Anna Garlin Spencer (1851-1931) was born in Attleboro, Massachusetts but spent her formative years in Providence. Her embrace of progressive causes and her quest for social justice can be traced to her abolitionist mother and an aunt who worked with the homeless.
Anna began to write for the Providence Journal at age 19 and worked at the newspaper for eight years. She also became a Providence public school teacher from 1869 to 1871. She would employ her writing and teaching skills throughout her reformist career.
In 1878, Garlin married the Rev. William H. Spencer, a Unitarian minister and left Rhode Island with her husband to preach and teach. Returning in 1888, she became actively involved with the nondenominational Religious Society of the Bell Street Chapel and soon published the writings of its founder, philanthropist James Eddy. On March 16, 1891 she made history when she was ordained as a minister, the first woman in Rhode Island to attain that distinction. She led the Bell Street Chapel for more than a decade until 1902 and upon leaving that ministry, wrote The History of the Bell Street Chapel Movement (1903).
By that time in her life, she was already a veteran feminist, participatingin a wide-range of causes centered on the rights of women. She had also become a confidant of many prestigious national leaders. During her Rhode Island years Spencer served as the president of the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association, helped to establish the Society for Organizing Charity in Providence, and worked for the regulation of child labor and factory safety. As a board member of the Rhode Island State Home for Dependent Children, she chaired the International Congress of Charities, Correction and Philanthropy held as an adjunct to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and later edited the proceedings.
While operating on the national scene, she helped found the Women’s Peace Party in 1915 and led the National Council of Women in 1920. Shewas also a founding sponsor of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and an officer in the Free Religious Association.
Anna, who was an accomplished public speaker, taught at a number of universities after 1902, including Wisconsin, Chicago, and Columbia. She authored several books about women and family relations and wrote a seminal article in 1913 on the role of older women–“The Social Use of the Post-Graduate Mother.” While in New York she became part of the influential Society for Ethical Culture and the School of Philanthropy. She also participated in efforts to encourage temperance and to abolish child labor, and she engaged in several social work programs. At the time of her death in 1931 she was a special lecturer in the social sciences at Columbia University.
Swarthmore College has microfilmed most of her papers, including material relating to her Rhode Island years. They are located in the school’s Peace Collection. Few Americans, male or female, so embodied the progressive spirit characteristic of early 20th century liberalism as Anna Garlin Spencer.