Researchers unfamiliar with the history of the New England Historic Genealogical Society may assume women have been members since the organization’s founding in 1845. In fact, for the first fifty years, women were denied membership. In 1894, some members began to propose opening membership to women: “The reaction was haughty and dignified, if not decidedly frosty.” Women quietly persisted in submitting their applications to male members courageous enough to offer women’s names for election. When a woman’s name was read, though, it was greeted by silence. Several men went so far as to argue that “membership was limited to persons,” and women could not join because they were not “persons.” In early 1897 the issue was put to a vote by special ballot and passed, 451 in favor and fifty opposed, with thirteen offering qualified approval. On 2 February 1898, thirty-six women were nominated, twenty-nine accepted membership — and a new chapter began at NEHGS.
John Schutz’s A Noble Pursuit: The Sesquicentennial History of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1845–1995 credits the admission of women with transforming the Society “from a club of elderly men to a less formal organization… Surviving photographs of the reading rooms at Ashburton [9 Ashburton Place, Boston, home to NEHGS from 1912 to 1964] often show more women than men consulting genealogies. By the 1930s women equaled men in number of members.”
Women have influenced the Society in many ways over the years, but perhaps their greatest contribution has been to the manuscript collection. Genealogical papers, family records, diaries, letters, samplers, and other items created and donated by women line the shelves. This blog will examine the collections of two of the first women members admitted in 1898.
"Surviving photographs of the reading rooms at [9 Ashburton Place] often show more women than men consulting genealogies. By the 1930s women equaled men in number of members.”
Emma (Story) White was born 17 September 1846 at West Windsor, Vermont, to Darwin Rush Story, M.D., and Eliza Maria (Waite) Story. Mrs. White worked for many years in the Department of State Charity in Boston. When she retired in 1904, she moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, and devoted her remaining years to her Story genealogy, which traced the descendants of William Story (1614–1703) of Ipswich, Massachusetts. Mrs. White died 27 February 1909. Her papers were donated to NEHGS in 1930, and an accompanying letter stated that ill health prevented her from completing her family history. Working mainly between 1893 and 1905, Mrs. Story managed to compile eight generations.
Cataloged as SG STO 3 and housed in a half archival box, the collection contains a 107-page handwritten genealogy beginning with the immigrant, William Story of Norwich in Norfolk, England, who came to New England in 1637 and settled in Ipswich. The genealogy covers the male line descendants of William and is organized by generation. Mrs. White not only included births, marriages, and deaths but also referred to land records and wills. Unusually for the time, she cited her sources (in the margins).
A few surviving letters in the collection indicate Mrs. White also relied on information submitted by Story descendants. One of her frequent correspondents was Charles Oliver Story (1824–1914) of Essex, Massachusetts, the son of Samuel and Bridget (Poland) Story and a ship’s carpenter by trade, who always began his letters “Dear Friend Mrs. White.” Mr. Story provided bits and pieces of genealogical data and passed on personal reminiscences about the Story families in Ipswich and Essex. In a letter dated 12 March 1905, he wrote, “The Brig Jacob Story was built by Adam Boyd whose wife was Ruth, daughter of Jacob Story. I saw her at a wharf in Salem a good many years ago.” On the back of the letter, he offers additional information: “Joseph Story was drowned in California, was never married, he went in ’49 in his father’s Brig the Metropidas,” and “Jacob Story died in Minnesota, his wife died some years before he did.” He ends by promising to obtain dates for these events.
“Ten generations of Wilmarth genealogical material, descendants of Thomas, and some miscellaneous data.”
Elizabeth Josephine Wilmarth of Attleboro, Massachusetts, was born 29 August 1858 to William Daniel and Susan Josephine (Mann) Wilmarth. Miss Wilmarth, who never married, spent most of her life researching the descendants of Thomas Wilmot (Wilmarth) (1610–1690) of Rehoboth, Massachusetts. Upon her death in 1927, Miss Wilmarth’s ten-generation genealogy, in two cartons, was donated to the Society by her sister, Harriet Wilmarth. The catalog record for this collection, SG WIL 26 , lacks subject headings and is described in a single sentence: “Ten generations of Wilmarth genealogical material, descendants of Thomas, and some miscellaneous data.”
Miss Wilmarth traced the descendants of Thomas through New England to the Midwest and Canada. Miss Wilmarth’s line of descent was Thomas1, Jonathan2–3, Moses4, William Daniel5. She must have been frugal; she wrote her entire family history on what appears to be brown wrapping paper. The pages have held up well over the years, thanks to her use of pencil and the storage conditions at NEHGS. Miss Wilmarth, like many genealogists of her day, relied on submissions from living descendants. She also used numerous other sources such as obituaries, land, and military records, but does not cite any sources in her work.
In 1898, Emma (Story) White and Elizabeth Wilmarth probably did not consider themselves pioneers, but their membership blazed the trail for future female genealogists — especially those whose love for family history is reflected in dozens of collections carefully preserved in the R. Stanton Avery Special Collections.
 William Carroll Hill, “A Century of Genealogical Progress,” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register 99 : 182–84.
 John A. Schutz, A Noble Pursuit: The Sesquicentennial History of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1845–1995 (Boston: NEHGS, 1995), 231.
 Derived from "Women in the NEHGS Archives: Two Pioneers in American Genealogy," American Ancestors 12: 1 : 47.
About Judith Lucey
Judy Lucey joined the staff in 2003. She received a B.S. in Education from Northeastern University and an M.S. in Library and Information Science from Simmons College. Her genealogical interests include Irish genealogy, Newfoundland, 19th and 20th century genealogy, Beginning genealogy, Italian genealogy, and the history of Cambridge and Somerville, Mass. A native of the Boston area, she currently resides in Somerville, Mass.View all posts by Judith Lucey →