Women of Winchester
The history of women in South Woburn and Winchester follows the pattern found throughout New England where a town evolved from an agricultural village to an industrial center, to a suburban community for professionals with a mix of occupations. Originally almost exclusively confined to domestic roles, women gradually achieved broader opportunities and took the lead in charitable endeavors and civic improvement while on the long road to overcoming prejudices and earning equity in all spheres.
The story of the women of South Woburn and Winchester, albeit incomplete, is marked by variety, but one theme evident during the late 19th and 20th centuries is the continuing effort among women to better themselves and the town. The work of the women’s organizations was not only charitable but often innovative. It was women, for example, who were responsible for Winchester getting its own hospital. [Read more: Visiting Nurse Association] As the 20th century progressed, more women became increasingly integrated into both the town’s political and business lives.
(Left - Wadleigh Grammar School girls in a coking class)
Prior to the 19th century, only about 35 houses stood within Winchester’s boundaries. The families lived on farms, some of which also had mills or small shoe shops. A handful of families dominated the area, with such names as Converse, Richardson, Symmes, Gardner, and Johnson. A few anecdotes have been passed down about the women, primarily from the Richardson family. [Read more: Richardson women]
One observation regarding the changing image of women came from Nathaniel A. Richardson, who grew up in South Woburn and died in Winchester in 1908. “In 1785 the grandmother of the writer, Submit Brown Richardson, living at the junction of Washington and Forest streets, went to the Abel Richardson mill leading her husband’s horse, with four bushels of corn on the horse’s back, taking with her the writer’s father, then three years old. She left the corn to be ground, took the horse with her son and went to her brother, Capt. Joseph Brown, a blacksmith, to spend the day and have the horse shod. At night she went back to the mill, got her ground corn and led the horse home. She was a very stout muscular woman and many times has taken a barrel of cider weighing 300 pounds from the tail of a car, rolled it into the cellar and placed it in position. Such were the women of revolutionary days; they did not go tilting around in ‘dogcarts’ hugging pug dogs.”
Similar to women across the country, the women of Winchester were long accepted in certain professions, such as music teachers, artists, librarians, seamstresses, and milliners. Some others ran shops, like Fanny Bowser who had a dry good store in the
White Block on Pleasant (now Mt. Vernon) Street (pictured right).
Some women were able to train for particular jobs. Over at the Winchester Telephone Exchange, 34 girls who had graduated from the training school in Boston were employed in 1917. The Visiting Nurse Association, organized in 1899, hired nurses and, after it founded a hospital in 1912, provided a training school for them. A few of the pioneer women doctors were Adelaide Church, Fredrika Moore, & Zella Eileen Taylor. [Read more: Visiting Nurse Association and Dr. Fredrika Moore]
Many women found employment in local industries. Newspaper reports about a fire at a button factory in one of the Whitney buildings in 1871 noted that 25 girls had been temporarily thrown out of work. Women as well as men were employed at the Winchester Laundry. Cosgrove’s Skirt Factory, which made petticoats, and J. H. Winn, which manufactured watch hands, employed girls almost exclusively in the early 20th century. In 1917, it was reported that the work of the watch-hand girls “requires a very delicate touch and is very monotonous. Very few girls under eighteen years are employed, and the pay is not large as the work is unskilled.”1 At that time, Cosgrove normally employed 15 and Winn 86 (some of whom are pictured right).
There were occasional issues in the workplace. The 1935 strike at the Beggs and Cobb tannery, for example, was driven by a number of issues, including a grievance that a young woman employee was laid off because she refused a date with one of her bosses. When the strike was resolved, she reportedly was re-hired.2
During the Great Depression, the town was not unmindful of its women in need. In 1933, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration asked all unemployed women to register. Projects such as knitting, sewing and preserving were established to furnish employment. The garments made through the regular channels for distribution by Town Welfare among the townspeople. By February 1934, 45 women were employed. The instructors, a bookkeeper, and a time-keeper were paid 50 cents per hour; the others 49 cents per hour.
One area of employment and involvement for women extending back through early history is education. When the first schools were formed, several young women taught them, some in their own homes. After the town was incorporated, most of the teachers were women (such as the Mystic School teacher pictured left in 1891), who did not cost as dearly as men. It was not until the late 20th century that equity in pay was achieved. In 1961, women teachers failed to get equal pay, with the School Committee “unanimously and vigorously” opposing the change because “women teachers do not cost the Town so much and that this was simply an economic fact of life that should be recognized.”3 However, in 1962, the salary differential ended. It was, the Committee reported an important morale booster.4
While education was often left to women, overseeing education was not. The School Committee was originally limited to male members. Then, in the late 19th century, Massachusetts decided to let women vote for School Committee members and serve on that committee. Beginning in 1874, Winchester women did step up and serve but ended up enduring scorn and criticism. In March 1888, Town Meeting reduced the number of members, which had been augmented in 1874 to six, back to three. It was not until the 19th Amendment passed that women rejoined the School Committee. [Read more: Sexism in Schools]
Many women who worked outside the home did so as volunteers. Once Winchester became an independent town, both men and women organized themselves into clubs and organizations, many of which were charitable works or mutual improvement and support.
Because of the women’s groups, Winchester’s poor received care and were visited by visiting nurses, the town gained a hospital, innovative education programs (like kindergarten) were supported, massive war-relief activities were successfully undertaken, and women had access to more opportunities.
In December 1881 the Fortnightly Club was born, one of the first women’s club in the state outside of Boston. (Among its many activities, it offered educational opportunities to its members and supported various educational initiatives in the public schools. [Read more: Kindergarten] Several members are pictured right at a sewing meeting for Chelsea fire sufferers).
The club had classes and lectures on finance, literature, social science, domestic economy, art, and education. Its own members and guest speakers addressed its meetings. The fact that the membership of the club continually grew over the years is witness to the interest among Winchester’s women in improving their own educations. Lectures included such topics as “The Life and Writings of Marcus Aurelius Antonius,” “Banks and Bank Defalcations,” “Free Trade,” and “Life in Modern Persia.”
While titles of some lectures are known, no copies are known to survive. It would be instructive to have such papers as “The Industrial Education of Girls” and “Is it Expedient to Open the High Institutions of Learning to Women?” or “The Development of Character in Schools.”
The Fortnightly was only one of many women’s groups in Winchester. In 1950 there were about 50 women’s clubs in town, some connected with the churches and schools and others devoted to a variety of interests and causes.
In the Sept. 21, 1881, issue of The Winchester Star, an anonymous resident stated, "The prejudice against women taking part in political affairs is melting away. Indeed some of our most intelligent men express the wish that women might have the entire control of the schools, but I think it is better as it is–men and women should work together. We need some good lectures on woman suffrage–most women do not understand the subject (nor men either). Many have expressed their willingness to vote on the liquor question could they have the privilege.... The time has been when it was deemed improper for women to mix in general gatherings, but that time has passed and most people acknowledge that society has been improved by the addition of the feminine element."
But “that time” had not passed. A big fuss in the papers occurred in 1882, perhaps stimulated by the creation in December 1881 of a woman suffrage organization in Winchester and the subsequent announcement that the third convention of the National Woman Suffrage Association of Massachusetts would be held in Winchester’s Lyceum Hall in June.
Both the Women’s Suffrage and Anti-Suffrage leagues were active in town through the enactment of the 19st Amendment. Meetings of the Equal Suffrage League often featured a speaker of great importance to the cause such as Lucy Stone (who spoke at the second meeting on April 10, 1888), William Lloyd Garrison Jr., Alice Stone Blackwell and Maud Park. One notable public meeting featured the famed English suffragette, Sylvia Pankhurst. [Read more: Sylvia Pankhurst in Winchester]
In 1915, suffrage was a particularly hot issue since Massachusetts’ male voters were asked that year to decide on an amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution that would strike the word "male" from the article that gave men the right to vote. Every issue of The Winchester Star ran articles, both pro and con, and the issue was debated in meetings.
With the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association organizing a pro-suffrage parade in Boston that October, involving some 15,000 marchers and 30 bands, a push was on to persuade men to vote yes. About 110 Winchester women marched in the parade. A straw vote taken at the high school passed the measure, but the actual vote went decidedly against women’s suffrage. After that, Massachusetts’ suffrage activists concentrated their efforts behind the national campaign to amend the federal constitution. Four years later, the 19th Amendment of the United States Constitution passed and became law in 1920.
One project which must have helped enhance the cause of women in town was the building of Winchester Hospital, a project undertaken by the Visiting Nurse Association whose board was composed entirely of women. Though men helped, when the hospital opened in 1917 it was tangible evidence of what women could accomplish.
Although women did not yet get the right to vote, Winchester girls achieved some equity with the boys when a local chapter of the Girl Scouts was organized, an action related to the World War I effort.
It was at the May 5, 1917, meeting of the Special Aid Society for American Preparedness that the Girls Scouts were organized in Winchester. The objectives of this Society were “to encourage and promote patriotic education, sentiment and service among the people and to aid in the establishment and maintenance of the National Defense.”
In their first year, the girls, in fact, made trench candles, semaphore flags, comfort bags, and hospital bags; knitted afghans, socks, and sweaters; made surgical dressings for the Red Cross; and collected magazines for the soldiers in Camp Devens, in addition to their other activities.
The older girls and leaders also received training in military drill, not to make soldiers of them, as stated in the Star, but “to teach them to think quickly, to learn concentration, discipline, obedience and responsibility. It is to make efficient, dependable women, not dependent women.” (The pictured scouts are on parade in 1926.)
A few years later, Winchester’s women achieved the right to vote and the opportunity to hold public office.
After the School Committee was again closed to female membership, women had to wait for the passage of the 19th amendment to get back on town boards, with the exception of the Board of Public Welfare (formerly the Overseers of the Poor), which had had women members since 1890. In 1921, Rho Zeublin and Stella Root were elected to the School Committee, and women have been elected to that board ever since.
The change in the voting law impacted Town Meeting. Since the number of qualified voters rose significantly and Town Hall could accommodate less than a quarter of them, Town Meeting voted in 1928 to go to a limited representative format. In 1929, 34 women were elected as members of Town Meeting, the first on a long list of women Town Meeting members.
The next body to which women were elected was the Board of Library Trustees with the election of Jennie C. Gates in 1936. Twenty-one years elapsed before another elected board saw a woman join its ranks, when Evelyn R. Russell was elected to the Board of Health in 1957. After another long gap, the Board of Selectmen was next in 1975.
The first woman candidate for the Board of Selectmen was Lorence M. Woodside, a professional public speaker and teacher, founder and first president of the Women’s Republican Club, and one of the first women elected to Town Meeting. The first women elected was Barbara Hankins in 1975. [Read more: First Elected Women]
Opportunities also opened up in the 20th century for women to be employed as Town officers and staff. For Winchester’s first 60 years, its town officers (excepting the Overseers of the Poor) were all men. Then, in 1911, an unprecedented event occurred. A woman was allowed to act as Town Clerk at a Town Meeting. She had to wait until 1920 to be offered the appointment as Town Clerk, and then it took an act of the Legislature to make it legal. The bill was one of the shortest ever written, stating “The clerk of the Town of Winchester may be a woman.”5 [Read more: Mabel Stinson]
After the Town Clerk, more women were hired, gradually, for town offices and as department heads. It was not until 1995 that Winchester welcomed its first woman superintendent of schools and not until 2018 that it hired a woman town manager.
The names of 18 women are included on the Roll of Honor for World War I. Half were nurses.
During World War II women continued to serve as nurses but also as members of the new women’s branches of the military. Over 100 names on the World War II Roll of Honor belong to women. Most were nurses, WACs or WAVES, but several were in the SPARS and Marines, plus one lone but high-flying member of the WAAFS (Gertrude Meserve, right). Three served with the Canadian WAC and one (born in England) with the British Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service, the model for the WAC. These women served at home and abroad. A couple were known to have stayed in the military after the war was over.
During both wars, civilian women performed masses of support work, helping with such efforts as bond sales, making and collecting clothing, blankets, and other items for war victims, helping to man the air-raid lookout post, and making bandages for the Red Cross. [Read more on the WWII 75th Anniversary pages]
1. Elizabeth Lord Kneeland, “A Study of the Social Forces in Winchester.”
2. “Strikers Returned to Work Tuesday,” The Winchester Star, Aug. 9, 1935.
3. The Winchester Star, March 9, 1961.
4. School Committee, Annual Report, 1961, p. 4.
5. Chapter 503, Acts of 1920 approved May 25, 1920.