Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890–1920
Biography of Phebe C. Wright, 1823-1916
By Judy Bretzger, family historian and editor, “The Monmouth Connection,” newsletter of the Monmouth County (NJ) Genealogy Society
Member of the Board of Directors and Vice President of the New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association
Phebe C. Wright was born March 10,1824 to Quakers Ann (Willets) and Thomas Whitson in Oyster Bay, New York. She grew up in Oyster Bay as a member of the Matinecock Friends Meeting then later in Flushing, New York, as part of the Friends Meeting there.
She married James B. Wright, a fellow Quaker, in the home of her parents in Flushing on March 6, 1845. James appears to have been a prosperous farmer. The 1870 census noted that, at age 47, he was a “retired farmer” with real estate valued at $12,000. There are no records of any children. Phebe appears to have kept out of the public eye while her husband was alive, which was proper at the time for a modest Quaker woman. James's father, John Dunbar Wright, was a successful business manwho made his fortune in the leather business located in “the swamp,” which is now lower Manhattan near the Brooklyn Bridge. His success seems to have ensured that Phebe and James Wright had the financial security to spend their days doing “good works.”
In 1860 at age 36, Phebe became a member of the original Board of Managers at the brand-new Swarthmore College, as requested by her friend Lucretia Mott. She served in this capacity for at least two years, from 1860 to 1862 (although records of her tenure there are contradictory with one publication noting her dates as a Manager from 1864 to 1866).
One of her early interests was in the Colored Orphanage of New York, where she served as a board memberfor many years starting around 1861. This institution fell prey to angry white rioters in the Draft Riots of 1863. The orphanage itself was burned to the ground but the children were all evacuated successfully and eventually relocated to a less urban neighborhood.
Phebe was an early supporter of women in the medical profession and served on the Board of Trustees of the Women's and Children's Infirmary and Women's Medical College beginningin 1861. This was shortly after the institution's founding as the only medical school for women in the nation. She was still serving on this board 36 years later in 1897. That year, the college was destroyed by a fire and the founders decided not to re-open the school. Although the medical college closed, the infirmary continued and Phebe's name was still listed on the Board of Trustees at the time of her death in 1916.
By 1870 Phebe and James had moved to Ocean, New Jersey in Monmouth County. A few yearslater, they were residing on fashionable Ocean Avenue in Long Branch, New Jersey, near the summer home of President Ulysses S. Grant. In 1873, the James B. Wright family changed their membership from the Friends Meeting in Flushing to the Manasquan Meeting in Manasquan, NJ. At that time Phebe was named a member of the Board of Elders of the Manasquan Meeting, which was connected to the Shrewsbury Meeting.
Although he referred to himself as “retired,” James Wright involved himself in real estate in New Jersey. James died “suddenly” in Long Branch in 1879 at the age of 56, and so Phebe became her own woman. She bought land to build her own seaside home in Sea Girt, New Jersey in 1881. From 1873 her name appeared in most of the Minutes of the Shrewsbury and Manasquan Meeting as an Elder and as representative to the larger Quarterly Half-Yearly and Yearly Meetings.
She was a champion of all manner of issues concerning women, children, prison inmates, Indians, temperance, equality of the sexes, and most assertively, peace. As stated in one Annual Report to the New York Yearly Meeting she had visited every prison in New Jersey, including all 21 county jails, and additional prisons in New York State. Her reports were sharply critical of the treatment of the inmates, particularly of the women, whom she felt strongly should be in separate facilities from the men. She was a steady proponent of hiring female matrons for duty at women's facilities. She persisted on the establishment of a separate prison for women in New Jersey until finally, in 1913, the state's first (and still only) adult prison for women opened in Hunterdon County.
As for formal contributions to the cause of Woman Suffrage, Phebe was the delegate from New Jersey to the National American Woman Suffrage Association's annual meeting in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1898. She was named to the Board of Directors of the New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association (NJWSA) at the annual meeting in Orange in 1902 and was listed as a vice president the same year. An article reporting on her 92nd birthday in the Trenton Evening Times said that she was “one of the oldest members of the State Suffrage Association and has been an interested worker for the society since its organization.” Tributes at her death in 1916 refer to her “devotion to the suffrage and peace movements” as “untiring.”
“Celebrates 92nd Birthday,” Trenton Evening Times, February 7, 1916, p. 12.
“City Items Indigent Women and Children,” New York Tribune, January 28, 1862, p. 8.
Egan, Bob. “PopSpots,” popspotsnyc.com
Ellis, Franklin, History of Monmouth County, New Jersey 1828-1885, (Cottonport, LA., Polyanthus, 1974), p. 885-86. https://books.google.com/books?isbn=1362995088
Friends Intelligencer and Journal, Volume 36, (Philadelphia: An Association of Friends, 1879), p.57. https://books.google.com/books/about/Friends_Intelligencer.html?id=qrQqAAAAY AAJ.
Friends Intelligencer and Journal, Volume 45, (Philadelphia: An Association of Friends, 1888), p. 372. https://books.google.com/books?isbn=1378379713
Friends Intelligencer and Journal, Volume 46, (Philadelphia: An Association of Friends, 1889), p. 355, 706. https://books.google.com/books?id=iY47AQAAMAAJ/
Friends Intelligencer and Journal, Volume 48, (Philadelphia: An Association of Friends, 1891), p. 64, 128, 144, 192, 208, 355, 605, 814. https://books.google.com/books?id=FORNAAAAMAAJ
Friends Intelligencer and Journal, Volume 49, (Philadelphia: An Association of Friends, 1892), p. 354, 355, 356. https://books.google.com/books?id=Hv9NAAAAMAAJ.
Friends Intelligencer and Journal, Volume 73, (Philadelphia: An Association of Friends, 1916), p. 315. https://books.google.com/books?id=iY47AQAAMAAJ
“Friends Oppose Liquor Licenses,” The Courier News, Bridgewater, NJ, November 17, 1899, p. 1.
“Friends' Rites for Mrs. Wright,” Trenton Evening Times, March 23, 1916, p. 5.
Harper, Ida Husted, History of Woman Suffrage: 1900-1920, (New York: J.J. Little & Ives Company, 1922), p. 413. [LINK]
Hinshaw, William Wade, Marshall, Thomas Worth, editor and compiler, Encyclopedia of American Quaker Genealogy, Vol. III, (Ann Arbor, MI.: Edwards Brother, Inc., 1940), p. 386, 388. https://books.google.com/books?isbn=0806301805
“Monthly Meeting of Friends held at Shrewsbury (HIcksite: 1827-1927”: Shrewsbury, NJ), Women's Meeting Minutes 1873-1891. Microfilm Viewed at the Monmouth County Historical Association on September 13, 2018. Box 10 M5, no. 2405.
[Swarthmore location RG2NY/S553.2.2 and also SW Film MR-NY141].
“New Corporation,” The New York Times, January 7, 1898, p. 11.
“Obituary, John D Wright,” New York Tribune, August 23, 1879, p. 5.
Seraille, William, Angels of Mercy: White Women and The History of New York's Colored Orphan Asylum, (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011),p. 101, 104. https://books.google.com/books?isbn=0823234193
Swarthmore College Bulletin, Alumni Register of Swarthmore College 1862-1925, (Swarthmore College ,1925).
“The Infirmary Benefit,” New York Tribune, December 11, 1897, p. 7.
US Census 1840, Flushing, Queens, New York—Ancestry.com
US Census 1870, Ocean Township, New Jersey—Ancestry.com
US Passport Applications,1899—Ancestry.com
Valentine, D.T., Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York, (New York; Edmund Jones & Company) p.306. https://books.google.com/books?id=gkYIAAAAQAAJ.
“Women's Right to Vote,” Jersey Journal, November 29, 1899, p. 6.
“Young Women Made Physicians,” New York Tribune, May 29, 1888, p. 5.
Photograph of Phebe C. Wright (PA099/05/157). Courtesy of the Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA