The Chinatown/South Cove Tour starts at the Visitor Center on Boston Common, winds through Chinatown, and ends at Park Square. It presents a wide range of women’s activities and organizations working for social change and economic justice. The focus is on immigrant groups, most recently Chinese. The tour also includes a women’s settlement house serving an earlier immigrant population, and the international programs of a Catholic sisterhood. The South Cove area, originally the South Cove of Boston Harbor, was filled in between 1833-39. Beach Street takes its name from its former location along the edge of the harbor. Although the Chinese community began arriving in the mid-nineteenth century, large numbers of women were not allowed until the liberalization of immigration laws in the mid-twentieth century. The people of the Chinese community give the area its special spirit, along with its architecture, murals, restaurants, groceries, and shops.
Begins: Visitor Welcome Center, Boston Common
Elizabeth Peabody Book Shop
13-15 West Street
The Book Shop of Elizabeth Peabody (1804-94) is best known as the location of the 1839-44 Conversations led by Margaret Fuller (1810-50), which helped crystallize New England Transcendentalism, a movement encouraging the perfection of each individual. A regular participant in these Conversations was philosopher and activist Ednah Dow Littlehale Cheney (1824-1904) who, at age 16, was the youngest participant. Fuller received an intense classical education from her father and became known as an intellectual prodigy. Working with Ralph Waldo Emerson and others, she edited the transcendentalist journal The Dial and was the first woman journalist for the New York Tribune. Her essay Woman in the Nineteenth Century is an American feminist classic. Elizabeth Peabody, who was also a Transcendentalist, founded American kindergartens and here at the Book Shop became the first woman publisher in Boston. Her younger sisters were each married in the family parlor behind the Book Shop. Sophia Peabody (1809-71), an artist, married author Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Mary Peabody (1806-87), an educator, married Horace Mann, considered to be the father of American public education.
Massachusetts Bar Association
20 West Street
The first woman member of the Massachusetts Bar Association was Mary A. Mahan of West Roxbury, who was admitted in 1913. Many women lawyers in Boston attended Portia School of Law, established in 1908. After Mahan was admitted along with with thirty-four men, a member spoke up saying he hoped her admission would “not interfere with our banquets and prevent smoking,” but, he added, showing his pride in their action, “the question of women members has been brought before the American Bar Association and the members have dodged it.”
Sarah Caldwell and the Boston Opera House
539 Washington Street
As founder of The Opera Company, Sarah Caldwell (1924-2006) staged and conducted full-fledged performances of operas at various venues in Boston from 1957 to 1991. In 1980 the Opera Company acquired The Opera House. With her compelling and demanding personality, Caldwell charted a new course for opera in America. She had a special talent for producing flamboyant theatrical effects and with her adventurous spirit she embraced the whole spectrum of operatic possibilities. In 1976 she became the first woman to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera House. She received thirty-five honorary degrees and in 1997 the National Medal of the Arts.
2-8 Harrison Avenue
A successful and nonviolent strike of 8,000 women telephone operators in April 1919, led by Julia O’Connor [Parker] (1890-1972), paralyzed telephone service in five New England states for six days. This building is an expansion of the Oxford Street exchange where O’Connor worked. Switchboard operators, who were mostly young, single Irish-American women, were expected to work at breakneck speed often on split shifts. They were punished with detention as if they were still in high school. Supported by the Women’s Trade Union League, O’Connor and her team negotiated a settlement that included a $3 to $4 weekly raise. Starting in 1939, O’Connor worked for eighteen years as an organizer for the AFL.
International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU)
33 Harrison Avenue
Although only a few clothing factories still operate in this area, Harrison and Kneeland streets were once the center of the New England ready-made clothing industry. The WPA Federal Writers’ Guide said that on “warm days the hum of hundreds of sewing machines can be heard through the open windows.” In 1936, the winter after the National Labor Relations Act gave workers the right to organize, hundreds of women garment workers joined a strike supported by the ILGWU and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers that lasted two months. In April they won a closed shop, a forty-hour week (instead of fifty-two hours), and an increased minimum wage.
New England Chinese Women’s Association
2 Tyler Street
The New England Chinese Women’s Association was founded in 1942 by Chew Shee Chin (1899-1985) and other Boston Chinese women in response to Madame Chiang Kai Shek’s appeal for China relief during World War II. The Association served the Boston Chinese community as a networking and social service organization. Chew Shee Chin was one of the first Chinese-American women to work in Boston’s garment industry.
Phillis Wheatley Landing Place
Beach and Tyler Streets
Phillis Wheatley (ca. 1753-84), the first published African American woman poet in America, landed while still a small child in 1761 in the slave ship Phillis at Avery’s Wharf located near the present position of Tyler Street. She was purchased at auction by the Wheatley family. Members of that family taught Phillis to read and write and encouraged her poetic talent. Phillis Wheatley is one of three women chosen to be portrayed in the Boston Women’s Memorial.
Mary Soo Hoo Park
Mary Soo Hoo (1937-2005) was a Chinatown activist. When she was still in her twenties, she opened Mai Mai Coiffeurs on Tyler Street, the first hair salon in Chinatown as well as the first woman-owned one. She soon realized the need for services and became active in the business community as a founding member of the Asian American Civic Association, a member and co-moderator of the Chinatown Neighborhood Council, a founding member of the Asian Community Development Corporation and an important part of the movement to eliminate the “combat zone” near Chinatown. She helped begin Sampan, the English-Chinese newspaper. Soo Hoo received many awards for her work, including the Red Cross Clara Barton Human Service Humanity Award. This park near the Chinatown Gate was dedicated in her honor in 2005.
Ruby Foo’s Den
Beach and Hudson Streets
Born in San Francisco, Ruby Foo (1904-50) moved to Boston in 1923 where she began a single-room restaurant in Boston’s Chinatown. Its popularity quickly grew, and she opened Ruby Foo’s “Den” on Hudson Street in 1929—heralded as the first Chinese restaurant to successfully cater to non-Chinese clientele. Throughout World War II, the Den remained a legendary meeting place for theatrical and sports figures and other celebrities. She opened similar restaurants in New York, Miami, Washington and Providence, becoming a nationally-known restaurateur and mentor to dozens of aspiring chefs in her native Boston. In 1938, newspapers ran a photo of a Chinese baby sitting amidst rubble in a Shanghai railroad station that had been bombed by the Japanese. Foo had the child brought to the United States where she adopted him and raised him along with her other children.
78 Tyler Street
Mother Mary Joseph Rogers (1882-1955), a Boston Public School graduate and teacher, founded the Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic, a national order whose members were first known for their professional service in China before the Communist takeover. Rogers insisted that the sisters be trained professionally for their missionary work and that they work together as equals, sharing all household tasks. Under her leadership, over 1,000 women worked throughout the world in over twenty-five different countries spreading their message of Justice, Love and Peace in God’s name, and living with and caring for those in need. The sisters still serve all over the world today, particularly in Latin America. The mission on Tyler Street served the Chinese community until 1992.
90 Tyler Street
When the innovative Quincy School opened in 1847, teachers had their own classrooms for the first time in America. Women teachers were in charge of each grade, but were supervised by a male principal. Students sat at their own desks instead of at long benches. Boys and girls attended different grammar schools; the Quincy School was for boys.
In 1905 the Boston School Committee, in a privately funded, experimental program with the Instructive District Nurse Association (precursor to today’s Visiting Nurse Association) appointed Annie McKay (1867-1944), a Canadian-born trained nurse, to the Quincy School. This program was an overwhelming success, reducing absenteeism. Recognizing the value of school nursing services, Boston in 1907 embarked on a formal program to directly employ school nurses. Annie McKay’s appointment led to a system of health assessment, nursing intervention and follow-up for all children within the school system. School health services were extended by the state legislature later in 1907 to every city and town in Massachusetts.
Today, this building houses the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of New England along with other occupants.
Site of Denison House
93 Tyler Street
Denison House, a woman-run settlement house, occupied three buildings across the street from the Quincy School for fifty years. Founded in 1892 by the College Settlement House Association, Denison House was directed by Helena Dudley (1858-1932) and Vida Scudder (1861-1954), a Wellesley College professor. Their shop sold crafts produced by local women. They ran a medical dispensary, a milk station, and taught English. The heritage of Lebanese, Syrian, and Italian immigrant women was honored through crafts and folk dancing. Dudley believed women’s greatest need was for a living wage and helped organize the Women’s Trade Union League. When aviator Amelia Earhart (1897-1937) was a social worker there, she showered Boston with leaflets from a plane announcing a Denison House street fair. After an earlier association with Chicago’s settlement house, Hull House, labor organizer Mary Kenney O’Sullivan (1864-1943) worked for a time at Denison House. She lived there with her husband, John F. O’Sullivan, labor editor of the Boston Globe, and their three children. After his sudden death in 1902, she managed a model tenement and continued her labor organizing activities. She was one of the principal founders of the National Women’s Trade Union League at Faneuil Hall in 1903. O’Sullivan supported many union activities, including the 1912 Lawrence textile strike. She was a strong supporter of woman suffrage and opposed the entry of the United States into World War I, joining the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. In 1914, she became a factory inspector under the Massachusetts Department of Labor and Industries.
Home of Rose Lok
Tyler Street (next to Denison House)
The first and possibly only Chinese American woman pilot to solo at what is now known as Boston’s Logan Airport, Rose Lok (b. 1912) grew up on Tyler Street next to Denison House. She was only twenty when the U. S. Department of Commerce granted her a pilot’s license in 1932. Although her parents resisted her desire to fly at first, they finally relented. She was the only woman in the group of twelve Chinese American Bostonians who formed the Chinese patriotic Flying Club to assist in the defense of China from Japan’s invading forces. In 1996, she was memorialized with a tree at the International Forest of Friendship established by the Ninety-Nines, a long-time association of women pilots, in Atchison, Kansas, Amelia Earhart’s hometown.
Chinatown Community Mural: Unity and Community
Chinatown Neighborhood Center, 38 Ash Street
Formerly occupying the outside wall of a four-story building, a photographic reproduction of the mural Unity and Community has been installed in the main lobby of the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center. In this mural, Chinese-American women are honored for their many roles in Asian-American community life. Designed by Wen-Ti Tsen and David Fichter in 1986, the colorful painting shows a woman garment worker sewing a long piece of fabric which weaves through the composition and represents women’s contribution to the cohesiveness of the community. Before the liberalization of immigration laws, fewer than twenty percent of Chinatown’s residents were women.
Site of Boffin’s Bower
815 Washington Street
In 1870, Jennie Collins (1828-1887) founded Boffin’s Bower here to provide working women with a place to read and socialize, as well as food, clothing, job placement, and other aid. Collins, who left school at 14 to work in a cotton mill, named the charity after Boffin’s Bower in the Dickens novel, Our Mutual Friend. She was also a labor and women’s rights activist, and one of the first working-class women in America to publish a volume of her own writings: Nature’s Aristocracy (1871).
Frances Stern Nutrition Center
260 Tremont Street
Note: The Center is open by appointment only but visitors are welcome with an advance phone call: 617-636-5275. Hours are Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Frances Stern (1873-1947) became one of the first nutritionists in the United States. She focused her work on the relationships between nutrition, health, class and ethnicity and the effects of industrial work on health. She calculated the desirable calorie count for the family unit rather than the individual. Born to German Jewish immigrants in Boston, she was a lifelong learner. She studied Sanitary Chemistry with Ellen Richards at MIT, social work at Simmons College and economics at the London School of Economics. She co-founded the Louisa May Alcott Club in the South End for immigrant children and was recruited by the Red Cross in France during World War I. The Frances Stern Nutrition Center is part of the Tufts Medical Center.
Dr. Marie Zakrzewska, New England Hospital for Women and Children
14 Warrenton Street
Dr. Marie Zakrzewska (1829-1902) established the New England Hospital for Women and Children at 60 Pleasant Street in 1862, soon moving it to larger quarters here at 14 Warren Street (now called Warrenton) in a building which is no longer standing. The first hospital in New England run by women doctors and for women patients, it was also the first hospital in Boston to include full departments of obstetrics, gynecology, and pediatrics under one roof. One of the hospital’s earliest Resident Physicians was the pioneering doctor, Lucy Sewall, MD (1837-90). Among the student interns in the 1860s were renowned future doctors, Susan Dimock and Sophie Jex-Blake.
Site of YWCA “Working Girls Home”
68 Warrenton Street
In 1873, the Boston YWCA built a six-story double house building on this site for “the good of working women.” The location not only offered housing but also training with the hope of finding “new and proper avenues of employment for women” as well as “to protect them in their rights.” Of the seventy women who lived in the building at the time of the Great Fire that year, thirty-four lost jobs and the YWCA established a sewing business to employ them. In 1908, the building had 212 boarders and had served a total of 2,645 women during the previous year. In 1895, the residents, hoping to escape the summer heat, raised money to create a roof garden on top of the building. They planted window boxes, added deck chairs, awnings and even cots. In anticipation of the opening of new headquarters at 140 Clarendon Street, the YWCA closed the building in 1927.
Boston Women’s Trade Union League
5 Boylston Place
During the Great Depression, the Boston Women’s Trade Union League maintained offices and a soup kitchen in this building owned and occupied on the upper floors by Boston’s exclusive Tavern Club for men. Soon after the National WTUL was established at Faneuil Hall in 1903, the Boston branch assisted women workers in forming trade unions and aiding strikes, including the telephone operators’ strike of 1919. Although upper middle class women reformers began the BWTUL, women workers joined and held major offices. Among the presidents were telephone operators Julia O’Connor [Parker] (1890-1972) and Rose Finkelstein Norwood (1891-1980). For fifty years they also helped organize Boston library workers, retail clerks, and office cleaners.
Park Square: Women Editors, Artists, and Entrepreneurs
The Park Square area and the block on Boylston Street across from the Public Garden was once a center for women editors, artists, social activists, and entrepreneurs who had offices in the small buildings that lined the street. Novelist Pauline Hopkins (1856-1930) edited The Colored American from 1900 to 1904 in an office at 5 Park Square. Her goal was to publish a journal devoted to “the development of Afro-American art and literature.” She included a series of articles, Famous Women of the Negro Race, and reported the news of the rejection of Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin’s New Era Club for membership in the General Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1902. Other publications edited by women with offices in Park Square include Our Bodies Ourselves, published by the Boston Women’s Health Collective in 1970, and Equal Times, a newspaper for working women published in the mid-1970s and early 1980s. Many women artists studied and had studios in this area. Beginning in the 1890s until the mid twentieth century, women dressmakers, milliners, physicians, teachers, and artists working in many mediums had studios or offices on Boylston Street in the block across from the Public Garden. Conveniently placed among them by 1940 was the shop and lunchroom of the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union.
Home and office, Dr. Lucy Sewall, Dr. Susan Dimock
151 Boylston Street
Dr. Susan Dimock (1847-75) was Resident Physician at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Roxbury from 1872-75. Arguably the finest woman surgeon of her era, she also professionalized the first formal nurses’ training program in the nation. To augment the $300 per year she was paid for her Resident position at the hospital, the young doctor saw patients at her private Boston practice In 1872. Upon returning to Boston from medical studies in Zurich and Vienna, she initially rented an office space at 8 Park Square. In 1874, her longtime friend and colleague, Dr. Lucy Sewall (1837-90), purchased the building at 151 Boylston Street, just a stone’s throw from Arlington Street Church. Sewall had preceded Dimock as Resident Physician at the NEHWC and later became a well-respected Attending Physician there. While 151 Boylston was Sewall’s private home and medical office she willingly shared the rooms as well as several of her private clients with Dr. Dimock.
Site of Women’s Educational and Industrial Union
264 and 356 Boylston Street
The Women’s Educational and Industrial Union, which has served Boston women continuously for nearly 130 years, was at two different sites on Boylston Street for sixty years. In 2004, WEIU renamed itself the Women’s Union and moved downtown from this site to One Washington Mall. In 2006,it merged with Crittenton, a Boston-based housing and workforce development agency established in 1824 to form Crittenton Women’s Union, now EMPath. WEIU’s first program was a shop selling women’s crafts and food, but it rapidly moved into job training, placement, and protection of women workers. In recent years it instituted training for licensed home day care providers and created a transitional housing programs for single mothers. Dr. Harriet Clisby (1831-1931) founded the WEIU together with a group of prominent Boston women. Mary Morton Kehew (1859-1918) led the union from 1892 until her death. Under her direction, the union continued to offer vocational training but also lobbied for legislation to protect women workers. She supported her arguments with solid social science research. Kehew was active in the programs at Denison House (see C12) and worked to foster trade unions among women workers, becoming the first president of the National Women’s Trade Union League organized in Boston in 1903.