Young Phebe Coffin stood on a box in the barn, playing preacher to the group of friends she had gathered. Of course, in the 1830s, when Phebe was a child, women ministers were unusual, if there were any at all. Women couldn't vote, didn't have the right to own property, and couldn't attend most universities. But Phebe was raised in a Quaker family that believed in equality for men and women, and her cousin, Lucretia Mott, was a famous advocate for women's rights. So perhaps it's not too surprising that the highly intelligent Phebe grew up expecting to make her voice heard. At 13 she started to get her writing published, and at 16 she became a teacher.
When she was 20, Phebe married a Baptist doctor named Joseph Hanaford, and became a Baptist herself. She started writing books to help support her family, which included two children. Eventually she wrote a total of 14 books, many of which were quite popular. But over time Phebe decided she couldn't accept Baptist beliefs, and she became a Universalist.
At her father's request, Phebe preached a couple of times at the schoolhouse on the island of Nantucket where she had once been a teacher. But it came as a surprise and a rather scary honor when she was asked to fill in preaching for her hero, the Universalist minister Olympia Brown, who was the first woman to be ordained as a minister in the U.S.
With Olympia's encouragement, Phebe became a Universalist minister herself. She eventually left her husband, who wouldn't follow her to Connecticut, when she was called to serve as a minister there. After separating from her husband, Phebe fell in love with a woman named Ellen Miles, and they lived together for over 40 years, until Ellen died.
While Phebe was serving as a busy and successful minister, she was also very active in working for women's rights. Her church in Jersey City, New Jersey decided to fire her after her first three years of ministry, even though the church had doubled in size. The church leaders said it was because she was spending too much time working on women's issues, but Phebe's letters make it clear that the church was also upset by her relationship with Ellen Miles, who they called "the minister's wife." They insisted that Phebe give up both her work for women's rights and her relationship with Ellen. In response, Phebe, and the people in the church who supported her, set up a church in a hall across the street, and she preached there for several years.
Phebe continued in active ministry until she retired in 1891, and she spoke at conventions for women's rights around the country, doing everything in her power to bring women the right to vote. It says something about both her gifts as a speaker and her importance to the women's movement that she was asked to conduct the funeral services for both Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the two most famous leaders of the movement.
Even after she retired from ministry, Phebe remained active and interested political issues. Before she died, at the age of 92, Phebe had the joy of being one of the few women's suffrage leaders of her generation who lived see the passage of the 19th Amendment. After more than 60 years of work, Phebe finally won the right to vote.
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Last updated on Tuesday, August 21, 2012.
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