THIS ARTICLE IS PART OF A SERIES IN THE DAILY TIMES CHRONICLE FOR READING’S 375TH ANNIVERSARY HISTORICAL ESSAY PROJECT.
By Virginia Adams
As Reading was being settled in the mid-1600s, women’s roles were clearly defined by the mores of the time. Women were denied the right to own property and sometimes were considered property themselves. The right to vote was more than 200 years into the future. Women were generally bound to the household by multiple pregnancies, child rearing, and innumerable household chores.
The most common causes of death for women were childbirth and fatal burns resulting from fire igniting their clothing. Women tended fires within the typical huge cooking fireplaces found in early central chimney houses. Their clothing reached the floor and was subject to ignition from the coals that lay on the firebox floor when they reached into the cooking area. The “home fires” were often a death trap.
The necessity of a large brood of children was driven by the need for a labor force to sustain a farm. Thomas Bancroft (the 4th) of West St. and his wife had eight children, which was typical for the mid – 1700’s. Although rarely acknowledged, the family’s survival and success was likely based on the lady of the house.
In the 1790s, towns were obliged to provide schooling to be in compliance with a Legislative law. Reading voted to hold sessions of English school and grammar school at its two schoolhouses, simultaneously voting not to raise any funds to hire school dames. The male dominance of schoolmasters ended in 1793; women were employed and on the pay roles thereafter. (Eaton’s, Genealogical History) At last, women had found a source of paid employment.
Little recorded history remains from the settlement days depicting the life of women in Reading. However, one can see and sense what pioneer life was like while visiting the c. 1694 Parker Tavern House Museum on Washington St. The tools and furniture of household life before the age of smart homes, tap water and electricity are a window to the bygone days of self-sufficiency through physical labor.
The roles of women did advance as the decades passed. They formed early social movements and societies which led to leaders extending their attitudes and efforts beyond Reading’s borders. Clara Gowing, who impacted local and national history with her achievements, is a fine example.
Though not born in Reading, Clara lived much of her life here and is buried in lovely Laurel Hill Cemetery. Her obituary in the July 1922 issue of the Reading Chronicle announces “Death Claims Reading’s Oldest Woman” “Miss Clara Gowing Passed Away, Wednesday, Aged 90 – Was First Reading Woman to Vote – Always Active in Temperance Work”…..sympathetic messages poured into her late home.
The obituary provides clues pertaining to Miss Gowing’s life and vocations that took her to the new frontier of westward expansion in the late 1850s to serving as a teacher in the south after the Civil War as well as writing poetry and literature.
Born in Charlestown, MA on May 22, 1832, Clara’s youth involved growing up in Concord. She was a contemporary of Louisa May Alcott and knew the Alcott family well enough to later write a book entitled “The Alcott’s As I Knew Them.” The full text of this delightful book can be found online!
In 1859, at the age of 27, Clara traveled westward to teach Indian children at a Baptist Mission school in the north-east area of Kansas. She was likely inspired to follow John G. Pratt and his wife, Olivia Evans after their marriage in Reading sometime earlier. Writings by Clara Gowing of her five years as an educator to the Delaware Native Americans are held in the State of Kansas Historical Collection.
After the War of the Rebellion (known now as the Civil War) ended, Clara chose to go to Tennessee and for several years teaching children of color in three communities, including Nashville, where, because of the War, it had recently become legal to do so.
Her parents moved to Reading in 1867 and settled in a small home that still stands on Salem Street, near the town’s center. The address is #33 and it was Clara’s home for the next fifty-five years. The house is a physical reminder and tribute to the Gowing’s and to Clara in particular.
Her years in Reading were fruitful as she devoted energy to the temperance movement and was chairwoman of the local Women’s Christian Temperance Union for over 10 years. She was also an active worker for the suffrage cause and took pride in the fact that she was the first woman in Reading to vote both in the primary and in the following presidential election to help elect President Harding. Miss Gowing was one of the first year members of the Reading Women’s Club and member of the First Baptist Church.
A collection of poems was published in 1899 under the title of My Chest: or Ransacking.
Many of the poems are about Reading, Clara’s friends, and local issues of the time.
It was reprinted in 2007 from the publisher’s scarce antique collection. A digitized version of the original publication can be viewed online.
From poetess to missionary teaching, to educating the underprivileged, to attaining the women’s right to vote, Clara Gowing left her mark on America, and lucky is Reading that her final efforts were focused here
Please look forward to my future essays about other notable Reading women.
Virginia Adams is a lifetime resident of Reading and has served on the Reading Historical Commission since it was formed in 1978. She was the recent recipient of the Massachusetts Historical Commission’s Local Preservationist Award.