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LEADER RESOURCE 5: Unitarian Universalist Women Ancestors

Sophia Lyon Fahs

(1876-1978) I was born in China to Presbyterian missionary parents, but my religious views changed as I became an adult, went to graduate school, and had children. In my career as an educator, I emphasized the importance of children's experience and developed a child-centered approach to religious education. The American Unitarian Association hired me in 1937 to write and edit a series of children's curricula. I didn't join a Unitarian church until 1945, but I was ordained 14 years later as a Unitarian minister. Over the course of my 101-year life I brought about a revolution in religious education.

Clara Barton

(1821-1912) I grew up in a Universalist family in Massachusetts. I worked as a teacher and a nurse, most notably during the Civil War. I worked on the battlefields helping wounded soldiers and established an agency to gather and distribute supplies to them. For this work, I was called "The Angel of the Battlefield." After the war, I took a restful trip to Europe, where I became involved in the International Committee of the Red Cross. I returned to the United States inspired to start the Red Cross here, and in 1881 I finally gathered the support I needed to found the American Red Cross to respond to crises and national disasters like the Civil War.

Olympia Brown

(1835-1926) I was born to Universalist pioneers in Michigan and received a strong education thanks to my father, who built a schoolhouse on our farm. In 1860, I was one of only a few women to graduate from college, and three years later was the first woman graduate of a theological school — St. Lawrence University. I was ordained as a Universalist minister, becoming the first woman to achieve such recognition by a denomination. I was active in the women's suffrage movement and was lucky to have lived long enough to vote in the 1920 election.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

(1825-1911) I was born to free parents in Maryland, but conditions for free blacks deteriorated when the Fugitive Slave Law took effect, so I moved north. I was a prolific published writer and poet from an early age, addressing the moral uplift and freedom from oppression for marginalized people. While living in Pennsylvania I helped slaves escape on the Underground Railroad. I also worked for women's rights, temperance, and peace. I became involved in the Unitarian church through abolitionist work, but remained involved in many ways throughout my life in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church I was raised in.

Maja Capek

(1888-1966) I was born in Czechoslovakia but came to the United States to study library science. I met my husband Norbert in New York and worked as a librarian for several years. Around the time of World War I, we moved back to Czechoslovakia. I was ordained as a minister in 1926 and we founded the Unitarian Church in Prague, where we created the first Flower Celebration/Festival. I introduced this ritual to Unitarians in America when I went there in 1939 to lecture and raise funds for the joint Unitarian-Friends program to assist refugees.

Julia Ward Howe

(1819-1910) I was a Unitarian poet, essayist, lecturer, and reformer. I worked to end slavery, helped to initiate the women's movement in many states, and organized for international peace. One of my lasting legacies was as author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." In response to the 1870s Franco-Prussian war, I began a peace crusade that included initiating a Mothers' Peace Day observance on the second Sunday in June. This idea spread and eventually became the Mothers' Day that you celebrate in May.

Judith Sargent Murray

(1751-1820) I was a prominent female essayist, poet, and playwright, perhaps best known for my 1790 essay "On the Equality of the Sexes." I argued throughout my life for strong female education and for women to have a public voice. My second husband was John Murray, one of the founders of Universalism in New England. I, too, played an important role, as a religious educator and author of the first children's Universalist religious textbook.

Beatrix Potter

(1866-1943) I was a British Unitarian author, illustrator, and conservationist. My early interests included study and watercolors of fungi, leading me to become respected in the field of mycology (the study of fungi). In my thirties, I published the children's book "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" and went on to write and illustrate more than 20 children's books. When I died, I left my property to the National Trust to ensure the conservation of the Lake District in England.

Viola Liuzzo

(1925-1965) I grew up in a poor family in the South in the midst of racial segregation. As an adult in Detroit, I was active in the Unitarian church and in local efforts for education reform and economic justice. When I saw what was going on with the Civil Rights movement in Selma and Montgomery, Alabama I decided to head south to help. I marched with thousands of others from Selma to Montgomery in support of civil rights, and as I drove a car of people home from the protest, including some African Americans, I was murdered by white supremacists.

Maria Mitchell

(1818-1889) I was born into a Quaker family in Nantucket, MA, but later became a Unitarian. As a researcher and professor of astronomy, I discovered "Miss Mitchell's Comet" in 1847 and became the first woman member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. I was also a social activist. I protested slavery by refusing to wear clothes made of cotton, and I co-founded the American Association for the Advancement of Women.

Martha Sharp

(1905 -1999) I was a social worker and active Unitarian. My husband, Waitstill, was a Unitarian minister. In 1939, while serving the congregation in Wellesley, MA, representatives of the Unitarian Service Committee asked us to travel to Czechoslovakia to assist Jewish refugees. Over the course of the next several years, we helped almost 2,000 people — including a large number of children — flee to safety in the United States, Britain, and France.

Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley

(1949-2006) After several years of working as a public television producer and for the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, I became a Unitarian Universalist minister. I served at the congregational, district, and national levels of the UUA. I was a founding member of the African American Unitarian Universalist Ministry (which became DRUUMM, the UU organization for People of Color) and was co-editor of the book "Soul Work: Antiracist Theologies in Dialogue" (2002).

Fannie Farmer

(1857-1915) I grew up in a Unitarian family that valued education highly. After suffering a paralytic stroke at the age of 16, I could no longer go to school, so I took up cooking to pass the time. As an adult, I enrolled in the Boston Cooking School to learn about cooking and nutrition. I eventually rose to be the school's principal. I wrote multiple cookbooks and taught cooking and nutrition. I was the first person to write recipes with exact measurements.

Florence Nightingale

(1820-1910) I grew up in a wealthy British Unitarian family, and went against their wishes by educating myself in the art and science of nursing, rather than staying at home. As a nurse, I cared for people in poverty and became a leading advocate of improved medical care and more sanitary medical conditions. I trained and supervised nurses to care for soldiers during the Crimean War in Turkey. In addition to working as a nurse, I was a talented writer and mathematician in the area of statistics.

Maria Baldwin

(1856-1922) I was born in Cambridge, MA. I am a Unitarian, an educator, and a reformer. When I took the job of principal at the Grammar School of Cambridge in 1889, I became the first African American woman principal. I introduced many education reforms over the years such as new teaching methods, art classes, and hiring a school nurse. While teaching I always remained a student, taking classes at Harvard University and other nearby colleges. I lectured and spoke widely on issues such as women's suffrage, poverty, and history.

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Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.

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