Acton's First Women Voters
Knowing that U.S. women gained the right to vote in 1920, it comes as a surprise to many of us that in 1879, Massachusetts passed a law that allowed women to register to vote for their local school committee. It was a very limited victory, and the journey to full voting rights was long. (See our blog post about Acton women and the 1895 referendum on municipal suffrage.)
Up until now, though we knew that there were some women who voted locally and supported women’s suffrage on a broader scale, we have not known who they were. Recently, in the process of digitizing our wonderful but fragile collection of old newspapers at Jenks Library, we made a discovery. On October 2, 1879, the Acton Patriot announced the names of the first ladies registered to vote in Acton, all of whom were residents of South Acton (p. 8). In honor of Women’s History Month, we salute:
The fact that these women registered to vote made them quite unusual. Only a small percentage of women did. Suggested reasons for most women's non-participation have included the social expectations of the Victorian era, poll taxes, or lack of interest in strictly local affairs. Given Acton's history of "spirited discussion" of school matters, the latter would be surprising.
We wanted to learn about Acton’s first women voters, what motivated them, and what characteristics they might have had in common. Unfortunately, it was frustratingly difficult. Women of that period simply were given much less attention in written records than men. The women’s work and activities were generally unpaid and seldom noted. Aside from vital records, the vast majority of women were not mentioned in annual town reports. (School teachers were an exception; they cost money.) Newspapers can be a rich source of local information, but unfortunately, our access to local newspapers before 1888 is extremely limited. Without documents such as a woman’s letters or diary, there is very little chance of discovering her thoughts or personality.
Though we might have expected Acton’s first registered female voters to be obviously different from their peers, on the surface, they resembled “typical” women of 1879. Each had her own story, but they were all middle-aged and long-married. With one exception they had given birth to multiple children and had raised families. They would have spent most of the 1850s-1870s on the practical necessities of taking care of their families’ needs. Almost all of them had experienced the heartbreaking loss of at least one of their children, a distressingly common occurrence for parents of the time. Some of the women were actively involved in church, community or charitable organizations, but in most cases, specifics were hard to find. The women may have registered to vote because they wanted their voices to be heard in general or because they cared about their community and its educational system in particular. We have no way of knowing.
We are on the lookout for more information about these six women’s lives. If you have letters, diaries, photographs, newspaper clippings, or family stories that can make them more real to us, please contact us. As a start, here is what we know so far:
Harriet E. Jones
We were excited to discover Harriet E. Jones on the list of Acton’s first women registered voters, because Harriet comes from the family who built our Society’s Hosmer House Museum. Three generations of her ancestors lived in the house; Jonathan and Submit (Hunt) Hosmer, Simon and Sarah (Whitcomb) Hosmer, and Harriet’s father Simon who married Harriet Estabrooks in 1825. Simon took over a part of the family land and built a house at about 268 Main Street, an area now known as Kelley’s Corner. Simon and Harriet’s daughter Harriet Estabrooks Hosmer was born on April 23, 1826. (Harriet’s middle name, like her mother’s maiden name, is spelled variously in different sources.) Harriet would have spent plenty of time at her Hosmer grandparents’ place next door until it was sold when she was about thirteen.
Harriet married Abram Hapgood Jones in Acton on January 17, 1844. Descended from the Jones family who settled in the south part of Acton before it was a town, Abram’s father and then Abram farmed and ran a cider mill at about 127-131 Main Street, land that is now behind Exchange Hall. Records are a little unclear as to timing, but early in Harriet and Abram’s married life, either a new house was built on the land to replace an older one or an older house was greatly renovated for their family. It is still standing. The house was quickly filled with children:
Harriet worked as a farmer’s wife, attending to household duties and raising her children. Abram’s farm was quite successful. The 1875 town valuation shows that their house was valued highly at $3,000, their barn at $650, and various lots of land totaling 40 acres were valued at over $4,400. There was also a cider mill, horses, oxen, cows, swine and a carriage. As South Acton grew, Abram and his family were able to prosper with it.
Though Harriet and Abram lived in a small community, it was deep in family connections for them both. A scrapbook in our collection mentions that they were chosen to be bridesmaid and groomsman for the 1878 Golden Wedding celebration of Joseph and Henrietta (Jones) Tuttle, an event attended by 400-500 people. Aside from the fact that Harriet registered to vote, the only other mention of her in our few Acton newspapers of the time was that she had provided the reporter with “a dish of the finest red raspberries we have seen this season.” (Patriot, July 31, 1875, p.1)
By the 1880 census, only daughter Hattie was still at home. Harriet’s mother died in April of 1883, and Harriet followed her on July 18th of that year at age 57. Harriet was survived by all of her children whom we know about. Abram lived twenty-four more years, long enough to have his birthday gatherings noted in the local newspaper and captured by local photographers. In the picture below, the family that descended from Harriet gathered at the family farm; from the women’s sleeves, the date was probably in the mid-1890s. This may actually be the Thanksgiving family gathering photographed by Mrs. Taylor that was mentioned in the Dec. 5, 1895 Concord Enterprise (p.8).
Sarah W. Fuller
Sarah W. Fuller, (Sarah Wheeler Spaulding), was born to Lovell and Laura (Clark) Spaulding on June 3, 1829 in Northumberland, New Hampshire (sometimes called “North Cumberland” in records). Sarah moved to Acton before her intention to marry was recorded on May 13, 1849. She married Emerson Faulkner Fuller, member of the very large family of Alden and Sarah Fuller. Emerson’s mother was part of the well-known Faulkner family of South Acton. Sarah’s connections to her new town were increased by her sister Harriet who married into the Hosmer family.
In 1850, Emerson and Sarah were sharing a two-family dwelling in Acton with Sarah’s sisters Jenette and Harriet, Harriet’s husband David Hosmer and their son, and John Hosmer, who was probably Harriet E. Jones’ brother. Emerson and David were carpenters, and John was an apprentice. By 1855, Emerson was working as a Depot Master, presumably in South Acton where the family was living. Sarah’s sister Janett was living with them. Sarah’s parents by then had moved next to her sister Harriet’s family in Acton.
Researching Sarah and Emerson' family turned out to be unusually complicated. We found a record for “Mary F. Fuller,” born to Emerson F. and Sarah W. Fuller on August 16, 1851. The 1855 Massachusetts census listing of the family showed no daughter Mary, leading us to believe that she had died. The 1855 listing did include Charles Emerson Fuller, age 3 years, 9 months. We had not found Charles Fuller in Acton’s birth records, though he later stated his birthday as October 12, 1851. We checked the scanned birth register again and discovered that above the entry for “Mary F. Fuller” is “Charles Emerson Houghton,” born on Oct. 12, 1851 to Warren and Lydia Houghton. It seems that the town clerk switched the entries. Mary Florilla Houghton, also aged 3 years and 9 months, was living in Acton with her parents Warren and Lydia Houghton in the 1855 census. Apparently, the record was never corrected, and through the reach of the internet, it will continue to cause confusion.
Sadly, Emerson and Sarah did lose children of their own, a month-old daughter on Aug. 23, 1854, and a son Warren C. who was born on June 6, 1857 and died on Sept. 15 of that year. Daughter Nettie Cora Fuller was born on Feb. 7, 1862. When the Massachusetts census was taken in 1865, Emerson, still depot master, Sarah, their two surviving children, and Sarah’s mother were living in South Acton. The 1870 census showed Emerson and son Charles working at carpentry. Sarah was “keeping house.” Charles married in 1874 and moved away. As with Harriet Jones, the records before 1879 gave us no hints as to what Sarah was like and how she might have differed from her compatriots.
Sarah and Emerson’s daughter Nettie married Dr. Walter N. Sharp in 1885. Dr. Sharp and Nettie moved to Saxonville, MA to set up his practice. Emerson and Sarah soon must have followed them, because the June 16, 1888 Concord Enterprise (p. 2) reported that “Mr. Emerson Fuller and wife were in town. Mrs. F made several calls upon her old friends... Dr. Sharpe late of this place is doing an extensive business in Saxonville and has met with general favor. It is rumored that the Fuller houses in town are for sale.”
Unfortunately, daughter Nettie died on March 6, 1889, two weeks after having given birth to her second child. Her obituary gave us a few clues about what her life in Emerson and Sarah’s household must have been like. Nettie was “a great lover of books,” and had graduated from Concord High School in 1882, after which she continued her studies there and in Boston. Her education already set her apart from many of her peers, but the obituary added that she had helped her physician husband in his work and that “it was her ambition to receive herself the degree of doctor of medicine, simply to help her husband, and for that purpose she studied diligently at home.” (Concord Enterprise, March 15, 1889, p. 3) Nettie never had the chance to become a doctor, but it is clear that Sarah and Emerson Fuller had made sure that her interests and talents were fostered and that she had educational opportunities beyond the norm.
Emerson and Sarah stayed in Saxonville after Nettie’s death. They are listed in the 1900 census next to Dr. Sharp’s household that included their grandchildren and Sarah’s niece, confusingly also named Nettie, who had married Dr. Sharp. Sarah’s husband Emerson died in Framingham in 1908, and Sarah died there in 1913. They were buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Acton.
Mary P. Hayward
Mary P. Hayward, at first, seemed to have a story similar to that of the other voting women who married into old Acton families and settled into the community. She was born Mary Pettengill Edwards to Josiah and Betsy (Colby) Edwards in about 1825 in Springfield or Enfield, New Hampshire. Her father was born in Bolton, MA and apparently had roots in Stow.
Mary P. Edwards was a resident of Enfield, NH in 1846 when she married Cyrus Hayward, son of Moses and Dolly (Robbins) Hayward. Cyrus also had deep roots in Acton, with ties to many early families, (among them the Hosmers). The couple did not settle immediately in Acton. In 1850, the census shows that Cyrus was working as a Station Agent in Ashburnham. (He had been the first to hold that position in South Acton.) He worked for a time in Nashua, New Hampshire, and then the family moved to Londonderry, New Hampshire where he was involved in glue manufacture. He and Mary had four children, some of whom apparently were born in Londonderry:
In 1859, Cyrus and Mary P. Hayward moved to South Acton. Cyrus worked as a clerk for many years in the dry goods store of Tuttles, Jones & Wetherbee. Mary was busy keeping house and raising her children. When the 1870 census was taken, Mary’s nieces Mary E. and Eva J. Edwards were living with the family.
We do not have enough information to know for sure, but we did not find records that Mary lost very young children. Sadly, however, her son Frank, who married in 1871, died of tuberculosis on Dec. 3, 1874 at age 22. Eldest son Alvin married and moved to Milford, MA. Two of his children died in the 1870s as well.
Real estate records reveal complications and economic uncertainty in the Hayward family. Cyrus’s father had died accidentally when Cyrus was very young. His real estate, a home at approximately 45 Stow Street and lands, had been divided and sold to pay off his debts, the majority to Amos Sargent. (We could not prove what happened to the family and whether Amos Sargent was in some way related to them; they continued to live in South Acton, perhaps in the same house.) Cyrus’s brother Moses seems to have bought back part of the land and the house, perhaps in halves. He sold land and a half-house to Cyrus in May 1863. He sold the other half of the house to Winthrop E. Faulkner in 1867. Winthrop Faulkner then sold it to John E. and Charles W. Fletcher in 1869. It apparently was used as rental property. In 1871, Mary and Cyrus’s eldest son Alvin purchased the half-house and land abutting his father’s from the two Fletcher brothers. In 1875, Mary P. Hayward purchased the land and ½ house from Alvin. Unlike the other women on the voting list, she appeared in Acton’s 1875 valuation as a property owner in her own right. Though the deeds and mortgages are complicated to sort through, it appears that Mary was now an independent co-owner of their dwelling with her husband. Four years later, she registered to vote.
The 1880 census shows that the Hayward house was a busy one. Mary and Cyrus, an upholsterer by that point, had in their own household their daughter Carrie B. and their son Alvin with his wife and daughter Blanche. In the same dwelling, listed as a separate family, were son Walter E. Hayward with his wife Nettie. Also living in the house were Loella Hapgood and Franklyn J. and Mary C. Wood.
Outside of her home, Mary was involved in the South Acton Charitable Association and was chosen a director in 1883. (Acton Patriot, April 6, 1883, p. 4) We have not been able to find any more of her activities during this period, but we do know that the she dealt with major tragedy in next few years. In 1885, her son Alvin died of tuberculosis and his young daughter Blanche died of diphtheria. In September, 1889, Mary’s husband Cyrus died of diabetes. For a while, Mary appeared in the South Acton news of the Concord Enterprise as she visited and received visits from friends and relations. However, early in the 1890s, she seems to have significantly changed her life. We were only able to find a few details, but we did learn that Mary moved to Haverhill, MA and became known as a doctor. We did not find evidence that she received medical training, so it was probably a title of a different kind. (A descendant told us that at some point, Mary marketed a medicine for various complaints; we could not find information about that business and would love to find out more.) We did find a notice in the Haverhill Daily Evening Bulletin (Sept. 12, 1891, p. 3) that “The Medium’s Order of Beneficence meets at 40 Emerson street at 7 p. m. in the parlors of Dr. Mary P. Hayward. Dr. Thorndyke continues the course of lectures in mental science. Subject, ‘Intention.’ All cordially invited.”
On May 12, 1892, in Haverhill, Mary P. “Haywood” married Orlando W. Davis whose occupation was “carriage trimmer.” It was the second marriage for both, and very short-lived. On Sept. 3 of that year, Orlando Davis passed away of a cerebral hemorrhage. On Dec. 13, 1893, Mary, occupation listed as “doctor,” married Rufus R. Fletcher in Haverhill. They moved up to Rutland, VT. Rufus died in 1906. Mary was in Acton at her son Walter’s when she died on September 21, 1907 of stomach cancer. She was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Acton.
Frances H. Richardson
According to her marriage record, Frances Harriet Richardson was born in Westford in 1832 or 1833 to Joel and Betsey Parker. (Later records indicate that her name at birth may have been “Harriet Frances.”) By 1850, she was living with her parents and sister Elizabeth in Concord. She married Edward Farwell Richardson there on July 3, 1856. (He was born in Jay, Maine to David and Sarah Richardson and was a resident of Temple, NH in 1856.)
The couple’s first son seems to have been born in Temple, NH, but they soon moved to Acton and the rest of the children were born there:
From the late 1850s into the 1880s, Frances would have been busy taking care of her family. She dealt with the tragedy of losing (at least) two children before they were a year old. By 1865, her mother was living with the family. As far as we have been able to discover, the family lived on today’s Main Street in South Acton. Between the 1860 and the 1872 town valuations, we found that Edward Richardson also had acquired various pieces of land.
We found very little information on Frances herself and why she registered to vote in school committee elections. We did find, however, that her family was particularly involved in Acton’s educational system. Her husband was a well-respected teacher in town over many years. He was periodically mentioned in Acton’s town records as taking over when another teacher was compelled to leave. He was on the school committee and served as the first town superintendent of schools in the 1860s. After 1873, he seems to have concentrated on farming and his lumber business, but education was clearly a family priority; the children regularly appeared in honor roll lists for excellent attendance after they started being published in town reports. Daughter Lillian graduated from Acton’s high school, pursued education farther afield, and became a teacher herself.
We had trouble finding mention of Frances in later life, although we did find her husband's and children’s activities. She may have been ill. Her obituary stated that she had died at her home (on today’s Main Street), where she “for years she had been a patient sufferer from what she realized was an incurable ailment.” (Concord Enterprise, May 10, 1905, p. 8) She died on May 7, 1905 from “blood poisoning, abdominal cyst” and was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery. All of her children were listed on the back of her gravestone, including a son we found in no other records.
Carrie M. Clark
Carrie M. Clark was a more of a challenge to find than some of the other ladies, because she did not live in Acton long and she appeared in a variety of towns’ records. She did, fortunately, appear in Acton in the 1870 census with husband George and several children. From there, we were able to put together an outline of her life.
Carrie M. Clark was Caroline Matilda Tufts, born about 1841 to parents George Tufts and Ruth Dolliver. She came from a large family. The birthplaces of Carrie and her siblings are stated in different sources as St. Stephen, New Brunswick or Calais, Maine, just over the border, so it is not totally clear where the family actually lived when Carrie was growing up. Most of the family moved down to Massachusetts quite early in her life. She was 17 when she married George Clark in Lowell, MA on May 16, 1857. (He was 33, a soda water manufacturer, born in Lyme, NH to Jonas and Dolly Clark.) Children followed:
When their first two children were born, Carrie and George were living in Lyme, NH, but by the 1860 census, they were living in Chelsea, MA, sharing a household with Carrie’s brother John Tufts and his family. Sadly, George and Carrie’s daughter Ella died on January, 21 1861 of “lung fever” (pneumonia). They named their next daughter "Ella Frances," presumably in her honor. There may have been another child who died at a young age; the 1900 and 1910 censuses reported that Carrie had six children, but we have only found records for five.
Carrie had siblings living in Acton as early as 1860. Her brother Robert served in Navy in the Civil War and was credited to Acton. By 1865, Carrie’s parents had also moved there. In 1865, George and Carrie were living in Concord, but they were in Acton in the 1870 Acton census with three daughters. George was a carpenter, and Carrie was “keeping house.” They spent the decade in Acton, where daughters showed up in school attendance honor rolls. Carrie’s father died in Acton in 1873 and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery. Our (sporadic) newspapers only yielded one reference to Carrie when she hosted a “sociable” in South Acton (Patriot, Feb. 6, 1879, p.6). Carrie registered to vote in Acton in 1879, but in 1880, her family was back in Chelsea.
Carrie spent much of the rest of her life in Chelsea, although she appeared in the 1900 census in Harvard, MA with her son George. Surprisingly, she was listed as a farmer, with her son listed as a farm laborer. (Details of that period elude us.) Carrie’s daughter Laura had been raising a family in Plymouth, but she died in 1900, leaving three children. Eventually Carrie moved to Concord, where she appeared in the 1910 census with her widowed daughter Dora Dolliver, son George, and George’s new wife. Carrie spent the final six years of her life in West Concord with her daughter Ella Kingman.
Carrie died of pneumonia at the home of her sister in Jamaica Plain, MA and was buried in Concord. Her obituary (Concord Enterprise, January 16, 1918, p. 7) stated that she was “exceptionally active for a person of her age,” and was involved with the W. C. T. U. and Ladies’ union of West Concord’s Union Church, having been a 50-year member of the Congregational Church of Chelsea. The obituary also mentioned that she had been a resident of South Acton for several years, “where she had the honor of being the first vice president of the Ladies’ Sewing circle from which later the Congregational church of that town was formed.” She obviously had good memories of her time there.
Ann F. Heywood
Ann F. Heywood started out as a mystery. The usual sources, such as Acton’s censuses and vital records, made no mention of her. It took some effort to discover who she was. Unlike the other ladies, she did not raise a family in town; It turns out that she and her husband were “summer residents” of South Acton in the 1870s. Why she chose to, and was allowed to, register to vote in South Acton, we have not discovered.
Ann F. Heywood was born Ann Frances Tyler in Attleboro, Massachusetts on June 18, 1825. Her parents were Samuel and Betsy. She married Charles L. “Haywood” on November 25, 1857 in Attleboro. Ironically, despite the difficulty at first of figuring out her identity, Ann’s life was actually more documented than the other Acton female voters of 1879, probably because of the eventual prominence of her husband. Their story and their Acton connections will be the subject of a separate blog post.
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