The hidden feminist history behind Nantucket's grand mansions

The hidden feminist history behind Nantucket's grand mansions
Nantucket at sunset Tim Sackton/Flickr
Nantucket at sunset Tim Sackton/Flickr

Beloved destinations often have overlooked histories. Mic dives into how the past shapes what travelers see today.

A female friend once told me that men move to Nantucket to escape, while women move there to heal. I didn’t get that when I hauled my luggage onto the ferry the first time.

After a year working in France, I headed to Nantucket, the small island 30 miles off Cape Cod. I was looking for a job and a place to live, and Heather, the whip-smart manager of Mitchell’s Book Corner on Main Street, hired me as a bookseller.

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I quickly became a bona fide wash-ashore (the term islanders give visitors who become residents). Every day, I walked under the eaves of the island's historic mansions — relics from Nantucket's legendary wealth during the whaling era.

At Mitchell’s, I learned about literature and the island from these women in equal measure. When I wasn’t working, I explored every inch of the wispy stretch of land out at sea. In September, my friend Lindsay asked me to check in on the home of a family friend who had left the island for the off-season.

There, I walked up three flights of perfectly restored, wooden stairs until I hit the ceiling. With a twist and a pull, I opened a hatch in the roof to a fenced-in platform on the top of the house: the widow's walk. Perched on 18th- and 19th-century homes, these roof walks have become status symbols for anyone in the market for a vacation home.

The widow's walks offer expansive views of the gray, shingled cottages clustered in town and the blue sea in every direction. If you watch the sunset from these platforms with a cocktail in hand, you’ll understand why New England elites squeeze onto these decks.

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The origin of these widow’s walks remain a slight mystery, but they mirror the form and function of crow’s nests, which served as small lookouts on the top of whaling ships. Almost every island home during the whaling era had its own widow’s walk, and they continue to remind visitors of Nantucket’s history as the world’s whaling capital before it became a tony vacation destination.

For a brief period in the late 18th century and early 19th century, Nantucket was one of the wealthiest and most envied towns in America, anchored in a relentless, brutal hunt for sperm whales. New England myths suggest that successful seamen built these widow’s walks to give their wives a place to spend their days searching the uncertain sea and willing their loved ones to return home from perilous trips.

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Because of the visibility of these iconic architectural elements, whaling wives are often perceived in the shadow of this mournful “widow” archetype: on the sidelines of the main event, powerless to protect the people closest to them and lonely over inevitable losses — if not of life, of valuable time with husbands and sons.

There’s a grain of truth in the legend. Resilient women undoubtedly faced extreme uncertainty with loved ones out at sea. At the height of Nantucket’s prominence, sailors ventured as far as Fiji on trips that lasted, on average, three years.

The same long absences that gave way to the legend of widow’s walks endowed the women who may have graced them with extraordinary freedom and responsibility. Lisa Norling, author of Captain Ahab Had a Wife, writes that whalers wives acted as deputy husbands during these long trips — although women always stood below men in the chain of command, they took up an expanded purview in their absence.

The necessity for female leadership, combined with the geographical isolation of the island and the progressive beliefs of the Quaker faith, created a community where women leveraged increased agency in their day-to-day lives.

Women conducted business that underpinned one of the most lucrative industries in the world, signing off on business transactions, running sheep farms and inns, acting as “she-merchants” as well as selling and buying property.

Women also built their own communities, working together and developing female-based family units that men joined when they returned to the island — something unprecedented in other communities of the same time period. Victorian figures like the astronomer Maria Mitchell and suffragette Lucretia Mott grew up here, and women-run businesses continued to form the core of the island economy after the slow decline of the whaling industry.

By the mid-19th century, islanders called Centre Street, one of the busiest thoroughfares in town, Petticoat Row because women (who wore petticoats) ran most of the shops. If you walk down Centre Street today, you’ll notice that the majority of businesses are still owned, or co-owned, by women.

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Island women, I learned during my stay, are practical feminists. From Nantucket Looms and Milly & Grace to Cru Oyster Bar and Darya Salon, female entrepreneurs are still at the core of Nantucket’s creative businesses, retail shops, and restaurants.

Zofia Crosby, who co-owns Zofia & Co. Photography with her husband Mark Crosby, works from a light-filled office above the retail shops on Centre Street. She believes the community of inspired, independent women contributed to her success as an entrepreneur. “My business exploded when I moved to the island 15 years ago,” she said, “Nantucket has this beautiful way of lifting up and motivating women to succeed in business. Being such a small and tight community makes it possible to build strong bonds that help you grow.”