In 1872 the adult male citizens of New Hampshire received from their government the right to vote for women candidates in local school board elections. It wasn’t an earth-shattering development, and the measure passed by with little attention paid to it. A few eyebrows were raised the following year when several citizens’ petitions for the right of women themselves to vote in school elections appeared before the legislature, but in 1878 this, too, passed into law. Between these two milestone years, women were elected to school committees in over twenty New Hampshire towns, a small but reassuring start to the larger woman’s suffrage movement.
Lucy Ellen Dow (1840-1896)
At the 1877 town meeting, Lucy Ellen Dow, daughter of retired school master and historian Joseph Dow, received the majority vote as Superintendent of the School Committee. She was elected to a second term the following year, but the new suffrage law giving women the right to vote in school elections was not enacted until August, five months too late for Lucy to cast a vote for herself.
In 1888, while helping her father with his monumental History of Hampton, Lucy wrote and published The Beautiful Place of Pines, a historical monograph of the town. Said to have been very popular at the time, it remains a fine piece of writing. After Joseph’s decease the following year, she finalized his work and in 1893 arranged for it to be published. But the undertaking had left her exhausted. Her friend Lucy Godfrey Marston once remarked that her life had been considerably shortened by the effort of completing the two-volume work.
At the time of publication, Lucy and her sister Maria, both single women, were living in Warren, Massachusetts, where Maria taught school. They sold the Dow family house in Hampton and traveled to Cleveland, Ohio to live with their brother Joseph Henry, a minor inventor and father of Herbert Henry, the young, soon-to-be founder of the Dow Chemical Company. Unfortunately, Lucy died before her entrepreneurial nephew had become an icon in the chemical industry.
Shortly before her death on January 21, 1896, Lucy conveyed to Maria her interest in their remaining Hampton properties. Both she and Maria, who went on to live with the Herbert Dow family in Midland, Michigan until her own passing, are buried in the Dow plot in Hampton’s High Street cemetery.
Elizabeth Butler Norris (1864-1939)
Nottingham, New Hampshire native Lizzie Norris was the second woman elected to office in Hampton, and the first to sit on the High School Board. She was the namesake of her great-grandmother Elizabeth Butler, the daughter of Revolutionary-era General Henry Butler, one of the “Four Generals” memorialized by the 16-foot-tall Minuteman monument in her hometown square. She lived with her family in Texas and North Hampton, and in 1882 graduated from Putnam Free School in Newburyport, Massachusetts.
In 1885, the year before the Norrises took up residence in Hampton with Lizzie’s aunt Laura Norris, a school teacher, the State replaced the local school districts and their superintending committees with a single, town-wide district overseen by a three-member School Board. Also that year the privately-held Hampton Academy merged with the public high school, giving Hampton an additional three-member board.
In 1887 Lizzie began her career as a Hampton grammar school teacher, and soon became the most highly paid teacher in the district. Pretty, popular, and smart, she made quite an impression on School Board Chairman Dr. William T. Merrill, who paid homage to her almost magical teaching abilities. “The degree of excellence our Grammar School has attained,” he declaimed, “is due to the experience, zeal, and ability of Miss Norris. Her earnest study had been to enlarge and make her work more fruitful. A systematic, thorough teacher, with dignity that commands love as well as respect, every word has a meaning which is perfectly understood and appreciated. We can but express our individual wishes that she may be induced to remain the teacher of the Grammar school for a long time.”
In 1891 Elizabeth was voted as a member of the high school board. Unlike Lucy, who had served the local schools for just two years before retiring to devote her time to other pursuits, she remained a board member for the next quarter century, and from 1911 until her retirement in 1915, served on both high school and school boards.
Elizabeth never married. After her retirement she traveled and spent time with her brother William’s family, becoming a director of his lumber company in Houston, Texas. She died in Portsmouth Hospital on November 22, 1939 and is buried in the High Street Cemetery.
Other Hampton ‘first’ ladies
1921—Library trustee, Sarah Hobbs Lane
1952—Town auditor, Wilma Toppan White
1953—Town clerk, Helen W. Hayden
1962—Tax collector, Hazel B. Coffin
1972—Selectman, Helen W. Hayden; State Representative, Ednapearl Flores Parr
1988—Town Moderator, Louisa K. Woodman
(Thanks to Hampton Historical Society vice president Karen Raynes for research assistance.)
Originally published in the Hampton Union, March 30, 2018.
History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. “Hampton History Matters,” a collection of new and previously published essays, is available at amazon.com and Marelli’s Market. Contact Cheryl at email@example.com or through her website lassitergang.com.