The Women of the Present Century

Charles R. Weldon recently donated papers from his grandmother, Anna Elzade Noyes, to the Freeport Historical Society. The donation consisted of an interesting scrapbook of clippings related to Freeport that Anna apparently put together in the 1920s and’30s, along with copies of a few papers related to her graduation from Freeport High School in 1897. One of these is an essay, “The Women of the Present Century,” which she wrote to be read at her graduation. It opens with the following lines:

The women of the present century compared with those of the past, differ in a great many ways. Those of today have more advantages for getting an education, and good situations in life, than those of other times.

A 21st-century reader cannot help but be a bit startled by this statement. After all, in 1897 we were still more than two decades from women winning the right to vote. By today’s standards, there were not many doors open to women who wished to enter the workplace, and very few were found working in the sort of professional positions that men occupied.

Perhaps the phrase “by today’s standards” is one key to understanding the context of Anna’s essay. Certainly there were female teachers, urban working class women might be found in factories, and women living on farms generally made their own contributions to the family’s economic well-being. In fact, as early as 1870, according to the US Census, women made up just under 15% of the total work force. One-third of factory workers were women, and two-thirds of teachers were female. According to figures from 1890, women made up just over 17% of the total work force, a modest increase over the twenty year period. Is this as a small number, given the fact that women make up roughly half of the population, or a large number, given the social reality of the times?

For Anna, it seems, the answer to that question was quite clear. She saw gains that women made during the latter part of the 19th century, and viewed these advances as examples to follow. According to Anna it was “no longer unusual for women to study law,” and she wrote that “we ought to know especially about the women of business, because they encourage others [to succeed] … Many think that women who are thrown upon their own resources are not practical, and that they waste their time over visionary schemes.”

She cites the Women’s Christian Temperance Union as a way that women were having an impact on society, and points out that “it is exceedingly difficult for these young women, partaking of the benefits and pleasures of such organizations, to realize that there was a time when organization among women was a thing unknown, and that it was even debated, on whether a woman had a right to give her opinion, or be heard.” She admired Miss Frances Willard, president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, for the “long weary struggle” she endured before her effort met with success.

Anna was writing in 1897, at a time when the suffragette movement had been active for decades, and would continue to be so for several more decades. On the subject of voting rights for women, she commented that “it is hoped that the time will come when they may have that privilege,” and she expressed an optimistic attitude for the future, ending her essay by saying “let us hope in years to come that there will be a constant improvement in the line of woman’s work, and that her influence may be felt in a way that will be a help to others.”

In 1900, three years after graduating from Freeport high School, Anna was married to William A. Noyes in Portland. Although it would take some time, she lived to be able to vote, and see some of the changes she hoped for in her high school essay. She died in Plainville, Connecticut in 1951, survived by her husband, two children, and four grandchildren, in addition to two sisters and a number of nieces and nephews. In addition to raising a family, she had lived up to her ideals of service, having been a member of the Plainville Grange for 25 years, serving as the organization’s Chaplain for 22 of those years, as well as being a member of the order of the Eastern Star.