Women have helped to shape the thread of Salem, MA over the centuries with abolitionists like Charlotte Forten, innovators like Mary Spencer, and community leaders and stewards like Caroline Emmerton leading the way. This year for Women’s History Month we are taking the time to shine the spotlight on some of these remarkable women. To learn more, read our blog below.
Mary Spencer (1759- 1835) created the gibraltar using only a barrel of sugar given to her by some of her neighbors on Buffum Street in 1806. She first sold these candies on the steps of First Church until she opened what is now Ye Olde Pepper Candy Companie. She also was an abolitionist and transported escaped slaves in her wagon as she sold candy from town to town.
Caroline Emmerton (1866 – 1942) was dedicated to preserving Salem’s history through saving threatened buildings. She purchased The House of the Seven Gables, turned it into a museum, and used the profits from the museum to fund her Settlement House, which provided training for immigrant girls, boys, and adults. She also purchased and restored the Turner-Ingersoll mansion, The Hooper-Hathaway House, and The Retire Becket House, all of which have been moved to The House of the Seven Gables site. Today, The House of the Seven Gables’ campus constitutes its own national historic district on The National Register of Historic Places.
Charlotte Forten Grimké
Charlotte Forten Grimké (1837-1914) was Salem State University’s first African American graduate as a part of the class of 1856. For 65 years Charlotte was a tireless advocate for the end of slavery; equality for women and people of color; and education for all. During her life, she was an abolitionist, educator, writer, poet, translator, and women’s rights activist.
The Peabody Sisters
Elizabeth Peabody (1804-1894) opened the first kindergarten in the United States. She was a writer, prominent figure in the Transcendentalist movement, and considered to be the first female book publisher in America. In 1849 she published a single issue of a “Transcendentalist journal, Aesthetic Papers” which contained, among other essays, Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.” One of her two sisters, Sophia (1809-1871), was a prolific painter who donated works to be sold to benefit charities and was the wife of Nathaniel Hawthorne, her younger sister, Mary (1806-1887) was active in various reform movements including women’s suffrage, world peace, and Native American rights. She was also the wife of Horace Mann.
Bessie Phillips (1907-1971) established the Stephen Phillips Memorial Trust House as a museum to be enjoyed by all, which today is part of Historic New England and the only home on Chestnut Street that is open to the public. The Stephen Phillips Memorial Preserve Trust still does significant work including maintaining The Stephen Phillips Memorial Scholarship Fund which provides renewable, four-year scholarships to students with financial need who display academic achievement, a commitment to serving others (in school, their community, or at home), a strong work ethic, and leadership qualities.
Sarah Parker Remond
Sarah Parker Remond (1826-1894) was a free-born African American lecturer, abolitionist and physician who was born in Salem. From 1856 to 1861, she toured the east coast as well as England, Ireland, and Scotland giving anti-slavery and women’s rights lectures. In 1866, Remond was among the 1500 women, and possibly the only black woman, who signed the first women’s suffrage petition in Great Britain.
Mary Curtis-Verna (1921-2009) Born in Salem MA in 1921, Mary Curtis-Verna represents Salem’s connection to opera. While in Salem, she volunteered at the Salem Hospital Aid Association and went on to graduate from Salem High School before moving to New York to attend Julliard School of Music. Her first starring role as an opera singer came in Milan Italy, when she played the role of Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello. She then went on to perform at the Boston Opera House and with the New York Metropolitan Opera. She returned to Salem in 1954 to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the First Church with her performance in a concert, performing at the same place that she had attended throughout her childhood. In 1957 she again came back to Salem to perform a benefit concert for Salem Hospital. (Photo by the Metropolitan Opera Archives)
Colonel Cheryl Lussier Poppe
Colonel Cheryl Lussier Poppe is a Salem resident, who during 30 years of service in the National Guard, spent 13 years on active duty in which she served a variety of roles including working before reaching the rank of Colonel. She retired from the National Guard in 2008. She spent 12 years continuing her work advocating for Veterans from within the Department of Veterans’ Services; the mission of which is to advocate on behalf of the over 300,000 Veterans in the Commonwealth and their families. In 2020, she was appointed Secretary for the Department of Veterans’ Services by Governor Charlie Baker. She is still serving in this role.
Kim Driscoll has been an active member of Salem’s community since 1986 when she graduated from Salem State University. Driscoll is currently serving as the 73rd lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. A member of the Democratic Party, Driscoll previously served as the 50th mayor of Salem from 2006 to 2023. Before becoming mayor, Driscoll served as an elected member of the Salem City Council. The Current Salem City Council is made up of a group of empowered and capable women with current serving members including Alice Merkl Councillor at Large, Caroline E. Watson-Felt Ward 2 Councillor, Patricia Morsillo Ward 3 Councillor, and Megan Stott Councillor Ward 6 and City Council President.
For more information on the historic women of Salem, explore the Salem Heritage Trail.