The Nantucket Women of Winter
I have made up my mind now to be a sailor’s wife,
To have a purse full of money and a very easy life,
For a clever sailor husband is so seldom at his home,
That his wife can spend the dollars with a will that’s all her own,
Then I’ll haste to wed a sailor and send him off to sea,
For a life of independence is the pleasant life for me.
--The Nantucket Girl’s Song--1855
Women who winter in Nantucket are hardy, independent, and creative. The other night I attended an amazing get together of the Women of Winter in Nantucket. One hundred and twenty-five women were invited, and each and every woman there was impressive. These women were painters, writers, film makers, dancers, photographers, singers, actors, educators, mothers, grandmothers, farmers, musicians, designers, academics, gardeners, equestrians, and entrepreneurs. Some were married, some were single, and some were widows. Some were young and many were older. I was amazed by the breadth and depth of these women—and they represented only a fraction of the amazing women on this Island.
Winter on Nantucket is a very special time. It is a time when the world slows down and people get together and socialize. We have book clubs with champagne and caviar, and we have book clubs with only intellectual sustenance. We have gourmet pot luck dinners and pot luck dinners with mac and cheese and chicken from the Stop and Shop. There are a host of One-Book-One Island events, lots of classes to take and teach, arts and crafts and quilting groups, groups that play games together, friends who attend movies and live streaming productions at the Dreamland, music events, and impromptu invitations to a host of events. Nantucket is the only place I have ever lived where someone called one night at almost 8:00 and said they had just made a great dinner—could I come. I did. In the winter there is time to walk and talk and really get to know each other. A dinner party may consist of people from all walks of life—a sushi chef, a CEO, an artist, a teacher, a yoga instructor, a carpenter, a farmer, and a house keeper. Economic and social barriers melt away and people come together to support each other. Many (maybe most) of the people I know—the women of winter—prefer winter to summer. In fact, there are even people who winter in Nantucket and go away for the summer!
There is a strong history and tradition of independent, talented women on Nantucket. Long before Bartholomew Gosnold, commander of the Concord, first sighted and charted Nantucket's location on his way to Virginia, Wampanoag Indian women had already established a tradition of strong women that has persisted to this day. These women hunted, fished, herded sheep, and grew crops. They raised children, created art, and supported each other. By 1700, English and Native American women interacted and helped each other to survive in this often harsh climate.
By the 1690’s Nantucket had already turned to whaling, and by 1715 Nantucket had became a community composed largely of women often known as “Cape Horn widows” because their husbands might be gone for as many as eight years and they might not return at all. In Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab tells his first mate, Starbuck, that of the past forty years of “making war on the horrors of the deep,” he had only been ashore for three years, leaving only “one dent in [his] marriage pillow.” His wife, he said, was “a widow with her husband alive.” So the winter women of Nantucket ran the homes, took care of the children, and ran the Island. They were entrepreneurs, scientists and economic, spiritual, and political leaders. They valued art and music. Once the men left, many women imported pianos and other instruments to make music a larger part of their lives. They were pioneers in creating a society that was open and supportive of all people. When their men were away, they found ways to compensate in both the private and the public spheres. They defied the established rules of society, and they refused to be limited by the popular conventions of what it meant to be a “proper” Victorian woman. In 1773, Susan Colesworthy of Boston moved to Nantucket where she openly bore a daughter Persis. Susan was not married, and she never married, yet she played an important role in Nantucket society. With men away for so long, women satisfied themselves with an object called a “he’s at home,” which they often hid in the chimney. Already it was clear that Nantucket was a place where women defied the mores and conventions of the rest of the world—and did so openly and proudly.
An early Nantucket woman walked the streets of Nantucket far more often than she walked the “widow’s walk.” She worked outside the home as well as in it. In the time of the Victorian “Angel in the house,” the Nantucket Winter Woman defied this image. She settled accounts, provided for her family, insured cargo, and paid taxes. On “Petticoat Row,” (located on Centre Street between Main and Broad) as well as on other parts of the Island, women established and ran businesses.
Social activists who were well ahead of their time, these Winter Women were important players in the abolitionist movement, human rights, and social reform. The first Anti-Slavery Convention was held in Nantucket in 1841 led by Anna Gardner. Lucretia Coffin Mott was an abolitionist, a women's rights activist, and a social reformer, who helped write the Declaration of Sentiments at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, which included a demand for women’s suffrage. In 1847, Eunice Ross and Phoebe Ann Boston took action to integrate the Nantucket high school—more than a century before this happened in the rest of America. The well-known astronomer Maria Mitchell was born on Nantucket and learned about the stars from her father. At the age of thirty, she discovered a comet and she later became the first female professor of astronomy in the United States.
In the 1930s two sisters from Philadelphia—Gertrude and Hanna Monaghan—settled in Nantucket where they built a home known as Greater Light. They were artists who painted, acted, and wrote. Preferring to put their art first, both sisters chose to never marry. Today Beverly Hall frequently becomes Hannah Monaghan and gives a performance at Greater Light. The art and sprit these sisters brought to Nantucket is very much alive today in women like Beverly, who is an artist, a photographer, a writer, a philanthropist, and a spiritual leader. She feels deeply connected to Hannah. They are soul sisters separated only by a century.
I could spend pages on the strong, active, and talented Winter Women of Nantucket—both those who lived here in the past and those who winter on Nantucket today. The Island beckons to and draws women of this elk. So if you find yourself reluctant to leave one September, and if you just happen to decide to stay, you are no doubt a Nantucket Woman of Winter who will become part of this incredible group of women. No doubt, you too will be attending the Women of Winter pot luck dinner next year with a little blue star on your name tag indicating that this is your first full winter on the Island—but that it will not be your last.
This is Pat Jones' first year living full time on Nantucket. After decades of teaching English at the high school and college level, she is now embarking on a new and challenging odyssey. Both retirement and Island life are new and exciting and occasionally daunting. In this column she will share what it is like to live on Nantucket year round. As a poet, a writer, and a novice visual artist, her metaphor for the journey is “Throwing Paint.”