photo courtesy: NPS
Maria Soares
Maria F. Soares was born in Cape Verde, but later moved to New Bedford and opened a boardinghouse. She helped introduce other Cape Verdeans to American customs. More information.
Black-and-white image of Dr. Marie Equi.
Marie Equi.
Marie Equi
As a mother, doctor, and lesbian, Marie Equi was ahead of her time. She openly advocated for family planning, labor reform, women’s suffrage, and fair wages. More information.
Silhouette of Polly Johnson.
Silhouette, Polly Johnson. Image courtesy: New Bedford Historical Society
Mary "Polly" Johnson
Polly Johnson used her position as a free black and New Bedford businesswoman to host runaway slaves in her Seventh Street home. More information.
Black-and-white image of Maria Weston Chapman, side profile.
Maria Weston Chapman.
The Weston Sisters
Maria, Caroline, Anne, and Deborah Weston joined the abolitionist movement in Boston, but their influence as teachers spread into New Bedford. More information.

Last updated: August 27, 2018

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