Never Heard of Her: Edith Guerrier

Edith in 1955 (The West End Museum)

Edith in 1955 (The West End Museum)

In 1899, there were few opportunities for young Italian and Jewish immigrant women in North Boston to expand their intellectual and social lives, especially when they were expected to hold down jobs during the week. But lady friendships are a crucial part of growing up, and at least one educator wasn’t going to stop until she turned time for socializing from a privilege into a right for working-class girls.

Librarian Edith Guerrier was fed up with Progressive Era reformers’ priorities that stopped at simply getting young women off the streets. Essentially, middle-class white Bostonians were whipped into a panic over preserving the morality of these supposedly inferior young women (although one could argue the reformers were more concerned with forcing their own ideas of morality onto people they felt couldn’t help themselves, rather than taking any direct, beneficial action that fit with the realities of these young women’s lives. But anyway).

To 29-year-old Guerrier, neglecting one’s intellectual and social lives was just as bad -- if not worse -- than neglecting WASPy ideals. These girls, many of whom had been forced out of school by language barriers or the need to financially support their families, needed some friendship and funtimes!

Edith had grown up an adventurer surrounded by family in Massachusetts; at just 3, she ran away from home determined to live in Fairyland (aka the meadow near her house). When her mother died just months later, she spent several “adventurous” (we might say “traumatic”) years bouncing from place to place, from the Kansas frontier with her father as he sought his fortune, to the New England parishes of her stern minister uncle, to the comforts of her warmer aunt and uncle’s home back in Massachusetts.

Thanks to an early love of reading, four years at the Vermont Methodist Seminary and Female College, and a letter of recommendation from family friend William Lloyd Garrison II, Guerrier was able to find a job working with young girls at a north Boston settlement house. By 21, she was overseeing a reading room at the house and setting up library clubs.

A “New Woman” of 20th century Boston, Guerrier was among the first women to work in the library sciences, and she was the first woman to become a branch library supervisor. Forced to learn self-sufficiency from a young age, she was no stranger to doing things her way. But how else could she help the young women in her community while also continuing her own education?

“I know life has more to offer than I have yet found,” she wrote in her autobiography, originally titled, modestly, A Little Woman of New England. “Undoubtedly these girls feel the same way about it. Perhaps we can find together the key to some secret garden in which we can profitably enjoy ourselves.”

And they did. In the fall of 1899, Guerrier established the Saturday Evening Girls Club (which should totally be a Babysitter’s-Club-esque book series) to help educate and empower young women outside the middle class, giving them a chance to not only learn from visiting community members, but also to cut loose away from their families with girls their own age. The girls heard lectures, performed dances and plays, and even launched the booming Paul Revere Pottery business (well, booming in its output if not in its profits), thanks to Guerrier’s artist friend Edith Brown, whom she’d met while taking night classes at Boston’s Museum of Fine Art.

The Ediths became fast friends -- and eventually lifelong loves -- and their passion for helping young women so impressed philanthropist (and grand-niece of Lucretia Mott) Helen Osborne Storrow that she became their patron. In addition to subsidizing the pottery program so the girls could earn money through a creative, 40-hours-a-week job, Storrow built a 14-bedroom “cottage” escape for the SEGs. Fresh air and food was a huge deal, to say the least, to the era’s reformers, who feared the unhealthy consequences of cramped, urban lifestyles on immigrant children. At the cottage, girls could go for a hike or a swim; no single religion was promoted over another; and democracy ruled, with girls getting to vote on their governing body.

Guerrier’s SEG Club model proved incredibly popular. By 1915, more than 250 Boston girls and unmarried young women belonged to several library clubs that met throughout the week, learning everything from classics to current events and publishing their own newspaper, the S.E.G. News, which focused on relevant issues of immigration, democracy and employment opportunities. Kids these days, with their journalism!

During World War II, the retired Guerrier found work as a volunteer librarian, helping distribute disaster-preparedness information. And in 1950, not one to idly sit around, 80-year-old Guerrier began her autobiography. That same year, the SEGs celebrated their lifelong friend’s birthday by donating to a library fund named for her. She passed away in 1958, and the “girls” would continue to meet until 1969.

Sources + further reading

Clark, Kellie D. and John V. Richardson Jr. "Edith Guerrier: 'A Little [Warrior] Woman of New England' on behalf of U.S. public documents, 1870-1958." Journal of Government Information. Vol. 28, Iss. 3, May-June 2001. Pages 267-283. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1352023701002982

Guerrier, Edith. "An Independent Woman: The Autobiography of Edith Guerrier." Ed. Molly Matson. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, January 1992. http://www.umass.edu/umpress/title/independent-woman

Larson, Kate Clifford. "Saturday Evening Girls." In Girlhood in America: An Encyclopedia, ed. Miriam Forman-Brunell. Vol. 2, pages 578-584. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2001. http://www.abc-clio.com/ABC-CLIOCorporate/product.aspx?pc=A1192C

"The story of the Saturday Evening Girls: Dedicated to Edith Guerrier and Helen Osborne Storrow - especially written for the reunion Thursday evening, December 12, 1929, at the West End House, 16 Blossom Street, Boston, Mass." http://cdm.bostonathenaeum.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15482coll3/id/4277