With Mother’s Day soon upon us, it’s a good time for a reminder about heroic moms.
For much of New England history, moms were supposed to be quiet, submissive, stay-at-homes providing a moral influence for the family. Reality often intruded, however. Mothers had to meet challenges without the advantages their male counterparts enjoyed.
Contrary to popular belief during most of New England history, moms were capable of military feats that took great courage. Prudence Cumming Wright, for example, captured two British spies while armed with little more than a pitchfork.
Time and time again, women have stepped in when their husbands died or disappeared. During the 18th and 19th and well into the 20th centuries, heroic moms raised children and ran businesses with few legal protections or even the right to vote.
Mothers of accomplishment until recent decades have largely escaped the historian’s notice. And so to rectify those oversights we bring you five heroic moms in New England history.
Ann Smith Franklin
Benjamin Franklin wasn’t the only member of his family to leave Boston for another city so he could start his own newspaper. Ann Smith Franklin, his sister-in-law, did it as well.
Born in 1696, Ann married Ben’s brother James, the one Ben didn’t get along with. James landed in jail in Boston for printing ‘scandalous libel’ — in other words, criticisms of the Puritans. So he and Ann took his printing press and moved to Newport, R.I. There they started printing the Rhode Island Almanack.
James died, leaving Ann with five children and a business to run. She couldn’t make enough money to support her family, so she asked the General Assembly for a contract to print the colony’s laws.
Ann Smith Franklin got the job. She also raised three children to adulthood, started The Newport Mercury with her son James and then continued to run it after he died in 1762.
She died in 1763. Her obituary described her as a woman of ‘economy and industry … [who] supported herself and her family, and brought up her children in a genteel manner.’
Prudence Cummings Wright
At 35, Prudence Cummings Wright had five children and a husband who marched off to the Siege of Boston after the Battles of Lexington and Concord.
That same fate befell most of the other ladies in her hometown of Pepperell, Mass. When Prudence learned British spies were passing information from Canada to Boston through Pepperell, she decided to do something about it.
Prudence Wright organized a militia from the women of the town. They dressed in their husband’s clothes and, since their husbands took all the muskets, probably grabbed farm implements. Then the ladies’ militia patrolled the town.
One night they stationed themselves at Jewett’s Bridge and waited silently for the spies they expected. When two horsemen approached from the north, Prudence burst upon them with a lantern demanding to know their identities and their business. One of the men — Prudence’s Loyalist brother — tried to flee.
The women dragged both men off their horses and searched them. They found dispatches intended for the enemy, so they took the men to the local tavern. The men were released after they agreed to leave the colony for good.
At Town Meeting on March 19, 1777, Pepperell voted to pay Prudence Cummings Wright and her ladies’ guard for their service.
Mary Patten wasn’t a mom yet when she faced down a mutinous crew and took command of a clipper ship. At 19, she was pregnant with her only son, Joshua.
She came from a well-to-do East Boston family and knew navigation and sailing. Her husband, a sea captain also named Joshua, took her along on a voyage from New York to San Francisco in 1856. As the ship approached the southern tip of South America, Joshua fell ill with fever. Mary set the course, navigated the vessel and nursed her husband.
Then the first mate tried to incite the crew to mutiny, but Mary persuaded them to obey her. Joshua recovered briefly, but then again fell ill. For 50 days Mary wore the same clothes at the ship’s helm, ultimately reaching San Francisco with the cargo intact. Newspapers found out and made her an instant celebrity.
The Pattens returned to Boston overland. Joshua lived only a few more months. He never knew Mary gave birth to a son, and she only lived to the age of 24.
Toy Len Goon
Toy Len Goon was born in 1891 in a mud brick hut to peasant farmers in Guangdong Province. As a child she did backbreaking farm chores until the family’s land could no longer support all six children. At 10, Toy Len began to work for a wealthy merchant family as a servant and babysitter.
She married Dogon Goon when he returned to China from Portland, Maine, where he worked in a laundry. In 1917 he was arrested as an illegal resident, To avoid deportation he had to serve in the armed forces during World War I, where he was wounded and lost a limb.
When Toy Len arrived in Portland, she spoke no English. She worked in the laundry with Dogon. Over the next 13 years, they had eight children.
She managed to save $500 for a down payment on a three-story building in which they lived and started their own laundry. Dogon died of gangrene in 1952, leaving Toy Len with eight children ages three to 16. She kept the laundry going and made sure all her children got educations, refusing offers to put them in foster care. All did well academically.
In 1957, a local newspaper reported her son Carroll was a physician, Richard a businessman, Edward a research chemist, Albert a lawyer, Josephine a mother, Arthur, a Navy veteran, studying electrical engineering. Doris was a court reporter and Janet a college student.
Toy Len Goon was named Maine Mother of the Year in 1952 by the American Mothers Committee of the Golden Rule Foundation.
Shortly after receiving the award, she moved to Lynn, Mass., to be closer to her children. She died at the age of 101 in 1993.
She was a society housewife who lived in a Tudor mansion with her husband and three sons in tony Fairfield, Conn. Life was good until the stock market crashed in 1929 and her husband suffered a polo accident.
Margaret Rudkin sold the horses, fired the servants and tried to make ends meet selling apples and turkeys.
According to one account, she began baking stone-ground whole wheat bread because her son Mark had severe food allergies. According to her own account, she started baking because of her ‘interest in proper food for children.‘
In August 1937 she sold her first batch of Pepperidge Farm bread to her grocer in Fairfield, Mercurio’s Market.
Eventually she moved her bakery from the kitchen into the garage and began making white bread with unbleached flour. A specialty food store in New York, Charles & Co., ordered 24 loaves a day. Then the orders poured in after Reader’s Digest ran a story about her deluxe bread. Margaret Rudkin borrowed $15,000, and in 1940 moved her bakery to Norwalk, Conn.
Eventually she added premium cookies and small fish-shaped crackers. She and her husband sold the company to Campbell Soup, where she became the first female director. Margaret Rudkin died of breast cancer in 1967.
This story was updated in 2021.