Most girls living in the mid-19th century were raised to be homemakers. Duties included caring for their husbands and children, cleaning the house and preparing meals. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, daughter of distinguished Professor Austin Phelps, chairman of Rhetoric and Homiletics at the Andover Theological Seminary, led a much different lifestyle than most women during this time period.
Elizabeth was born Mary Gray Phelps on Aug. 31, 1844 and was the eldest child and only daughter in her family. Her mother passed away from birth complications when Mary was 8 and from then on she decided to take her mother's name, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps. (Mrs. Phelps was an author in her own right, completing the Kitty Brown books under the pen name H. Trusta.) The Phelps family resided on 189 Main St. on Andover Hill.
Phelps' father encouraged her studies, particularly her writing. Her first piece of work was published in "Youths' Companion" when she was just 13 years old. Growing up, Phelps attended Abbot Female Seminary and later Mrs. Edwards School in Andover, conducted by a faculty wife. Throughout her life, she authored 57 books, including fiction for children, poetry, and numerous essays on women's issues.
At the age of 19 Phelps left school and did reform work, which encompassed teaching the children from factory families employed by the Smith and Dove Manufacturing Co. She also worked with tenement dwellers, which helped inspire her lifelong commitment to improving conditions for the working class.
In 1869, when Phelps was 24, her first book was published, in which she offered a comforting view of the afterlife to women who had lost loved ones in the Civil War. This debut novel, The Gates Ajar, brought her literary fame overnight. In 1886, another book, The Madonna of the Tubs, was published, adding to her growing reputation. A later novella, Loveliness, espoused animal rights. In 1896 Phelps published her autobiography, Chapters from a Life, which had been serialized in McClure's Magazine.
Phelps was also known for challenging the notion that a woman's place was in the home, believing that women's intellectual potential disappeared in domestic pursuits. She had many radical ideas, such as believing it was a woman's right to keep her own name after marriage and believing that women could be financially independent through equal rights, including equal pay. She was also involved in clothing reform for women, urging them in 1874 to burn their corsets.
When Phelps was 44 years old she shocked family and friends by marrying Herbert Dickinson Ward, her editor's son and a journalist who was 17 years younger. Phelps had known Ward since his childhood. The two were married by Elizabeth's brother, the Rev. Lawrence Phelps, at her Gloucester cottage. Unfortunately, their marriage was an unhappy one. Dickinson was a wanderer and more interested in his mineral collection and going to yachting parties with his young friends than being around his famous wife.
In 1911 Phelps became gravely ill, and died on Jan. 28 of that year. She carefully planned her funeral in advance, which was held on Feb. 1, 1911 at First Baptist Church in Newton Center. Her brother Lawrence conducted the service and her ashes were buried at a Newton Cemetery.
Her last novel, Comrades, was published posthumously.
"Andover Stories" is a weekly column about interesting local people and events, told in anticipation of the Andover Historical Society's 100 anniversary in 2011.