Women’s History Month | Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford

Walk down nearly any lane in Nantucket, past nearly every home or public building and you are likely to stumble onto a site important to women’s history. This month, we’re taking a closer look at some of the buildings where dreams of equality were first fostered.

5 New Street, Siasconset: Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford

5 New Street Siasconset, 1910s, courtesy Nantucket Historical Association.

“That I have been successful as a preacher is largely owing to the fact of my Quaker birth, and my early education on the island of Nantucket, where women preach and men are useful at washing day and neither feel themselves out of place.”

-Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford, 1869

Born in 1829 on Nantucket (or ‘Sconset, sources differ, and only to Nantucketers would there be such a distinction) to George W. Coffin and Phebe Ann Barnard, Phebe Ann Coffin would one day become the first woman ordained as a minister in Massachusetts, and the third woman minister in the country.

Phebe’s father, George W. Coffin, purchased a house in ‘Sconset on the bank near the gulley from Ichabod Aldridge for $30. In 1841, the house was removed from the bank during the October gale and set up on it’s present location on New Street. The house, called “Seldom Inn” by the 1910s, was added to over the years and eventually became the site of many summer vacations.

Phebe’s marriage to homeopathic physician Joseph A. Hanaford would eventually take her away from Nantucket, but the educational foundation she had built in ‘Sconset would follow her throughout New England.

During the Civil War, Phebe became an active abolitionist and suffragist, preaching and writing on the subjects. During the late 1860s, Phebe joined the Universalist Church of America, editing periodicals and studying to become a minister.

1868 marked an important turning point in Phebe’s life. She was ordained as the first Unitarian woman minister in Massachusetts, and she separated from her husband.

Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford, courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.

Her ministry took her all over the northeast. Controversy regarding her commitment to women’s rights and unorthodox personal life resulted in the loss of her New Jersey pulpit. No matter; Phebe started another church in the same town. Phebe and her partner Ellen Miles lived together for 44 years, separated only by Ellen’s death in 1914.

Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford died in 1921. Her childhood home still stands. Perhaps she would have enjoyed the name Seldom Inn, as her talents took her far from Nantucket’s shores.