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Lowell Stories: Women's History

Mary Elizabeth (Lizzie) Ordway (1828 – 1897)


Lizzie M. Ordway - the first teacher for the Seattle Public Schools, ca. 1880's. Seattle Public Schools Archive (#001-4). 

Mary Elizabeth (Lizzie) Ordway (1828-1897) was born in Derry, New Hampshire, daughter of Enoch and Mary Ordway. About 1842, Ordway moved to Lowell with her family and in 1850 began teaching in the Lowell School System. Ordway was one of the first group of eleven “Mercer Girls” recruited by Asa Mercer to teacher in Seattle, Washington in the mid-1860s.

From “Seattle, Washington, Mercer Girls”

“Ordway had a mind of her own and is one of the best remembered of the “Mercer Girls” for her vivid character. After arriving in Seattle from Lowell, Massachusetts, Ordway and some of the other girls found that "Seattle families were willing to provide them with lodging." Henry and Sarah Yesler were one of those families, and Ordway stayed at their home until she filled a teaching position at a school on Whidby Island.

Ordway was a "formidable force in public education in Washington Territory. She taught in Coupeville, Port Madison, Seattle, Port Gamble and Port Blakely." In 1870, she opened Central School, the first constructed by the Seattle District. At first she was the only teacher and was surprised on opening day at the sight of over one hundred eager children. Ordway explained that she "had to send the younger ones home to ripen a little," and convinced the school board to add a second teacher.

In 1871, Ordway joined forces with Susan B. Anthony during her western speaking tour in San Francisco. The two later formed a Female Suffrage Society and presented women's suffrage issues to the State House of Representatives in Olympia.

Ordway taught for a time in San Francisco at a young ladies' seminary. In 1874, she returned to the Northwest aboard the ship Wildwood after a brief return to her family in Lowell. In 1881, she became the superintendent of Kitsap County schools and was "a successful and strict disciplinarian." An article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's editorial column opposing Lizzie's election stated "It may be a good joke to put a woman in nomination, but I do not regard the office of school superintendent of so little importance as to vote for a woman at the polls." After serving her term as superintendent, Ordway went on to examine and certify teachers in her role as a member of the County Education Board. Mary Elizabeth Ordway died in September of 1897 and was buried at Lake View Cemetery in Seattle. Since then, a monument headstone has been placed on her grave and a school on Bainbridge Island has been named for Ordway.”

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