Whoever said, “Behind every great man, there’s a great woman,” understood Nantucket, Massachusetts.
While men spent years pursuing whales whose oil lubricated the nascent industrial revolution, women kept the island financially and socially afloat. Leaning into leadership roles, they kept the home fires burning and ignited social justice movements still felt in modern times.
And it all began on a 14-mile crescent of sand 30 miles out to sea.
Nantucket produced women activists, entrepreneurs and pioneers in science, medicine and religion.
“At the time, there were more important women on this little island than anywhere else in the country,” said Peggi Godwin, the Nantucket Whaling Museum’s former manager of operations.
They’re some of the most fascinating people you’ve never heard of — unless you visit Nantucket.
A traveler in 2021 will find homages to these women in street names, historic homes, museums and women-owned businesses. And the tradition continues: The current town manager, harbor master and three of its five-member select board are female.
“Women play an integral role on Nantucket. It’s a long tradition that never ended,” said Jascin Leonardo Finger, author of “The Daring Daughters of Nantucket Island.”
Still, your thoughts may gravitate more toward present-day pleasures than women’s history as you wander Nantucket on a summer’s day. Flowers spill from window boxes. Birds sing exuberantly. Laughter drifts from sidewalk cafes. And a lobster roll is always within reach.
Even as Nantucket embraces ephemeral pleasures, its resilient spirit prevails. It’s in cedar-shingled homes defying five centuries of notorious weather. It’s underfoot on cobblestones, and soaring skyward in lighthouses. You feel it as fog shrouds the island in her “gray lady” persona. And you hear it in the stories of Nantucketers who left their mark here and beyond.
Mary Coffin Starbuck, the first white woman to marry and bear a child here in the 1600s, became so influential, islanders called her “Great Mary.”
By introducing Quakerism in 1702, Starbuck transformed a frontier outpost into a cohesive community of spiritual seekers. Believing women were the spiritual and intellectual equals of men, Quakers galvanized the island’s economic success and freed their “daring daughters” to go where few had gone before.
The island’s Lydia Folger Fowler was the first American-born woman to receive a medical degree and the first female professor of medicine at a U.S. college. Fellow Nantucketer Lucretia Mott co-wrote the Declaration of Sentiments for the first women’s rights convention.
The Rev. Phebe Coffin Hanaford, one of the first women to be ordained in the United States, attributed her success to Quakerism and her education on Nantucket, “… where women preach and men are useful on washing day, and neither feel themselves out of place.”
Melville was here
Many of these notables lived in Nantucket Town, considered the most historically intact seaport in the eastern United States. To place yourself in the heart of history, stay at the Jared Coffin House, where four of 48 rooms are named for famous females.
“We wanted to pay homage to the women of Nantucket,” said rooms manager Gabrielle Hughes. A hotel since 1850, it hosted Herman Melville, who immortalized the island in “Moby-Dick.” It sits across the street from the red-shingled saltbox home of George Pollard Jr., captain of the doomed whaling expedition that inspired Melville’s novel.
The inn is within walking distance of the waterfront, shops, restaurants and museums. To put the island in context, visit the Nantucket Whaling Museum first. Housed in a 19th-century candle factory, its 11 galleries contain cultural and natural artifacts, a 46-foot whale skeleton and interactive exhibits.
From now through December, renowned island women share their stories in the “Spirits within Us” hologram experience. Women’s voices also factor in “The Road from Abolition to Suffrage” exhibit through December. The roof walk, with its gull’s-eye view of the harbor, is a pleasant place to contemplate what you’ve learned.
Come back to earth by strolling Centre Street, known as “Petticoat Row” in the 1800s, due to the number of women-owned businesses.
Pausing to admire the stately white columns of the United Methodist Church at Centre and Liberty, you might overlook the brick bank building next door. In 1847, 29-year-old Maria Mitchell discovered a comet from its rooftop, launching her career as America’s first female astronomer.
Mitchell began life at 1 Vestal St. Touring her birthplace, you find a surprisingly intact collection of personal items, including her telescope. In her closet study, a card written in her hand reads: “Miss Mitchell is busy. Do not knock.” The no-nonsense message, necessary in a family of 10 siblings, foretells her future. She was busy developing the mind that could calibrate ship captains’ chronometers, discover a comet and become Vassar’s first professor.
Walking back toward the waterfront, you pass the homes of wealthy whale merchants. The blue H-shaped house at 73 Main St. is a rare example of Victorian exuberance on an island of simple saltbox and Cape Cod architecture. It was home to Eliza Starbuck Barney, a self-proclaimed “agitator for justice for all.” She hosted Frederick Douglass at her previous residence of 100 Main St. when he spoke against slavery at the Atheneum.
Both Barney homes are private. To explore the lifestyles of Nantucket’s original rich and famous, tour the Hadwen House at 96 Main St.
It’s not easy to leave this island, but there’s no better way to end your stay than watching a sunset. Ride the Wave bus to Madaket Beach and prepare to be awed.
At moments like these, you believe that remarkable places breed remarkable people. Madaket claims Coast Guard volunteer Millie Jewett, who ran rescue missions from this very beach. Before you go, order a cocktail from her namesake restaurant Millie’s, and raise a glass to the daring daughters of Nantucket.