Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Phebe Ann Hanaford: Minister, Writer, Activist

Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford (born 6 May 1829)

Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford
Over the course of her long life--she died in on 2 June 1921, just two months after her ninety-second birthday--Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford accomplished a great deal. 

Born in Nantucket, she was a wife and mother, roles expected of most women of her day. But she also was well educated (taught by an Episcopalian minister who offered the girl a curriculum that included mathematics and classical languages), and she went on to become a writer, a teacher, a minister, a public speaker, a chaplain for the Connecticut legislature, and an important, if now little recognized, figure in the women's suffrage movement. 

Phebe Hanaford is also a significant figure in gay and lesbian history, identified as the "earliest certifiable lesbian minister" in the United States.

One reason for the obscurity of Hanaford today may, in fact, be due to her sexuality. According to Lisa M. Tetrault, a split at the Universalist Church of the Good Shepherd in Jersey City, after her three-year term as minster, may have been the result not of her activism on behalf of women's suffrage, as it has been conventionally explained, but because of her lesbian identity:
After separating from her husband (whom she never officially divorced), Hanaford had begun living with a woman named Ellen Miles. Newspaper clippings preserved in Hanaford's scrapbook reported that the disgruntlement among congregation members was, in fact, over Hanaford's liaison with Miles, whom the papers called the "minister's wife." Hanaford, it seems, was not simply asked to cease her women's rights activities, but more specifically, to "dismiss" Miss Miles. The split in the Jersey City congregation, then, actually appears to have been over Hanaford's intimate personal life. While we cannot know for certain the exact nature of Hanaford and Miles's relationship, their letters testify to a deep and abiding affection. The two remained life-long companions, separated after forty-four years together only by Miles's death in 1914.
Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford's published writing includes anti-slavery tracts, an 1865 life of Lincoln (it was the first biography of Lincoln to be published), and a volume of poetry.

And unlike so many of the women she had worked with to secure women the right to vote--Lucy Stone, Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Julia Ward Howe, among them--Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford lived long enough to see the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

When she died, her family buried her in an unmarked grave in Orleans, New York.

As a result of the efforts of Loretta Cody and the Reverend Sarah Barber-Braun, there is now a grave marker, funded by the New York State Universalist Convention.

There is an excellent biography: Loretta Cody's A Mighty Social Force: Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford, 1829-1921. But you might want to start with Tetrault's essay, "A Paper Trail: Piecing Together the Life of Phebe Hanaford," written for the Nantucket Historical Association.

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