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December 5, 2012

Exhibit looks at women's struggles, victories

PEABODY — Most battles aren’t won in a moment where the tide suddenly turns. Rather, triumph comes after a succession of victories, some so small they aren’t even mentioned in the history books.

The fight for women’s equality was won in the same way. The suffragettes getting themselves hauled off to jail while demanding the right to vote might be the popular image — but it required decades and even centuries of struggle to get to that point. Nor was the fight over then.

The recent passing of Joyce Spiliotis, the city’s first female state representative, reminds everyone of how recent some changes have been.

Peabody did its part, as a new exhibit at the Peabody Historical Society illustrates. “From the Bustle to the Hustle: 150 Years of Women’s History in Peabody,” which runs through April 21, brings alive this forgotten history, as well as the women who made it. According to curator Heather Leavell, the show describes an era starting 200 years ago when “women had few rights and very little independence.”

The women in this city weren’t willing to let that stand.

Their battles were ongoing as early 1848 when Mary Upton Ferrin refused to have everything she owned taken by the drunken and physically abusive husband she planned to divorce. Documents recall her six-year campaign to change a law that would give him all. Her effort included getting neighbors in Danvers and Peabody to sign petitions that she sent on to the Legislature.

Massachusetts passed the Married Woman’s Property Act in 1854. And Ferrin didn’t stop there, next taking her place in the movement for women’s suffrage as it gained steam after the Civil War.

“You ain’t a bit ashamed of having so many children and no husband,” a woman once told Sally Richardson (1798-1887), or “Aunt Sally.” She was a nurse and midwife whose children were the countless Peabody babies she helped bring into the world. The tireless Richardson, whose picture is part of the presentation, was so valued by her Peabody neighbors that the newspaper devoted three full columns to her passing.

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