By Elise Couture-Stone
Editor’s Note: This piece marks our final contribution in celebration of Women’s History Month. You can learn more about the Nichols Family by visiting the Nichols House Museum or by visiting their website at http://www.nicholshousemuseum.org/
Tucked away in one of Boston’s most famous neighborhoods, stands a small, unassuming brick house. Federalist in architecture, the house is externally identical to its three immediate neighbors. But its contents and preservation are what set this house apart from its siblings. Brimming with objects from the late 17th to the mid-20th century, the house is Boston’s only women’s history museum.
The Nichols House Museum, at 55 Mount Vernon Street in Boston’s Beacon Hill, was the home of the Nichols family from 1855 to 1960. Visitors to the home today learn about the Nichols family, with particular emphasis on the three Nichols daughters, Rose, Marion, and Margaret. From adolescence to adulthood, these women embodied the reform movements of what we now call the Progressive Era. But how did the circumstances of these women’s upbringing and social setting contribute to their progressive roles?
What truly precipitated the sisters’ participation in political and professional vocations were the experiences and choices of their mother, Elizabeth. Elizabeth Fisher Homer Nichols, like most Victorian-era mothers of her social standing, existed in a bifurcated state defined by public subordination and private empowerment. Concepts of work and home life were blurred, and paid work outside the home was extremely rare. Women could not vote or hold property; instead, they were themselves the legal property of a male family member. Women during this period, like their mothers before them, were often forced to have to marry and re-marry after the death of a spouse because she could not survive economically on her own. While women maintained moral authority over the home and all things domestic, they met firm boundaries with respect to education and professional careers. This set of circumstances rendered women of Elizabeth Nichols generation domestically visible, but politically and legally invisible.
It was under these conditions, that a subculture of womanhood emerged. In the social realm of teas, sewing circles, and reading clubs, a set of values and rituals were adopted by women that emphasized enfranchisement and self-prioritization. Women who participated in social gatherings shared commonalities as mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, friends, and volunteers. A generation later, Progressive Era daughters, or “New Women” as they were called, used these woman-centric networks to transform once quiet social settings into dynamic forces for political change.
Elizabeth Nichols, the family matriarch, participated and hosted many such gatherings in her home on Beacon Hill. Elizabeth was at once a committed reformer, and raised her daughters to embrace the progressive ideals of universal civic engagement, but Elizabeth also raised her daughters in the Victorian social rituals of the past. Elizabeth encouraged her daughters to participate in benevolent organizations, however, we must draw a line between this passive, unpaid work and the active career engagement to come in later years.
The Nichols daughters, Rose, Marion, and Margaret, was keenly aware of their mother’s nascent civic engagement, as many social networking events took place in their own home. One particular engagement, a concert at the Nichols home, drew many contemporary luminaries like Isabella Stewart Gardner, Cleveland Amory the author, and Louise Homer the singer, along with prominent families like the Cabots, the Appletons, and the Stones. Events like these served as a training ground for Progressive Era daughters and arose from the Victorian ideals of the domestic-centric woman. The domestic salon served as a platform for women like the Nichols daughters to achieve expanded career opportunities and effect change on local, state, and national political strata. Like most “New Women” of the Progressive Era, however, it is important to recognize that the Nichols daughters’ experience was unique to their social and racial status, relative wealth, and the general encouragement of their father.
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Images from http://www.nicholshousemuseum.org/