Arts and Leisure

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Bra Burners’ Grandma

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps more than 150 years ago wrote about how hard it was for women to balance their ambitions with home and family.

Now largely forgotten, she was once published next to Mark Twain, Henry James and William Dean Howells.


Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, 1910

She wrote 57 books, all of which challenged the view that a woman’s place was in the home. She was the first woman to deliver a series of lectures at Boston University. A reformer, she questioned religious dogma, opposed animal experimentation and tried to change women’s clothing. She urged them to burn their corsets.

Burn up the corsets! … No, nor do you save the whalebones, you will never need whalebones again. Make a bonfire of the cruel steels that have lorded it over your thorax and abdomens for so many years and heave a sigh of relief, for your emancipation I assure you, from this moment has begun.

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps was born Mary Gray Phelps Aug. 31, 1844 in Andover, Mass., the daughter of a prominent Congregational minister, Austin Phelps. He was president of the Andover Theological Seminary, an orthodox Protestant institution that required students to build coffins as a reminder that life is brief.

Her mother, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, wrote the Kitty Brown series of children’s books. She died of brain fever when Mary Gray was eight, and Mary Gray asked to change her name in her mother’s honor.

Her first story was published in Youth’s Companion when she was 13. At 19 she had a Civil War story published by Harper’s Magazine.

In 1868 she published The Tenth of January about the tragic Pemberton Mill collapse, which killed 145 workers and injured 166. The story won the admiration of John Greenleaf Whittier and Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

That same year she published The Gates Ajar to comfort, she said, a generation of women who lost loved ones in the Civil War. She described heaven as a place where families, including their pets, would be reunited. It was hugely successful, selling more than 100,000 copies. Her depiction of heaven as something other than a place to meet God provoked controversy, which only spurred more sales.

The book inspired spin-off products like cigars, funeral wreaths and patent medicines, even a parody by Mark Twain.

The story of Avis in 1877 portrayed a woman’s struggle to balance marriage and family with her desire to be a painter. It may have presaged her own marriage.

In 1888, at 42, she married Herbert Dickinson Ward, a journalist 17 years her junior.

It wasn’t a success. They spent most of their time apart. He wasn’t even present when she died on Jan. 28, 1911, in Newton Centre, Mass.



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