Women and Massachusetts: A short history

1670Zipporah Potter Atkins becomes the first African American landowner in Boston.

1692 More than 200 people in Salem are accused of practicing witchcraft. Fourteen women and six men are executed. Among those accused is Sarah Good who, upon being found guilty, is said to tell one of the judges: “I’m no more a witch than you are a wizard!”

1773Phillis Wheatley publishes “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” — the first poetry published by an African-American woman. Wheatley was born in West Africa, sold into slavery, and brought to Boston. “In every human breast, God has implanted a principle, which we call love of freedom; it is impatient of oppression, and pants for deliverance,” Wheatley wrote.


1782Deborah Sampson disguises herself as a man and joined an Army unit in Middleborough. Injured in battle, she is treated for a head wound but so fearful that her secret will be discovered that she leaves the hospital with two musket balls still in her leg. She removes one herself with a penknife and a sewing needle.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
Forget yesterday's news. Get what you need today in this early-morning email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

1820Susan B. Anthony is born in Adams. She will go on to become a leading abolitionist and women’s suffrage activist — not to mention the first actual woman to be depicted on a US coin, in 1979. “I declare to you that woman must not depend upon the protection of man, but must be taught to protect herself, and there I take my stand,” Anthony said.

1821 Mary Baker Eddy is born in New Hampshire. She will found the Church of Christ, Scientist, and establish a headquarters in Boston. “Health is not a condition of matter, but of mind,” Baker said.

1830Emily Dickinson, the prominent poet, is born in Amherst. “Tell the truth, but tell it slant,” Dickinson famously wrote.

1832 Prominent novelist and poet Louisa May Alcott is born. Her most famous work, children’s novel “Little Women,” is loosely based on her own childhood and was made into a movie several times. “Women have been called queens for a long time, but the kingdom given them isn’t worth ruling,” Alcott wrote.


1847Lucy Stone becomes the first Massachusetts woman to graduate from college. She will become a prominent abolitionist, suffragist, and editor of the Women’s Journal, the newspaper of the American Woman Suffrage Association, centered in Boston. Stone will also help found the American Equal Rights Association. “A wife should no more take her husband’s name than he should hers. My name is my identity and must not be lost,” Stone said.

Mid-19th century The “Seven Sisters” colleges — including Mount Holyoke, Wellesley, Smith, and Radcliffe in Massachusetts — are established to promote the equal right to education for women. Among their notable graduates: Hillary Clinton (Wellesley), Helen Keller (Radcliffe), Barbara Bush (Smith).

1880Frances Perkins is born in Boston. She will become Franklin Roosevelt’s labor secretary — the first woman to serve in a presidential Cabinet — and will be instrumental in the US adoption of Social Security, unemployment insurance, child labor laws and the federal minimum wage.

1900 Work begins on the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Two years later, Gardner moves her early collection into it. “Years ago I decided that the greatest need in our country was art. … We were a very young country and had very few opportunities of seeing beautiful things, works of art” Gardner said.

1907 Harlem Renaissance writer Dorothy West is born in Boston. She will become best known for her novel “The Living is Easy” about an upper class black family. “I’m a writer. I don’t cook and I don’t clean,” West said.


1932Sylvia Plath, the poet and writer, is born in Jamaica Plain. “If you expect nothing from anybody, you’re never disappointed,” Plath once said.

1967Kathrine Switzer becomes the first woman to run the Boston Marathon with an official bib number. When she enters the race, she signs the form with initials that don’t identify her as female. Five years later, the Amateur Athletics Union formally allows women to participate in marathons and receive official scores.

1969Hillary Rodham — later much better known as Hillary Clinton — famously gives the commencement speech at Wellesley College. “For too long our leaders have viewed politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible.”

1986 The space shuttle Challenger explodes, killing all aboard. Among them: Christa McAuliffe, the New Hampshire school teacher who was born in Boston and graduated from Framingham State College.

2001 Lieutenant Governor Jane Swift becomes acting governor of Massachusetts — the first woman in the role. She will be the first sitting governor in US history to give birth while in office.

2007Drew Gilpin Faust becomes the first female president of Harvard University. “I can imagine no higher calling, no more exciting adventure than to serve as the president of Harvard,” she says.

2012Democrat Elizabeth Warren ousts incumbent Republican Scott Brown, becoming the first woman to represent Massachusetts in the US Senate.

2017 Kim Janey (right) and Lydia Edwards are elected to join four incumbent women on Boston City Council, marking the largest female representation in history — and near-parity on a panel of 13.

Compiled by Stephanie Ebbert and Felice Belman.