Organizing New Bedford: Women Who Mobilized Change

Look closely around New Bedford and you will see the countless ways women have mobilized residents of “The City that Lit the World” to create positive change. Trace the history of these movements through the stories of the women profiled in this tour. Learn about their legacies as individuals who were lighting the way to improve their communities.

We rarely have the opportunity to learn a city’s history through the perspectives of women. Until recently, the everyday lives and achievements of women have not been well documented or valued; they have been silenced or pushed to the margins. Since the mid-20th century, historians and public history institutions have increasingly worked to fix this, searching the records and highlighting stories of women and other marginalized populations. This tour brings long deserved attention to the work these women have done to make the city and region a better place.

As an international city known for its whaling fleet, textile mills, and fishing industry, New Bedford has long been full of diverse cultures and backgrounds. From its days hosting a large Quaker population, the city was seen by many as a tolerant and accepting place where someone could find a better life for themselves and their family. Established neighborhoods of French Canadian, African American, Portuguese, and Cape Verdean residents were just some of the communities that defined the city from the 18th-20th centuries. Today even more cultures make up New Bedford’s diverse landscape.

The women featured in this tour demonstrate how people have always found ways to improve their communities. These individuals are diverse in cultural heritage and expertise, and each used their experiences and passions to become involved in the causes that meant the most to them. They each struggled against impediments to women’s advancement. Often their leadership skills and influence developed in arenas that were deemed more acceptable for women, such as volunteer work or education. Their stories represent just a few instances of social activism in New Bedford and are noteworthy for their efforts to organize their peers in joining them. Some of the buildings in which these women lived or worked are no longer standing, but the spirit of their endeavors fill the streets.

The women featured were selected from New Bedford Whaling Museum’s initiative Lighting the Way: Historic Women of the SouthCoast. Since 2018, Lighting the Way has highlighted women from Massachusetts’s SouthCoast, a richly historic region stretching from Cape Cod to the Rhode Island border. Lighting the Way seeks “to explore the impact of historical women from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds throughout history” by “unearthing remarkable stories of women’s callings that required grit, tenacity, and enduring commitment to their families, careers and communities,” (www.historicwomensouthcoast.org). Lighting the Way invites people to learn about their local history through the stories of women, employing thought-provoking programs and a robust website with over 100 online profiles.

Firsts in Politics

With careers marked by a series of firsts in New Bedford politics, Rosalind Poll Brooker (1928-2016) and Rosemary Tierney (1932-2020) were trailblazers for women in law and politics. Rosalind, the first woman elected to the City Council, the first…

Lifting as She Climbed

Jennie Horne’s (1920-1998) influential career in social services was fueled by her idealism, her love of people, and a desire to contribute to her community in New Bedford. During a time in which information on how people of color could access social…

Organizing for Equality

Equality was the vision driving Elizabeth Carter Brooks’ (1867-1951) work as an educator, social activist, and architect. She wove these seemingly separate paths into a long life of advocacy for African Americans of New Bedford and beyond in a time…

Provider of Sweet Freedom

Confectioner and abolitionist Polly Johnson (1784-1871) specialized in sweets and provided safe lodging to freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad at her 21 Seventh Street home in New Bedford. She and her husband Nathan helped several formerly…

Standing Up for Worker's Rights

When 20,000 textile workers went on strike in the 1928 New Bedford Textile Workers Strike, 18-year-old factory worker Eulalia “Eula” Mendes (1910-2004) became a leader in her mill and community by encouraging Portuguese industrial migrant workers to…

Empowering Others Through Education

Recognizing that diversity is our strength, Mary Santos Barros (1923-2018) was a strong and tireless advocate for equal education for all, Cape Verdean advancement, and many other causes in New Bedford. She demonstrated how others can build an…
This tour is part of the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s Lighting the Way: Historic Women of the SouthCoast project. Tom Begley, Public History graduate student at UMASS Boston, curated the tour under the direction of Cathy Saunders, Lighting the Way Coordinator at the Whaling Museum. Lee Blake, Jan da Silva, Ann O’Leary, Jessica Ross, and Mary Smoyer served as advisors on the tour.

Lighting the Way: Historic Women of the SouthCoast, is an initiative of New Bedford Whaling Museum.