ELLSWORTH — She strode to the podium with a purpose, her hair pulled back tightly and her written remarks in her hand, a large crowd filling the room in front of her and spilling out on to the sidewalk.
Such was the scene at Whiting Hall in Ellsworth 160 years ago when Susan B. Anthony — activist, reformer and suffragist — took the stage to speak on the “Rights and Position of Woman” in early 1857.
There is no transcript of what Anthony said in her talk here, but The Ellsworth American said at the time that her lecture “was listened to with the most marked attention and interest.” The paper hailed it as “an intellectual effort” that was “satisfactory to both those who liked her position and arguments as to those who dissented.”
“It was fruitful in ideas and suggestions, and we doubt not, many a woman — and man, too, for that matter — went home that night with germs of more active thought in their heads than had gathered there for 12 months before,” the paper concluded.
That Anthony was in Ellsworth in 1857, less than a decade after the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., and more than 60 years before women got the right to vote in the United States, is impressive in and of itself.
Perhaps as impressive, though, is the story of one of the local women who arranged her visit: Ann Frances Greely, a businesswoman, church leader, student of medicine and active in many social causes.
“She was a mover and a shaker,” said Surry resident and historian Wayne Smith, regarding Greely. “She was sharp. She was shrewd. She really knew business.”
Born Ann Jarvis in 1831, Greely bought a Main Street millinery store and dry goods business at the age of 20, two years before she married Everard Greely. Historian Herbert Silsby II wrote that buying the business in 1851 made Ann Greely “Ellsworth’s pioneer business and one, at least, of the first women in Maine to engage in business.”
Silsby speculated it was Greely who, under the name “Qui Est,” wrote letters to The American prior to Anthony’s visit and sparred with a letter writer who identified himself as “Ichabod Willoughby” and scoffed at the women’s rights movement.
“Probably there has never been a movement started from which there is so little to fear; its very ludicrousness renders it perfectly harmless and its incompatibility with common sense will finally give it its death blow,” Ichabod predicted.
Greely, under the “Qui Est” name, began by sarcastically asking if Ichabod’s mouth had “regained its original dimensions after the convulsions of mirth into which he was thrown while contemplating the ‘ridiculous’ and ‘funny’ spectacle of the female lecturer.”
Rebutting an assertion by Ichabod that the women’s rights movement was made up of old maids, Greely retorted, “Why, the ladies interested in this movement are in such demand that they can’t stop to be old maids.” She encouraged him to attend Anthony’s lecture to learn more.
Anthony was one of several lecturers Greely helped bring to Ellsworth in 1857, along with the prominent abolitionist Wendell Phillips and feminist writer and reformer Caroline Healy Dall. Gouldsboro resident Charlotte Hill, who gave music lessons in the area, worked with Greely on the lecture series but was reportedly advised against it by community members who saw it as nothing but trouble.
“Very well,” Hill is said to have replied, “I shall maintain my principles, and if you break up my classes, I can go back to the sea-shore and dig clams for a living as I have done before.”
Greely was also one of three women, along with Kate Dyer and Fanny Otis, who helped revive the Unitarian movement in Ellsworth in the 1860s. Smith said she was also a principal in getting a Unitarian church built in Ellsworth. The structure, which stood on upper Main Street, was dedicated in August of 1867, when Greely was eight months pregnant.
Smith said the second floor above Greely’s Main Street store was a hive of activity where meetings often took place. It was there, for example, that a vote was held in 1875 to raise the church and put a vestry underneath it.
Greely was also one of the women involved with the circulating library in Ellsworth, which Silsby wrote went on to become the Ellsworth Public Library.
Active in the anti-slavery movement before the Civil War and in the temperance movement for many years, Greely remained committed to the women’s rights movement throughout her life. In the 1870s, along with three of her sisters and several other women, Greely signed a letter of protest to Ellsworth’s assessors “against being taxed for support of laws that we have no voice in making.”
“We therefore protest against being taxed until we are allowed the rights of citizens,” the women concluded.
Later in life, Greely gathered signatures on petitions pressing for women to get the right to vote in municipal elections in Maine. She studied medicine for many years and in 1895 received a certificate to practice under a special act of the Legislature.
Greely died in 1914, six years before the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote across the nation was ratified. An obituary in The Christian Register said many “liked to ‘give and take’ with her, generally with more take than give, for she had not only clear and well-seasoned opinions, but a strong mind, a vigorous vocabulary and a quick wit.”
Recalling her work as a suffragist, an obituary for Greely in The Ellsworth American said her “allegiance to a cause was not that of the passive kind; what she gave her heart to she gave her hand to.”