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American Women On A Mission Part 1

My story from Newburyport News Jun 30, 2014

In 19th-century Newburyport, Massachusetts local lasses preferred a mission of mercy over homemaking. These gals knew bigger fish could be fried out in the world rather than in their kitchens. A call for missionary work was on the rise and the Port women willingly signed on.

John D. Parsons affirmed the value of these daring dames: “No town has been more honorably distinguished by special provision as for the education of its daughters; and nobly have its daughters responded to their opportunities” (Old Newbury Historical Society, 1885).

Mary Coombs Greenleaf, known for her “strong constitution,” opted to leave the comforts of her High Street home “to endure hardship as a soldier of Christ.” The Wanpanucka Female Manual Labor School needed missionaries and she “had an earnest desire to do service.” Photo credit Mary C. Greenleaf. Life and Letters of Miss Mary C. Greenleaf (Boston, 1858), frontispiece.

Mary was assigned to the Chickasaw tribe in Oklahoma. The trip was far from a luxury liner and took almost two months. Mother Nature dealt some fierce weather conditions that would prove challenging to any pioneering spirit. Despite a cyclone, sand gust, extreme heat and violent storms, her memoir states: “we got along without any trouble worth naming.”

Mary’s adventurous spirit was not like the stereotypical missionary; she “was more invested in the well being of the school than the spiritual condition of her charges” (J Null). Additionally, her letters demonstrate an intention to cultivate “a livelier sense of the soul’s inestimable value,” rather than purge “heathen practices.”

Susan Greenleaf also chose to dodge a privileged life and became a “home missionary” in the South. In 1892 the Kalamazoo Gazette ran an article about the circulated syndicate letters on her good works. With a “firmness of purpose” Susan ventured on foot with a large basket harboring an inexhaustible supply of medicine, food and good reads.

With a pure labor of love, Susan gave advice on nutrition and hygiene. She showed the girls how to brew a good cup of java and dress a wound. Many children learned to read and write under her instruction.

Susan had an “immense” presence and “good invariably followed” from her visits. She shared her own personal successes as an author and orator hoping to ignite the next great poetess or progressive goddess. Her attentive audience grew, as did her publications.

Abbie Trask Bowdler Usher was definitely a woman who knew how to rally support for her causes. Abbie utilized all the best resources including clergy, local press and society clubs. This skill was fostered early on when she formed a sewing circle to muster enthusiasm from locals. The cross-stitching was a cover and Abbie was able to pattern the dimensions for a new church edifice and parsonage.

During her stint in Newburyport Abbie was the golden girl. She was made president of the Woman’s Relief Corps, A. W. Bartlett Post and served as woman’s auxiliary to the YMCA. She was also director of the YWCA.

During the Civil War Abbie initiated over 50 new recruits into the Bartlett Relief Corps. While Abbie was delegating charitable missions to her members, her duties ventured out as department aide inspector and installing officer. These services were performed by her with credit and in 1901 she was appointed to the office of Department Patriotic Instructor.

According to “Representative Women of New England,” Abbie was “leader among women in many of the progressive enterprises of the city and largely instrumental in securing a soldiers’ monument in Newburyport, being the only woman member on the committee had charge of the exercises at the unveiling July 4, 1902” (Howe & Graves).

In 1850, Zilpah P. Grant helped to establish the General Charitable Society of Newburyport. Her marriage to state Sen. William Banister gave her the contacts and funds to do amazing philanthropic work. Zilpah also managed the Beecher Women’s Education Foundation that financed young women to learn a skill outside the home.

Photo Credit: Zilpah P. Grant Banister, Ida M. Tarbell, "The American Woman" American Magazine (December 1909): 219.a 1909 publication.

Eliza Rogers gave up her cultured Port style for the remote town of Farmington, Maine, and became known as “Mother Rogers.” Eliza made her mission clear: to support young mothers in need. She became president of the Mothers Association leading prayer groups, aiding and advising young mothers.

A missionary society was formed and Eliza raised large sums of money; however, the local Puritan posse accused her of possessing “witchy ways” and sneered at her charity benefits. Apparently dancing was still considered the devil’s play up in those parts, but Eliza would not allow them to stomp on her toes or steal the music from her mission.

These women had a charmed life in Newburyport, but chose to serve a higher purpose rather than live a life of ease. One of them, Jane Coombs Greenleaf, said: “There are many graces, and one grace may outgrow another. Charity is the bond of perfectness” (American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions).

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