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.
7 thoughts on “The first women members”
Thanks, Melanie, for this interesting account of the first acceptance of women in the NEHGS. I had not consciously noticed that the original members were all men, and it had not occurred to me that people had to apply to be members at that time. Nor had I known that one had to be a member to use the NEHGS library resources (if I have interpreted Lucy’s statement correctly).
My great great aunt Edith Marion (Miles) Todd (1876-1943) was an avid family historian in the early 1900s. Since she lived in Chicago, I suppose she had access to books, journals, and manuscripts at the Newberry Library in Chicago, which opened in 1887 (https://www.newberry.org/about).
In 1997 Edith’s son John (1919-2009) donated Edith’s notes to the Family History Library (https://www.familysearch.org/search/catalog/660412, microfiche not yet digitized). In 2005, John sent me two letters that had been written to Edith in response to her family history queries. One, dated 31 August 1912, was from Lillie B. Titus, secretary and treasurer of the “Society, Descendants of Pilgrim John Howland of the Mayflower.” The letter mentions the “two first numbers” of the “Howland Homestead” to be mailed separately and states that the writer had presented these two issues the journal of the John Howland Society “to the N.E. His. & Gen. Society so they probably alluded to them in their Bulletin” (which indeed they did, p. 93 and p. 287 of the 1912 Register).
I wonder if either Edith or Lillie ever joined or sought to join the NEHGS. Lillie Titus was not a member of NEHGS in 1913 or 1914 as she is listed in the Register in both years as a non-member donor to the NEHGS library, as “Mrs. Nelson Virgil Titus.”
Lillie’s husband Nelson died in 1899. Nelson’s obituary on FindAGrave (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/202005923/nelson-virgil-titus) mentions his wife’s work as the “organizer and president of the Massachusetts Society, United States Daughters of 1812, which has for its great object the restoration and preservation of the old frigate Constitution” and as “regent of Adams Chapter of Quincy, Daughters of the Revolution.”
The 1911-1912 issues of the Howland Homestead mentioned in Lillie’s letter are available online, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433081951539&view=1up&seq=9, including an article about a Mayflower bible that apparently had been a subject of Edith’s letter to Lillie. People who have an interest in the history of research concerning the ancestry of John Howland and Elizabeth Tilley will likely find the articles in these issues of the Howland Homestead interesting.
Thank you for your reply Janet! It was interesting to hear more about your family. Unfortunately, I was not able to find a listing for Edith or Lillie in our member spreadsheet. If I do come across anything, I will let you know.
My Grandmother, Frances Anne Cabot, born in 1894, took up genealogy as a teen and with a good friend supposedly spent much time at the NEHGS filling in a “Family Genealogical Record, Fourth Edition” published by W. B. Clarke and Company. It was a ten generation chart, and she filled in a great deal of it often back to the 10th generation and sometimes beyond.
Growing up I knew she was very proud of being a Cabot, but she never mentioned that she had traced her family back to seven Mayflower passengers! Imagine my surprise and delight when I figured it out from the chart.
Mrs. Sara (White) Lee was my first cousin’s wife, many generations removed. The 1920 census of Boston lists her occupation as “genealogist”. She was one of the first National Regents of the DR (not DAR). Her application at NEHGS left no clues to her ancestry, but her obituary in a 1925 copy of the Register had lots of family clues. I was disappointed to learn that she never worked on her husband’s ancestry, or never left any surviving papers on his ancestry. His grandmother is my 4th great grandmother, Elizabeth Lambert of Boston who married Owen Jones in 1793. Elizabeth is my brick wall ancestress, even though she was described as “A Boston debutante with colonial roots”!
Thank you for sharing more information about Mrs. Sara (White) Lee!
Was Lucy Hall Greenlaw related by marriage to William Prescott Greenlaw, whose index is still useful to Wisconsin residents trying to find where in New York their families were from before the next generation moved here?
Yes, there is indeed a connection. Lucy (Hall) Greenlaw’s husband was William Prescott Greenlaw. William was the librarian for the society from 1894 to 1929. During his time he created the Greenlaw Index of the New England Historic Genealogical Society.
His obituary that describes his career as well as some of his genealogy can be found in the Register in volume 100, page 81 and online on AmericanAncestors.org at https://www.americanancestors.org/databases/new-england-historical-and-genealogical-register/image?volumeId=11696&pageName=81.