Skip to Main Content

Lowell Stories: Women's History

Rowena Hildreth (March 6, 1854 - March 25, 1939

Image #1: Suffragists en route from Lowell or Lawrence to Boston, taken between 1910-1915. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Rowena Hildreth was born March 6, 1854, Lowell, Massachusetts, daughter of Fisher Hildreth and mother, Lauretta Colburn. She graduated from Lowell High School in 1869, with no colleges open to young women, she attended the Prospect Hill School for Girls in Greenfield, Massachusetts. A few years after graduation, she married Charles Dana Palmer on May 20, 1880, in Lowell. 
Harvard graduated Charles Palmer was an attorney, justice of the peace and a member of the state board arborator. Charles and Rowena were both interested in politics, local government, and progressive issues. In 1888, elected as a reform mayor, Charles Palmer advocated the construction of a new city hall. Ordinarily a new city building would be the responsibility of the City Council’s joint committee for lands and buildings but Mayor Palmer wanted a commission, a commission of impartial and civic-minded leaders who would transcend politics and personal gain, a commission dedicated to its noble cause and which would survive the annual changes in city government for what was expected at most to be a three-year long enterprise. It would take twice as long to complete the task in 1893.
In 1901, Rowena Palmer was appointed by Mayor Charles Dimon as a Trustee of the Lowell City Library, according to many historians the first woman to serve as a Library Trustee in the country.
For decades. suffrage (the right for women to vote) movement had slowly gained support from the men where women’s right to vote ultimately rested in the hands of male voters and legislators. In 1910, the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association (MWSA) hosted its 41st annual convention in Lowell. Founded in 1870, the MWSA joined the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) in 1890. The convention itself was only meant to last two days – the 27th and 28th of October – but as early as October 24th suffragists began arriving in Lowell and spreading their message citywide. The Dows’ Drug Store on the corner of Merrimack and Central St. was draped in the suffragists’ purple and yellow flags, and images of prominent men who supported women’s suffrage were posted in the windows.
In 1915, Lowell Equal Suffrage League President Rowena Hildreth Palmer worked with other women from Lowell and Massachusetts (Blanche Ames, Mary Eastman, Annie Hall, Ann Hutchins, Florence Luscomb, Helen Whittier) to gain the right to vote. In Lowell, they organized door to door canvassing efforts and participation in the Fourth of July parade. Local women dressed as “Justice” and the 12 states that had already passed suffrage laws. The participants endured a terrible rainstorm that day, which showed their resolve and impressed viewers. The 1915 Massachusetts referendum failed and women in this state did not get the right to vote. In Lowell, only 4,931 out of around 12,000 votes supported suffrage. One district (the Highlands) did vote for woman suffrage, the other eight districts voted in opposition. While this 1915 state referendum failed, Massachusetts finally ratified the amendment on June 25, 1919. The next year, women throughout the country gained the right to vote when the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified by all the states on August 26, 1920.

Image #2: Lowell Sun, Front Page, August 1920. University of Massachusetts Lowell, Center for Lowell History, Microfilm Collection.

In 1922, at the age of 70, Rowena moved to New Rochelle, New York to her son Jackson Palmer’s home, where she lived until her death at 85 on March 25, 1939. She is buried in the Hildreth Family Cemetery, Hildreth Street, Lowell.

Lowell City Hall History by Joe Orfant:
Lowell National Historical Park, Massachusetts Women’s Suffrage Association, 41st Convention, Lowell, Massachusetts, 1910: