Boundary Breakers

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Charlotte Cunningham, fully garbed in her welding leathers, outside her home on Sawyer Road in Cape Elizabeth on November 4, 1944. Cunningham wore these leather clothes when she was working as a welder at the South Portland shipyard. Photo courtesy of the South Portland Historical Society

Three women of Maine’s history

For as long as there have been organized societies, women have been told that certain types of work were acceptable and others were meant to be performed only by men. Despite that, the women of Maine have been breaking barriers for centuries. Here are three examples of women who paved the way for future generations.

Sarah Peters was born in Guinea and brought as a slave to the town of Warren in the mid 1770s. Not one to be held back by circumstances, in 1784 she hired a lawyer to determine whether or not slavery had been abolished in Massachusetts (Maine was a part of Massachusetts at the time). When she discovered that the practice had, indeed, been outlawed, she argued that she was actually a free woman. As an emancipated member of the community, Peters was a founding member of the town’s Baptist church and her large family became well established in trades related to the sea. With time, what began as simply a tract of land for the family grew to a community that included free blacks from elsewhere in the United States. The village of Peterborough in Warren is named for Peters (and her husband Amos) and had, in the 19th century, the greatest percentage of African Americans in any town in Maine. The black population of Peterborough was able to prosper and to take advantage of financial and professional arenas open to them there that were not available elsewhere. Peters’ determination that the laws of Massachusetts be enforced in the territory of Maine ensured that African Americans in the region were able to benefit from the end of slavery.

Carrie Gertrude Stevens is a name that may not be well known today (except in fishing circles) but she can be credited with helping to put the Rangeley area on the map as a destination for fishing. Trained as a milliner, Stevens began tying flies in the early 1920s. The first fly she tied led her to catch a trout that won second prize in Field & Stream magazine’s annual fishing contest. The magazine publicized both her catch and her fly, which led her to a career in tying. Over time, she developed more than 120 distinct patterns, including one, the Grey Ghost Streamer, still widely used today. Her unique designs revolutionized the sport of fly fishing by creating lures that better resemble bait fish, and avid fishers came from great distances to purchase her flies and fish in Rangeley.

During World War II, manufacturing jobs traditionally held by men were taken by women, especially those jobs that directly related to the war effort. South Portland was home to two shipyards, where over 250 cargo ships were built from 1941 to 1945; by 1943, the two shipyards had merged to form the New England Shipbuilding Corporation. The vast majority of ships built were Liberty Ships—American cargo transport vessels—but there were also 30 Ocean Ships built for the British government. The shipyard employed approximately 30,000 people, with about 3,700 of them being women. Many of these women came to be known as “Wendy the Welders,” but women also worked as painters, burners, crane operators and riveters. In addition to being built by women, several of the ships were named for notable Maine women, including opera singer Lillian Nordica and writers Sarah Orne Jewett and Harriet Beecher Stowe. When the war ended in 1945, the demand for ships declined and soldiers returned home. As a result, women were, in South Portland and throughout the country, cut from the workforce in great numbers and expected to return to their roles as office workers and stay-at-home wives.

Lucinda Hannington is a transplant to Maine from Vermont. She is an avid reader, cook, eater and lover of all things historical who lives in Portland with her husband and dog.

1 COMMENT

  1. Lucinda, what a wonderful surprise to see the article about my mother in your October issue. I am curious how you “found” her for this article. I’ve had that picture for many years. Maybe 5 years ago, when I heard about the museum on the site of the old Ship Yard, I went to visit it and told the folks there that I had that picture of my mother in her leathers. They were very excited when I offered it to them. I was very proud to see it on display there a few months later. And I’m especially excited to see it in your publication. I was only 4 years old at the time of the picture; my sister who was 12 years older used to take care of me; at least that what she always reminded me of over the years 🙂 When her welding days ended, she retired her leathers to me to use when we played cowboys and indians in the woods. The leathers were my “chaps” when I rode my make believe horse. We grew up in Cape Elizabeth. Mom did “domestic” work (also known as housekeeping) for the Robinsons, Benoits, and Blackwells and my dad worked for Ballard Oil. I may not have fully appreciated their efforts back then, but I look back now and appreciate how blessed my sister and I were. Thank you so much for celebrating her efforts during the war.

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