Prompt and Helpful Service: The New England Deaconess Association and the 1920 Women’s Voter Registers
The New England Deaconess Hospital nurses and students joined the many other medical professionals and employees of Ward 14, covering today’s Longwood Medical Area, to claim their right to the vote.
By Anna Boyles
The New England Methodist-Episcopal Conference met in April of 1889 in Worcester, Massachusetts. Among the resolutions passed that year, one had a particularly lasting effect: the establishment of a deaconess' home and school in Boston. The role of deaconess, a non-ordained pastoral role, revived in Europe in the mid-1800s, and Lutherans, Methodists, and Anglicans all experimented with implementing the role among the women of their diocese. Lucy Rider Meyer is credited with bringing the deaconess movement to the U.S. and was instrumental in the Methodist-Episcopal Church’s recognition of the office of deaconess in 1888. Modeled after institutions that took root in the American midwest, the New England Deaconess Training School in Boston was designed to educate young women in Christian theology and prepare them for missionary and service work. While many of their courses focused on church history and Methodist theology, students were able enroll at other institutions. Starting in 1909, for instance, deaconess students took sociology classes at neighboring Simmons College. The new deaconesses made religious calls to the homes of the city’s working class and discovered adults and children suffering from debilitating illness and disease. Moved by these interactions, the women established a hospital to treat those unable to care for themselves. The New England Deaconess Hospital opened in Boston’s South End in 1896 before relocating to Pilgrim Road in today’s Fenway neighborhood.
Like other Protestant Christians of the early 20th century, many members of the Methodist-Episcopal Church were inspired by what was then called the Social Gospel movement. They supported progressive policies, such as labor and prison reform, abolition of alcohol, and women’s suffrage. Ordained Methodist-Episcopal minister and Boston University graduate Anna Howard Shaw, for example, served as president of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association from 1904 to 1915.
It should not be surprising, then, that when the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920, deaconesses and the nurses working at the Pilgrim Road hospital registered to vote in Boston in significant numbers. They lived primarily near the New England Deaconess Association properties in the South End and Fenway neighborhoods. The association operated the Deaconess’ Home at 691-693 Massachusetts Avenue in order to provide housing and community to deaconesses working in the city. It housed upwards of thirty women at times, and the Mary Eliza Project has located four women who registered to vote while living there.
Jennie J. Chisholm and Emma S. Anderson registered to vote together on August 30, 1920, less than two weeks after the ratification of the nineteenth amendment granted them the right to do so. They lived together at the New England Deaconess Home, and both worked as deaconesses in the Methodist-Episcopal Church. Aside from nursing, deaconesses like Chisholm and Anderson applied their Christian teachings to work as missionaries, teachers, settlement workers, and evangelical singers. Others assisted with the deaconesses’ Fresh Air Ministry, which provided the city’s working-class children with vacations to the country and to Cope Cod during the summer months. While most of the deaconesses identified in Boston’s voter registers were born in New England, Deaconess Emma S. Anderson was born in Sweden before she immigrated to the United States in the 1880s. Most of Boston’s immigrant women provided voting clerks with naturalization information belonging to their closest male relative, but Anderson was able to provide her own paperwork.
The largest group of women associated with the New England Deaconess Association we have located, however, is the nurses and students of the hospital. Their building at 175 Pilgrim Road served as both the hospital and the nurses’ home, and starting in 1913, students at the hospital were able to take courses from professors at Simmons College (now Simmons University). American Deaconess pioneer Lucy Rider Meyer commended the establishing of deaconess hospitals and teaching schools, seeing them as a fulfillment of God’s commandment not only to preach the Gospel but also to heal the sick. The New England Deaconess Hospital and Nurses’ Home housed over sixty female employees, and the Mary Eliza Project has calculated that nearly twenty percent of its residents registered to vote in 1920. One resident of 175 Pilgrim Road relayed her experience as a nursing student at the hospital in 1918:
“I had my first hard day and had been on two hours overtime . . . I have only one more
month of probation and if I am accepted, I shall go to Simmons [College] for four
months. I hope to live at the Stuart Club [young women’s boarding home] with Eleanor Taylor if the authorities here will allow me. The course at Simmons is very hard and they want us to where we shall have nothing to take our minds from our studies. The hospital work grows constantly more interesting and I love it more and more. The last three weeks have not been hard as I have been taking care of convalescent patients. Today I did dressings for the first time and I felt quite proud of myself until I was told to do one over, as I did not put on sufficient gauze.”
The New England Deaconess Hospital nurses and students joined the many other medical professionals and employees of Ward 14, covering today’s Longwood Medical Area, to claim their right to the vote. The New England Deaconess Hospital merged with the Beth Israel Hospital in 1996, and their legacy of caring for Boston’s sick continues on through the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
- Jenny Wiley Legath, Sanctified Sisters: A History of Protestant Deaconesses, (New York University Press, 2019)
- Lucy Rider Meyer, Deaconesses and their Work (1897), HathiTrust
- Orianna Harding, “History of Deaconess Work in Boston, Massachusetts,” 1945, Boston University School of Theology Archive
- Brinley Hineman,“‘Sisters Helping Sisters’: The Surprising Role Religion Played in the Women’s Suffrage Movement,” The Tennessean (2020):
Anna Boyles is a dual-degree student in History and Archives Management at Simmons University.
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- Published by: Archives and Records Management