Marilla Ricker

Marilla Ricker is one of the few women with a portrait hanging inside the State House.

Let come what will come, no man, be he priest, minister or judge, shall sit upon the throne of my mind, and decide for me what is right, true, or good.”

Marilla Ricker, 1916, in I Don’t Know, Do You?

Born in New Durham, NH in 1840, Marilla Young Ricker may have been destined to be a rebel from an early age.  Referred to by one historian as a “tomboy” who loved to run and climb trees, and influenced by her atheistic father, young Marilla was already questioning commonly held religious beliefs by age 10.  After graduating from the Literary and Scientific Institution in New London (later to become Colby Sawyer College), she headed for a teaching career, one of the few open to educated young women.  But her refusal to teach Bible lessons in class (apparently she preferred Emerson) brought an end to that option. 

The following year, 1863, she married John Ricker, an affluent Madbury landowner 33 years her senior.  When John died only 5 years later, Marilla was left with a fortune, re-settled in Dover, and soon joined the rising movement for women’s suffrage.  After attending the first convention of the National Women’s Suffrage Association, organized by Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in 1869, Ricker decided her right to vote should not be denied. 

In 1870, she registered to vote in Dover, but when election day came around, she was prevented from turning in a ballot.  Friends convinced her not to file suit, but “she continued to protest the denial of her rights every time she paid her taxes, and every year, she attempted to vote and was denied,” according to legal historian Linda Upham-Bornstein.  It would be 50 more years before women’s right to vote would be added to the US Constitution.

After a sojourn in Europe, Ricker returned to America, decided to study law, and moved to Washington, DC, where Albert Riddle had already mentored the nation’s first woman lawyer.  Ricker studied law with Riddle from 1876 to 1880, returning to New Hampshire in the summer.  When Ricker and 16 men took the Washington DC bar exam in 1880, she earned the highest score.  In 1884, she was appointed as a commissioner and examiner in chancery, a kind of judge, the first woman to get such an appointment. 

Back in New Hampshire, Ricker became an advocate for prisoners as well as women’s equality.  “Ricker sought to defend those who were unable to defend themselves paying their fines, seeking pardons, and providing necessities when visiting clients in prison,” writes Upham-Bornstein.  Ricker earned a reputation as “the prisoner’s friend.” 

Ricker’s initial application to join the NH Bar was turned down, but it was granted on appeal to the NH Supreme Court in 1890. She was the first woman allowed to practice law in the Granite State.

Ricker also focused her attention on politics.  In 1898, she considered a run for Congress, but was talked out of it by friends.  In 1910, she threw her hat in the ring for governor, even though women’s right to vote had not been recognized.  If women “can be hanged under the laws, they should have a voice in making them,” she said.  Although the Constitution declared only that governors must be above the age of 30 and have lived in the state for at least 7 years, the attorney general ruled her candidacy illegal due to her sex.  Once again, she stepped aside for male Republicans, stating her goal had been “to get the people of New Hampshire used to thinking about a woman for governor.”  It would take 82 more years for a woman (Arnie Arnesen) to receive a major party nomination for governor, and 86 more years for a woman (Jeanne Shaheen) to be elected to the state’s highest office.  

Marilla Ricker died in 1920, shortly after ratification of the 19th Amendment opened the franchise to women.  A portrait of Marilla Ricker now hangs in the State House. 

Sarah George Bagley

Born in 1806 in Candia, Sarah Bagley was a founder of the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association which led campaigns for shorter hours in the textile mills of the Merrimack Valley.

Daughter of Nathan and Rhoda Withal Bagley, Sarah moved with her family to the Laconia area after her father bought land in Gilford in 1814.  By 1827 they were living in Meredith Bridge, which is now part of Laconia. 

By 1837, Sarah was working at the Hamilton Company in Lowell.  There she became a leader of the “Mill Girls” movement, which used petitions, strikes, legislative testimony and publications to advocate limiting the workday to 10 hours .  In 1844, Bagley was a founder of the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association and became its first president.  The following year she helped form an FLRA chapter in Manchester.

As a member of the editorial board of Voices of Industry, a weekly publication of the New England Workingmen’s Association, Bagley contributed regular columns and later became editor-in-chief.

“Bagley’s writing expressed a consciousness of the need for reform at all levels of society,” writes Helena Wright (Labor History, Summer 1979).  “Indeed, many of the men and women active in the labor movement participated in other reformist causes as well, such as abolition of slavery and an end to capital punishment.” 

After leaving Lowell, Bagley attended Homeopathic College in Philadelphia, where she met and married James Durno in 1850.  Together, they practiced homeopathy in Albany and also lived in Brooklyn, where they manufactured and sold homeopathic remedies.  After Durno died in 1871, she returned to Philadelphia, where she died in 1889.  

Parker and Sarah Pillsbury

Residents of Concord from 1840 until their deaths in 1898, Parker and Sarah Pillsbury were key figures in the local anti-slavery movement.  As an “agent” of the abolition movement, Parker traveled widely and steadily for years as one of the major lecturers for the wing of the abolition movement associated with William Lloyd Garrison.

Born in Hamilton MA in 1809, Parker moved with his family in 1814 to Henniker, where he grew up accustomed to the life of a rural farmer.  In 1829, he moved to Lynn, MA, where he fell in with radical abolitionists.  After attending seminaries in Gilmanton, NH, and Andover, MA, Parker accepted a position at a church in Loudon, NH, where he met Sarah Sargent.  They wed in 1840, the same year Parker and the Loudon Congregational Church parted ways due to his radical views.

Sarah was born in Loudon, daughter of Sarah Wilkins and John Sargent, a physician.  As a member of the Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society, Sarah was active in fundraising activities.  Moreover, as Stacey Robertson recounts in her biography of Parker, “Sarah became a popular host for these abolitionists who visited and spoke in Concord, including such luminaries as Antoinette Brown, William Lloyd Garrison, Theodore Parker, Wendell Phillips, and Lucy Stone.  While Parker boarded in homes of abolitionists across the North, Sarah offered to house, feed, and entertain dozens of antislavery guests, in an informal extension of her reform efforts…  Many abolitionists commented on h Sarah’s kindness and hospitality, and she became well known in antislavery circles.”

As a writer and speaker, Parker traveled extensively and directed much of his outrage at the complicity of Christianity with slavery.  “While many abolitionists stayed within the church,” writes Stacey Robertson, “the radicals insisted that as long as Northern churches continued their fellowship with Southern slaveholders and remained opposed to immediate emancipation, membership in such institutions constituted support for slavery.”  For that reason, Parker was known as a “come outer,” a biblical phrase which implied true Christians must leave churches that were complicit with slavery.

Like others in the Garrisonian wing of the movement, Parker called for immediate abolition with no compensation to slaveholders, scorned voting in a system whose Constitution upheld slavery, and advocated social and legal equality between the races.  “I am not an American citizen, for the reason that I would not be voluntarily recognized as properly associated with a crew of pirates,” he said on a lecture tour in England.  

Initially associated with “non-resistance,” a pacifist ideology common among radicals of his day, Parker’s commitment to nonviolence slipped with John Brown’s raid and the outbreak of a war which promised to end slavery. 

In the period after the Civil War, Parker became actively involved in the movement for women’s suffrage, working alongside Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in the Equal Rights Association.

In addition to the lecture circuit, Parker was a prolific writer, placing articles in many abolitionist publications of the day and at times serving as an editor.  His book, “Acts of the Anti-Slavery Apostles,” serves as a memoir but also describes the lives and roles of comrades such as Stephen Symonds Foster.   

Parker and Sarah died within four months of each other in 1898.   They are buried at Blossom Hill Cemetery in Concord.  

For more information, read Parker Pillsbury: Radical Abolitionist, Male Feminist, by Stacey Robertson (Cornell University Press, 2000).  

Stephen Symonds Foster

Stephen Symonds Foster was born in Canterbury, NH on November 17, 1809.  The ninth child of Asa and Sarah Foster, Stephen would grow up to be a leader in the radical wing of the anti-slavery movement, for which he traveled and lectured extensively throughout the northeastern states in the decades before the Civil War.  Foster would focus much of his outrage on Christian institutions, which he accused of being insufficiently committed (or not at all) to the cause of ending slavery. 

Foster was a “Come Outer,” a term taken from a passage in II Corinthians 6:17 (“Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, said the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you,”).  As a Come-Outer, Foster advocated separating from churches that would not expel parishioners who refused to endorse immediate emancipation.

On September 17, 1841, as his wife’s biographer describes, Foster entered First Congregational Church in Concord for its Sunday service.  “Taking a seat with others of the congregation, he waited until the minister was about to begin his sermon.  Then he rose to announce in a mild, friendly voice that as a man and a Christian he wished to speak against slavery.  The astonished minister ordered him to sit down. When he continued to speak, three stalwart parishioners dragged him down the aisle and pushed him outdoors.”     

Foster would repeat his distinct form of ministry at other churches, including South Congregational in Concord, from which he was ejected twice on a single Sunday (June 12, 1842).  Several times he was roughed up or jailed.  In a letter published in 1842 in Herald of Freedom, an anti-slavery journal published in Concord, Foster recalled, “Within the last fifteen months four times have they opened their dismal cells for my reception. Twenty-four times have my countrymen dragged me from their temples of worship, and twice have they thrown me with great violence from the second story of their buildings, careless of consequences …Twice have they punished me with fines for preaching the gospel; and once in a mob of two thousand people have they deliberately attempted to murder me, and were only foiled in their designs after inflicting some twenty blows on my head, face and neck, by the heroism of a brave and noble woman.”

“Still, I will not complain,” Foster wrote, “though death should be found close on my track.  My lot is easy compared with those for whom I labor,” i.e., those who were enslaved.

His close friend, Parker Pillsbury, who accompanied Foster on lecture tours and shared his “Come Outer” ideology, would later write, “Mob violence was ever my aversion and dread, till deep in the midst of it. Brave old military heroes have often told me that they trembled at the outset, and till after the first few shots had been exchanged. Then there was no more fear. I could well understand them. But not so my friend Foster. He seemed ever cool and serene, before and through the fiercest encounters. Nor did any one ever see him exultant, in his most brilliant successes.”

Not as prolific a writer as Pillsbury, Foster contributed numerous articles to anti-slavery publications such as Herald of Freedom and published a book, The Brotherhood of Thieves; Or a True Picture of the American Church and Clergy, in which he enumerated his grievances with what he saw as Christian hypocrisy.

In 1845, Stephen Symonds Foster married Abby Kelley, another anti-slavery radical from Massachusetts, and moved with her to Worcester.  For the rest of their lives, Stephen and Abby were something of a power couple among New England radicals, advocating for an immediate end to slavery, full equality for people of African descent, and full equality for women.  Both of them were speakers at the founding convention of the NH Women’s Suffrage Association in Concord in 1868.   He died in Worcester on September 13, 1881.  She died six years later. 

Concord’s Feminist Health Center

“Women have always been healers,” wrote Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English in Witches Midwives and Healers, first published as a booklet in 1973.  By that time, the health care profession — or what we might already call the “health care industry” – was dominated by men, even in obstetrics and gynecology.  The role of women as health workers was to be subservient to male authority.  “We are told that our subservience is biologically ordained: women are inherently nurse-like and not doctor-like,” they observed.

Women were expected to be subservient as patients, too.  One big step in the transformation of women’s health care had already come with the first publication of Our Bodies, Ourselves by the Boston Women’s Health Collective in 1971.  As the publication and the information it contained spread through the underground (selling at a price of 30¢), women throughout the country soaked up its spirit and began to assert control of their bodies and their health in new ways.  New Hampshire was not left out.

With feminist ideas and ideals sweeping through the land, the 1973 legalization of women’s right to have abortions presented an opportunity to meet a long-understood need.  Within three months of the Roe v. Wade decision, women in Concord were laying the groundwork for a new venture:  a nonprofit health clinic, run by and for women, based on feminist principles, to provide safe abortions and gynecological care.

Born as NH Women’s Health Services, the center opened its doors at 38 South Main Street in Concord on October 19, 1974 with a vision to turn women’s health care upside down.  “The control here is with women, it is not with the doctors, which is different than in most medical facilities, or when you go to a private physician’s office,” said Joan Lovering, who served as the director.  “Here you know there is a certain philosophy behind the health clinic, and it is that women can determine their own health care needs and concerns and provide for them.  We hire only people who are willing to work with that concept.” 

The “certain philosophy” wasn’t just about health care in a narrow sense.  It was about establishing more of a peer-to-peer relationship between health care practitioners and the women who came for services.  But it was also about the relationship among the staff, where feminism implied an emphasis on egalitarianism.  For example, most of the staff had the title “health worker,” and received training to handle most of the center’s administrative and clinical functions, from serving as receptionists to prepping for procedures and providing counseling.  As long-time employee Jane Munson reflected, “Job specialization, aside from the necessary specialization of the medical professionals, was considered to be contrary to feminist principles.”  Two years into operation, they ditched the traditional non-profit structure, re-organized as a staff-run collective, and changed the name to “New Hampshire Feminist Health Center.”   

It was never just a clinic.  The staff formed a speakers bureau to spread the news about abortion, birth control, and reproductive health.  They started a newsletter, Womenwise. They helped launch other projects, including the NH Women’s Lobby, the NH chapter of the National Abortion Rights Action League, the NH Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, and Womankind Counseling.  With a demand for services higher than they could meet, the center spun off a sister clinic in Portsmouth in 1980, prompting the second name change to “Concord Feminist Health Center.” 

The center also faced intense and sometimes violent opposition, including arson, vandalism, and the injection of obnoxious smelling chemicals into the building.  Anti-abortion protests have been a regular occurrence, often coupled with verbal harassment of visitors and staff.  

The center’s egalitarian ideals ultimately presented another set of problems.  Full-day staff meetings with decisions made by consensus, were exhausting, especially as the staff grew to 20 or more women.  The election of 5 staff members to be “directors” with a higher level of responsibility for day-to-day management and a bit of additional pay imposed a level of hierarchy that infused the workplace with tension.  When several directors quit after a particularly intense conflict in 1983, the remaining staff established even flatter systems of organization and went through several organizational and management models to reconcile their commitments to equality with what it took to provide stable employment and services. 

In 2005 staff took the advice of their lawyer that it was time to return to a traditional nonprofit model, with a Board of Directors [that included 2 staff reps].  The following year they decided it was time to appoint an Executive Director.  

With the outside world changing, too, and women’s reproductive rights still under assault, nothing at the Center has been static.  As it says on the organization’s web page, “Over the 4 decades since we opened, our services expanded to include a wider range of reproductive health care. We also expanded the clients we serve to all people who need reproductive health care.”

In 2016, the Center adopted its 4th name, Equality Health Center, “to better reflect the organization’s broader healthcare commitment and give the public better insight to the recent expansion of services to men and the LGBTQ community.”  But the absence of the word “feminist” from the title does not mean a retreat from feminist principles.  As Dalia Vindunas, the current Executive Director says, we purposely chose the name ‘Equality’ because that is what feminism is all about – everyone being treated equally.”

For more information, visit Equality Health Center.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn’s Birthplace

“The Rebel Girl”

“Elizabeth Gurley Flynn-Paterson strike” by jimforest is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Is it not much better to even die fighting for something than to have lived an uneventful life, never gotten anything and leaving conditions the same or worse than they were and to have future generations go through the same misery and poverty and degradation?  The only people whose names are recorded in history are those who did something.  The peaceful and indifferent are forgotten; they never new the fighting joy of living.” 

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, from a 1917 speech

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was born in Concord on August 7, 1890 to radical parents Annie Gurley, a seamstress, and Thomas Flynn, a quarry worker, who were living at 12 Montgomery Street.  In 1895 they moved to Manchester, where Thomas was hired as a civil engineer.  By 1900, they were living in New York City, and by 1905, when she was 15 years old, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn had gained a reputation as a public speaker and radical agitator. 

She joined the Industrial Workers of the World in 1907 and established a national reputation based on public speaking tours that took her to the sites of strikes and organizing drives throughout the country, including IWW free speech campaigns in Missoula and Spokane and textile strikes in Lawrence and Paterson.  Criss-crossing the country, “Gurley” as she was often called, used her prodigious energy and oratorical skills to raise awareness and raise money in support of strikers and jailed unionists.  She was arrested multiple times, but never convicted of anything until she was over 60. 

As a campaigner for free speech and women’s equality, Flynn was among the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union at the time of the Palmer Raids.  She also formed to Workers Defense Union to support labor activists, especially immigrants, who were targeted for repression in the first U.S. “Red Scare.”  Flynn also campaigned actively for women’s rights, especially access to birth control. 

She joined the Communist Party in 1936 and was charged under the Smith Act in 1951, leading to a two-year prison term.  She died in Moscow in 1964.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn’s life has been extensively documented, celebrated, and featured in literature and song.  She wrote two memoirs, The Rebel Girl: An Autobiography, My First Life, and The Alderson Story: My Life as a Political Prisoner.  She has been the subject of biographies, Words on Fire: The Life and Writing of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, by Rosalyn Fraad Baxandall (Rutgers University Press, 1987) and Iron In Her Soul: Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and the American Left, by Helen C. Camp (Washington State University Press, 1995).

She corresponded with IWW song-writer Joe Hill during his imprisonment.  In a letter to her shortly before his execution, he said she was the inspiration for his song, “Rebel Girl.” 

An official NH Roadside Historical Marker was dedicated near her birthplace on May 1, 2023.  The marker quickly became a subject of controversy, not unlike the plaque honoring New Hampshire veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigades.  Two weeks later, on orders from Governor Chris Sununu, the marker was removed, an act which touched off more discussion about the Rebel Girl.  

Read blog post on the historical marker.

Dr. Willard Uphaus was one of the speakers at Elizabeth Gurley Flynn’s memorial service in New York. 

Cocheco “Mill Girls” Walk Off the Job in 1828

Cocheco Mills, 2020

When 400 young women walked out of the Cocheco Mills in Dover in 1828 to protest cuts in their already low wages, it was the first strike by women in the United States.  While the strike – which the workers called a “turn out” – was unsuccessful, their action heralded a generation of organizing by “mill girls” in the growing industrial cities throughout the region.

Like other textile mills early in the Industrial Revolution in New England, the workforce at Cocheco was made up largely of young women, often referred to as “mill girls.”  An 1822 employment ad published in a local paper said the company was looking for “smart, capable girls between 12 and 25 years of age to work in the factory to whom constant employment and good encouragement will be given.”  If by “constant employment” they meant 12-hour days and 6-day weeks, the ad was on the mark.  What they didn’t advertise were the conditions of labor.  According to an article published by the New England Historical Society, “The girls worked with only one break from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. They breathed noxious fumes and worked with noisy, dangerous machinery that mangled fingers and limbs.  Managers forbade the girls from talking to each other during the 11-hour day. They were paid in scrip and required to shop in the company store, which raised prices higher than other shops.”

Another historian writes, “The factory owners required the women to sign a work contract titled ‘Conditions on which help is hired by the Cocheco Manufacturing Company, Dover, New Hampshire,’ in which the women agreed to the rules of the company. These rules included the agreement to work for whatever wages the company saw fit to pay and proper deportment at all times.”

If factory managers, like those who managed apparel factories in the globalized economy of modern times, believed that young women would be compliant despite the conditions of their labor, they had another thing coming.

Living in company-owned and managed housing, girls chafed at their ill treatment, denial of educational opportunities, and the disrespect they suffered.  When ownership of the Cocheco Manufacturing Company changed hands in 1828 and the new owners tried to restrict conversations, speed up production, and lower women’s wages by five cents a day (without lowering men’s wages), the “girls” decided they had had enough.

Roughly half of the young women left their looms, walked out of the factory, and formed a procession that stretched for half a mile with the accompaniment of a marching band.  A local newspaper, siding with the mill owners, reported, “The whole presented one of the most disgusting scenes ever witnessed.”  Threatened with being replaced, most of the women went back to their jobs, possibly with the ban on talking lifted.  Other protests against toxic air quality in the factory followed.

Six years later, cuts in wages at mills throughout the region prompted another walkout.  Meeting at the local courthouse, the workers adopted a resolution stating they would not work for such low wages.  “We view with feelings of indignation the attempt made to throw upon us, who are least able to bear it, the effect of this ‘pressure’ by reducing our wages, while those of our overseers and Agent are continued to them at their former high rate. That we think of our wage already low enough, when the peculiar circumstances of our situation are considered; that we are many of us far from our homes, parents, and friends, and it is only by strict economy and untiring industry that any of us have been able to lay up anything,” they agreed.  Decrying the fortunes being amassed by mill owners from their exploited labor, they resolved, “We will neither be cajoled by flattery nor intimidated by threats.”

This job action, too, was probably unsuccessful in the short term.  But within a decade, women were organizing for the ten-hour day at mills throughout New England.


NH Sisters of Mercy

Given their origins among women who literally held classes “underground” to evade detection, the turn toward feminism, social activism, and internal democracy in the 1970s by the NH Sisters of Mercy should be no surprise. 

Winds of reform were blowing through the Catholic Church in the 1960s, reaching even into the Diocese of Manchester, where priests like Phil Kenney supported civil rights and anti-war activists like Dan Berrigan paid visits. Sister Angie Whidden, a NH Sister of Mercy who later was instrumental in creation of the New Horizons soup kitchen, was among those who heeded the call of Martin Luther King, Jr. to travel to Selma in 1965 after the police assault on marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the murder of the Rev. James Reeb.  (Msgr. Kenney was there, too.) 

The rising tide of feminism led New Hampshire Mercies to give up the habits of subservience to men as they gave up their traditional dress.  Sister Madonna Moran was elected President as the order shifted from hierarchical to democratic governance in 1972.  Susan Colwell further cemented ties to feminist activism through the Manchester YWCA, while Sister Eleanor Mullaley, who had been fired from her post at the State Prison, took up the cause of prison reform.  Sister Eleanor and Sister Eileen Brady joined the growing No Nukes movement, as did Sisters Rose McMahon and Bea Desmarais.  Sisters Eileen and Eleanor were among those arrested at the top of a construction crane at the Seabrook nuclear plant in 1978.  Several members studied in Cuernavaca, Mexico in 1978 as what would become known as “liberation theology” was spreading through the Latin American church. 

Not all the Mercy nuns had the same convictions, so they agreed to form two groups, Region 1 and Region 2 (having nothing to do with where in the state they lived or worked).  The activists were in Region 2.

By the 1980s, especially following the murder of four American nuns by right-wing death squads in El Salvador, the Region 2 Mercies plunged into the Central America solidarity movement and offered “sanctuary” to a Salvadoran man, his Guatemalan wife, and their three children at their house in Manchester.  Others supported nuclear disarmament, a growing cause during the Reagan years.  Like other actions – including Eileen Brady contributing a chapter to a book on “Lesbian Nuns” – their defiance of legal and ecclesiastical authority gained the disapproval of the state’s dominant newspaper.

Putting their money where their mouths were, the Sisters of Mercy stepped up with the first loan to the NH Community Loan Fund to finance the state’s first manufactured housing cooperative in 1984.  The story goes on.  Though their numbers are dwindling and the ages of the remaining members are climbing, the NH Sisters of Mercy are still showing up in movements to end the death penalty, provide affordable housing, liberate immigrants from prison, and insist that “Black Lives Matter.” 

Read more about the NH Sisters of Mercy.