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Ferrin, Mary Uptonlocked

(27 April 1810–11 April 1881)
  • Michelle Brattain

Ferrin, Mary Upton (27 April 1810–11 April 1881), suffragist and women's rights advocate, suffragist and women’s rights advocate, was born in South Danvers (now Danvers), Massachusetts, the daughter of Jesse Upton, a farmer and tavern keeper, and his second wife Elizabeth (or Eliza) Wyman Wood. Other than her marriage at age thirty-five to Jesse C. Ferrin, a union that inadvertently led to her personal crusade for married women’s property rights, few details of Ferrin’s personal life have been recorded. Jesse Ferrin, identified on the marriage certificate only as a grocer, and Mary Upton were married in 1845 in Danvers. Just three years later, in 1848, Mary sought the advice of a Salem lawyer, Samuel Merritt, regarding her rights to a divorce and her ability to keep her own property. Merritt advised Ferrin that under common law her husband held legal rights to all her personal property including improvements on real estate she brought to the marriage.

Thus began Ferrin’s personal and pioneering efforts to reform Massachusetts law regarding married women’s property rights. Ferrin turned to her aunt, Phebe Upton King, and the two women resolved to petition the state legislature to change the law. Their attempts to recruit male lawyers and legislators to aid their cause initially failed. One legislator informed Ferrin that “the law is very well as it is regarding the property of married women. Women are not capable of taking care of their own property; they never ought to have control of it” (Stanton, vol. 1, p. 209). Ferrin then drew up a petition herself. With the assistance of one sympathetic male legislator, the Reverend John M. Usher, who was also a Universalist minister, Ferrin presented petitions to the legislature every year from 1848 to 1853. Her tireless efforts, which included collecting hundreds of signatures and traveling over 600 miles—many of them on foot—coincided with the very earliest organized efforts by women’s rights advocates elsewhere in the Northeast.

In 1850 Ferrin delivered an eloquent and persuasive address to the Massachusetts legislature on behalf of women who desperately needed legal reform to free them from abusive marriages. Ferrin recounted the experiences of several women beaten and impoverished by intemperate husbands. Referring to her own experiences, she proclaimed, “Sooner would I pour out my heart’s blood, drop by drop, than suffer again what I have hitherto experienced, or that my female friends should suffer as I have done” (Stanton, vol. 1, pp. 214–15). Within a couple of years, Ferrin gained the support of women across the state. In the summer of 1853, the Massachusetts legislature received requests from 2,000 petitioners demanding that the upcoming revision of the state constitution include reform of women’s legal and political rights. The Committee on the Qualifications of Voters of the Constitutional Convention called a June hearing in response to the petitions, during which Lucy Stone, Theodore Parker, Wendell Phillips, and Thomas W. Wigginson joined Ferrin in advocating women’s rights before the legislature in Massachusetts.

In 1855 Massachusetts passed a married women’s property act, permitting women to buy, sell, contract, and convey their own property. The act also permitted a married woman to practice her own trade or business and to retain her earnings. That some year the legislature also amended the state divorce law and permitted a mother to retain custody of her children. These Massachusetts reforms, historian Elizabeth B. Warbasse suggests, were due largely to the proddings of Mary Ferrin.

Ferrin also became an active proponent of woman suffrage, a view that stemmed naturally from her earlier activities. In her 1850 address to the legislature, for example, Ferrin had protested, “all women are born subject to laws which they have neither the power to make or to repeal, but which they are taxed, directly or indirectly, to support” (Stanton, vol. 1, p. 213). In 1869 Ferrin authored the suffrage pamphlet Woman’s Defence. In her later years, she became a regular correspondent of suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage.

Ferrin’s final years were spent in Boston, where she retained an interest in issues of women’s rights, became a regular correspondent with the newspapers, and was active in charity work. An obituary following Ferrin’s death in Salem, Massachusetts, described her as “interested in everything pertaining to her sex, almost marvelous in her unselfishness, and a great worker in many benevolent enterprises” (Woman’s Journal, 18 June 1881). An even greater accolade was granted Ferrin in Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s History of Woman Suffrage. Stanton praised Ferrin for her singular role in bringing about the “first change in the tyrannous laws of Massachusetts” and identified Ferrin as a woman whose “name should be remembered as that of one of the brave pioneers in this work.” Though Ferrin was not alone in achieving legal reform in Massachusetts, her early, and solo, efforts stand out as remarkable, not only for her own courage but for her contribution to the history of nineteenth-century women’s rights activism.

Bibliography

Ferrin’s activities on behalf of legal reform receive considerable attention from contemporary histories of women’s rights, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton et al., History of Woman Suffrage, vol. 1 (1881), and Harriet Robinsons, Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement: A General Political, Legal, and Legislative History from 1774 to 1881 (1883). See also Elizabeth Bowles Warbasse, The Changing Legal Rights of Married Women, 1800–1861 (1987). Highly complimentary obituaries in the Woman’s Journal, 18 June 1881, and the National Citizen and Ballot Box, May 1881, also provide some insight into Ferrin’s significance within the suffrage movement and the history of women’s rights in the United States.