Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford may be America's earliest certifiable lesbian
minister. According to Lisa M. Tetrault (see below), Phebe Ann (Coffin) Hanaford
was born in Siasconset on Nantucket Island on May 6, 1829, the only child of the
merchant and shipowner George W. Coffin and his wife Phebe Ann (Barnard) Coffin.
Both were Quakers and direct descendants of the island's first white settlers,
Tristram Coffin and Peter Folger.
Beginning in 1857, Phebe began to live in other towns on mainland
Massachusetts, with her husband Dr. Joseph Hanaford. During the 1850s and 1860s,
as Phebe raised her children, she became a highly successful author, and later
gave her first sermons, having joined the Unitarian ministry. While visiting
Nantucket in 1865, she accepted her father's invitation to give her first
sermon. A year later, she was "surprised and honored," says Tetrault, when asked
to substitute in South Canton, New York, for the Rev. Olympia Brown, the first
ordained Universalist woman minister. "I dared not refuse to go," she said,
according to Tetrault: "it seemed to be the Lord's call. [So] I went." Phebe
separated from her husband and accepted a position with the First Universalist
Church of New Haven, Connecticut, in 1870, at an annual salary of $2,000. That
same year, adds Tetrault, she served as chaplain for the Connecticut
At the time she first took the pulpit, Hanaford was also becoming an
important leader in the women's rights movement. Together with other leaders of
a feminist-abolitionist coalition, such as Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, Thomas
Wentworth Higginson, and William Lloyd Garrison, she helped establish the
American Woman Suffrage Organization (1869). In the following decade, when
Hanaford accepted a position with the Universalist Church of the Good Shepherd
in Jersey City, New Jersey, the congregation split, ostensibly over her women's
rights activities. Legend has it that her political activism alienated her
congregation. She refused a demand to abandon politics, and in 1877, reports
Tetrault, a majority of voting members failed to reappoint her. Hanaford then
formed a second Universalist society at a rented auditorium and preached there
for the next several years.
"Hanaford's letters and papers, however, offer a somewhat different
explanation for the split," says Lisa Tetrault. "Hanaford had begun living with
a woman named Ellen Miles. Newspaper clippings preserved in Hanaford's scrapbook
reported that the disgruntlement among congregation members was, in fact, over
Hanaford's liaison with Miles, whom the papers called the 'minister's wife.'
Hanaford, it seems, was not simply asked to cease her women's rights activities,
but more specifically, to 'dismiss' Miss Miles... their letters testify to a
deep and abiding affection. The two remained life-long companions, separated
after forty-four years together only by Miles's death in 1914."
Reference: "A Paper Trail: Piecing Together the Life of Phebe Hanaford," by
Lisa M. Tetrault.
Biographical statement written by Mitchell Santine Gould, curator, www.LeavesofGrass.org