Women’s history throughout American history has been an area of great interest to me. Women were not always permitted to be in the same areas as men, including universities, working as doctors and lawyers, and membership in organizations (including genealogical societies). Prior to 1898, women were not admitted as members of the New England Historic Genealogical Society. This changed in January 1897 when members voted by a special ballot, and the motion to admit women was approved by the majority of voters. Once the ballot was over, the charter had to be changed, which required a petition to the Massachusetts legislature and approval by the governor. The petition was approved on 10 April 1897. The society quickly updated all existing bylaws and started selecting candidates for membership. By February 1898, there were thirty-six women nominated for membership, and twenty-nine had accepted.
At the time that women were being admitted as members, the society was using a long form application. Each member provided information about their parents and ancestors.
At the time that women were being admitted as members, the society was using a long form application. Each member provided information about their parents and ancestors. These applications are rich in detail. Our web team is working on creating a searchable database of membership applications for the years 1845 to 1900 that will be available in 2020. Below is a list of the first twenty-nine female members of NEHGS, listed in order of membership qualification (maiden names were inserted by author):
Mrs. Lucy (Hall) Greenlaw of Cambridge
Mrs. Julia Elizabeth Folsom of Brookline
Mrs. Ellen Augusta Lord Burditt of Boston
Miss Sara Elizabeth Cushman of Newton
Miss Mary Hannah Graves of Boston
Mrs. Anna Margaret (Chandler) Riley of Claremont, N.H.
Mrs. Harriet (Hodges) Stone of Newton
Mrs. Adelaide Elizabeth (Dean) Cordis of Medford
Mrs. Harriette Estelle Hayes of Boston
Mrs. Sarah Abigail (Clarke) Kimball of Methuen
Mrs. Ida Louise (Farr) Miller of Wakefield
Mrs. Harriet (Hanson) Robinson of Malden
Mrs. Lora Altine (Woodbury) Underhill of Brookline
Mrs. Frances Ione (Abbe) Wallace of Albany, N.Y.
Miss Helen Frances Kimball of Brookline
Miss Mary Cummings Sawyer of Wellesley
Mrs. Emeline Bridge (Tyler) Simonds of Charlestown
Mrs. Charlotte Jellison Milliken of Boston
Miss Mary Perkins Quincy of New Haven, Conn.
Mrs. Evelyn (McCurdy) Salisbury of New Haven, Conn.
Mrs. Sara (White) Lee of Brookline
Miss Emily Wilder Leavitt of Boston
Miss Mary Elvira Elliot of Somerville
Miss Elizabeth Josephine Wilmarth of Allteborough
Mrs. Harriet (Westcott) Lawrie of Boston
Mrs. Emma (Story) White of Boston
Mrs. Fanny (Wilder) Brown of Fitchburg
Mrs. Susan (Vining) Briggs of Brookline
Mrs. Lydia Matthews (Bangs) Fisher of Hyde Park
By 1923, women represented nearly one-third of membership at NEHGS. Of the original 29 members, twelve were current members at the time. Six of these ladies were honored: Mrs. Lucy (Hall) Greenlaw of Winthrop, Mrs. Ida Louise (Farr) Miller of Wakefield, Mrs. Lora Altine (Woodbury) Underhill of Allston, Mrs. Emeline Bridge (Tyler) Simonds of West Medford, Miss Mary Elvira Elliot of Somerville, and Mrs. Lydia Matthews (Bangs) Fisher of Hyde Park.
Mrs. Lucy Greenlaw was chosen to represent the group as the first woman member of the society. During her speech she noted that the honor of being the first female member lay between her and the late Julia E. Folsom of Brookline. Julia’s husband, Capt. Albert A. Folsom, was anxious to have his wife become the first female member and paid her dues in advance. However, Lucy’s application was the first to be received by Colonel Hoyt, Corresponding Secretary of the Society. Lucy left it with the audience to decide who was truly the first woman member of NEHGS! She then discussed the prosperity of the society, including the library being first place in its field and how privileged she felt to be a part of the society.
Lucy left it with the audience to decide who was truly the first woman member of NEHGS!
Lucy noted the following: “So the admission of women to the ranks of this Society was not a step toward that objective known as ‘women’s rights,’ but a real, purposeful act to enable us to follow closely suggestions received and clues discovered, by stepping behind those ropes which barred us from the alcoves and the much desired books and scanning quickly the pages whereupon we found our reward for patient searching.” Genealogy has truly become a more accessible hobby and we have seen this shift over the years. Members have access to manuscripts and rare books in our collections and can touch a part of their ancestors’ history. I hope that Lucy and the rest of the other ladies are smiling down on us as they see the large numbers of women who are members of our society as well as the numbers represented on the staff. Let’s remember these pioneering women for paving the way.
 Members voted by post cards, with 523 returned and 451 in favor of admitting women, 53 not in favor, and 13 returned as qualified approval. The New England Historical and Genealogical Register 51 : 229.
 Acts and Resolves, 1897, chapter 275. Proceedings of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1919, lxviii. Annual Meeting 5 February 1919.
 Proceedings of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1923, xii. Annual Meeting 7 February 1923.
 Ibid, x. Per Lucy Greenlaw’s speech, of the 29 original members, eight had died, eight resigned, and one allowed her membership to lapse. Of the twelve remaining, six were not able to attend due to distance or illness.
 Ibid., xi.
 Ibid., xiv.