May 6th in (Feminist) History

phebe_ann_coffin_hanafordThis day in 1829 saw the birth of Phebe Ann (Coffin) Hanaford, an abolitionist and a feminist who would go on to become the first woman ordained as a Universalist minister in New England, the first woman to be a chaplain to the Connecticut state legislature.

A teacher with a husband and two children, Phebe became an abolitionist during the Civil War. She joined the American Equal Rights Association, where she was a suffragist who advocated for both black and female suffrage. She not only spoke at suffrage meetings locally and nationally, but served as the Vice President to the Association for the Advancement of Women in 1874. It was around this time that Phebe joined the Universalist Church of America, a church which contained many members who believed in equality for women.

Thanks to encouragement of Olympia Brown, a fellow suffragist and the first woman to be ordained a Universalist minister in the entire United States, Phebe studied to join the ministry. She was ordained in 1868, becoming the first woman in both Massachussetts and New England to do so, and only the third woman nation-wide. Even from the beginning, there was ‘controversy’ around her, in this case mostly due to sexism; a newspaper reported that when she performed marriage ceremonies, “men were forced to take their wives’ names”, which was untrue. In 1870, she was also the first woman ever appointed chaplain to the Connecticut state legislature, after moving to a position at a church in New Haven, CT.

And what about Phebe’s husband during all this? Well the same year she was ordained, Phebe separated from her husband. They never divorced officially, but she left him, took the kids with her, and began living with a woman named Ellen Miles. The congregation she was preaching for at the time (First Universalist Church), as well as the local newspapers, referred to Ellen as “the minister’s wife”, intending this to be an insult. They were also rather displeased by her continued efforts towards suffrage, and her campaigning for women’s rights. However, when they tried to pressure and threaten her into “dismissing” Ellen, Phebe refused and left to start her own congregation, the Second Universalist Church; Ellen came with her, and ran the Sunday School.

According to history, the “nature” of their relationship was “uncertain”, but “their letters testify to a deep and abiding affection”… which is so the historical version of calling them “gal pals”, right? (Just gals being pals, nothing to see here!) Regardless, Ellen and Phebe remained together for 44 years, until Ellen died in 1914. Phebe herself lived until 1921, at the age of 92; a disappoint to her, since she had dreamed of living to 100.

Also on this day…

• In 1981, Maya Ying Lin’s design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is selected from 1,421 other entries. She was only 21 at the time.
• In 1992, the death of Marlene Dietrich.


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