Where they had their day

All around are the legacies of 10 women whose powers and pens influenced history

By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / May 9, 2010

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We New Englanders pride ourselves on being ahead of the curve, so it’s no surprise that Boston socialite and social reformer Julia Ward Howe first declared a “Mother’s Day for Peace’’ in 1870, a full 44 years before President Wilson issued the first national Mother’s Day proclamation. The holiday is a good excuse to celebrate strong women such as Howe who are part of our New England heritage. Here in Boston you might want to visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the Mary Baker Eddy Library, which continue the work of two Howe contemporaries. Or you can hit the road to admire the accomplishments of these 10 other inspirational New England women.

Adams National Historical Park
Abigail Adams was the great woman behind two great presidential men: husband John Adams and son John Quincy Adams. Insightful and intellectual, Abigail shaped John’s vision of the new nation and raised her son with an abiding sense of social and civic responsibility. Learn her tale on visits to three Adams family homes in erstwhile rural Braintree (before Quincy broke away). While John was in Philadelphia writing founding documents, she ran the farm, kept him posted on military skirmishes, and dragged John Quincy to a nearby hilltop to watch the far-off Battle of Bunker Hill. Check the side garden of the “Old House’’ for the York rosebush Abigail brought back from England in 1788. 1250 Hancock St., Quincy, 617-770-1175, Adults $5, under age 16 free. Annual pass for up to four adults $10.

Emily Dickinson Museum
Were she around today, the “belle of Amherst’’ would probably eschew Twitter and gaze on Facebook with horror. “To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else,’’ she wrote, and to a great extent “anything else’’ included even leaving the Homestead where she was born and spent most of her life (1830-86). The museum includes the adjacent Evergreens, where Dickinson’s relatives lived well into the 20th century, but the Homestead is more evocative of one of the most startling poets in English. Her re-created bedroom conjures her delicate spirit, while the dining room exhibit chronicles how her so private poetry would become some of the country’s greatest verse. 280 Main St., Amherst, 413-542-8161, Ninety-minute tour of Evergreens and Homestead adults $10, seniors, college students $9, ages 6-17 $5, under 6, Five Colleges students free. Forty-minute tour of Homestead $1 less.

Orchard House
If you’re among the millions of fans of “Little Women,’’ you might feel you don’t even need a guide at the Orchard House, the book’s thinly veiled setting. The Alcott family lived here from 1858-77, and the building is little changed. Moreover, most of the furnishings belonged to them. But the guides bring this quirky clan to life, and seeing details like Louisa May’s granite writing desk strips away the fictional veneer from an altogether remarkable life. 399 Lexington Road, Concord, 978-369-4118, Adults $9, seniors and college students $8, ages 6-17 $5, 6 and under free.

The Mount
Never let it be said that Edith Wharton lacked vision. In 1897 she coauthored “The Decoration of Houses,’’ and five years later had this majestic classical revival home built to put her principles into practice. Thanks to the Edith Wharton Restoration, The Mount remains the best expression of Wharton’s architectural and gardening interests. It is also a literary and cultural center where it is surprisingly easy to channel the sharp-tongued author of the “House of Mirth’’ (which she wrote here) and “The Age of Innocence.’’ Having made her point by building The Mount, Wharton left the house for Paris in 1911. “Life is always a tightrope or a feather bed,’’ she wrote. “Give me the tightrope.’’ 2 Plunkett St., Lenox, 413-551-5111, Adults $16, college students $13, 18 and under free.

Patrick J. Mogan Cultural Center
Pause in the Lowell National Historical Park’s grand account of America’s Industrial Revolution to see the exhibits in this red brick former boardinghouse of the Boott Mill. “Mill Girls and Immigrants’’ puts a human face on progress. See a sample bedroom where the daughters of yeoman farmers — recruited as the initial workforce of the textile mills — slept two to a bed. Their dining room turned into a parlor after dinner where the girls socialized if they weren’t attending lectures and other educational activities. A voiceover narration on the second floor uses some of their own words to describe the life, and displays some of their belongings. Some “mill girls’’ went back to the farm with dowry money after a year or two, while others stayed on to join the nation’s working women. 40 French St., Lowell, 978-970-5000, Free.

Harriet Beecher Stowe Center
Who knew that the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin’’ was also a domestic diva? Through May, tours of her house focus on “The American Woman’s Home,’’ the homemaking guide that she and her sister Catherine published in 1869. Radicals by nature and nurture, the sisters sought to legitimize housewifery as a recognized profession, and the tour of Stowe’s 4,500-square-foot “cottage’’ lets you see her ideas in practice. Stowe’s reformist impulses also made her wealthy when “Uncle Tom’s Cabin’’ became an international bestseller. The center is free on June 12, Stowe’s birthday, and summer tours also include the extensive gardens. 77 Forest St., Hartford, 860-552-9258, Adults $9, seniors and students $8, ages 5-16 $6, under 5 free.

Florence Griswold Museum
Florence Griswold was landlady to the stars — the stars of American Impressionism, that is. More than a century ago, she opened her family home as a boardinghouse to artists seeking a country retreat on the Connecticut coast. Without Miss Florence, there would not have been the influential Lyme Art Colony. Some of the early artists left painted panels in lieu of rent inside the Griswold home. The house is the centerpiece of a broader museum that continues to explore the relation of art and landscape with changing exhibitions and a sculptural installation on the grounds. 96 Lyme St., Old Lyme, Conn., 860-434-5542, Adults $9, seniors $8, students $7, 12 and under free.

Prudence Crandall Museum
This spacious white-clapboard home across the green from the Congregational church creates a quintessentially pretty New England scene. But things got ugly in Canterbury in 1832 when schoolmistress Prudence Crandall began admitting African-American women to the academy in her home. Ultimately she was arrested under Connecticut’s “Black Law,’’ enacted specifically to make her school illegal. Crandall soldiered on, and the case was dropped in 1834. Two months later, a mob attack closed the school. The self-guided tour includes period rooms and a short video that recaps the emotional events in one of the country’s opening battles for civil rights. 1 South Canterbury Road, Canterbury, Conn., 860-546-7800. Adults $6; seniors, college students, ages 6-17 $4; 5 and under free.

Sarah Orne Jewett House
Something of a literary prodigy (she published her first story in The Atlantic at 19), Maine author Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909) has been resurrected as a literary heroine by feminist critics who praise her well-crafted rendering of women’s lives in “Deephaven,’’ her pseudonym for the dying seaport of Berwick. Her family’s stately Georgian home remains as she and her sister decorated it — an eclectic blend of 18th-century architecture with furnishings influenced by the Arts & Crafts movement. After 1881, she shared the home with writer Annie Fields, widow of Atlantic Monthly editor James Fields, in what some contemporaries called “a Boston marriage.’’ 5 Portland St., South Berwick, Maine, 207-384-2454, $5.

Shelburne Museum
Founded in 1947, this seminal collection of American folk art was the singular vision of Electra Havemeyer Webb. Her tastes ran both broad and deep. She was one of the first to display American quilts as an art form, and the museum’s 19th-century quilt collection is among the world’s best. She also had the imagination to collect indigenous American architecture, acquiring twenty-five 18th- and 19th-century New England and New York buildings, including a one-room schoolhouse, a lighthouse, a general store, and even a steamboat. Webb loved gardens, too, and May 16 (opening day) is Lilac and Gardening Sunday. US Route 7, Shelburne, Vt., 802-985-3346, Adults $20, teachers and students $18, ages 5-18 $10, under 5 free. Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at