White, Anna (1831–1910)

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White, Anna (1831–1910)

American Shaker eldress and reformer . Born in Brooklyn, New York, on January 21, 1831; died in New Lebanon, New York, on December 16, 1910; third daughter of five children of Robert White (a hardware merchant) and Hannah (Gibbs) White; in early teens, sent to Mansion Square Seminary in Poughkeepsie, New York.

Raised as a Quaker; learned of Shakers through father's business; joined the Shaker community in New Lebanon, New York, as a member of the North Family (1849); appointed associate eldress (1865); became first eldress of the North Family (1887); worked for peace and women's rights outside the community.

Anna White was born in Brooklyn, New York, on January 21, 1831. She was the daughter of Quakers, her father having converted to the Society of Friends while Anna was still quite young. Both her faith and her parents encouraged her to do good works, particularly on behalf of the poor, so White's social conscience was already quite developed in childhood. She particularly remembered hearing anti-slavery lecturer Lucretia Mott speak at a Friends meeting. After some schooling at a Friends school in Poughkeepsie, New York, White returned to her father in New York City and took up the tailoring trade.

White's father Robert underwent another religious conversion when he joined a Shaker community in New Lebanon, New York, having been exposed to the faith through business dealings with the Hancock, Massachusetts, Shaker community. Although this conservative, apocalyptic sect advocated both celibacy and communal living, Robert White retained his connection to his family. Anna White, who had occasionally joined her father on his trips to Hancock, likewise fell in love with the Shakers' rural community, songs, and lively meetings, and converted to Shakerism on September 16, 1849, contrary to the wishes of her family.

The New Lebanon Shaker community was to be White's home for the rest of her life, and she met several other prominent Shakers such as Mother Ruth Landon , successor to Mother Lucy Wright , Elder Fredrick Evans and Eldress Antoinette Doolittle . Within 15 years, White herself had ascended to a leadership position as associate eldress, responsible for the care of the girls. Upon the death of Eldress Antoinette in 1887, White took her position as first eldress of the North Family. In over 60 years of Shaker life, White created valuable documents on Shaker songs and history. She compiled two books of Shaker music, including some of her own compositions, and collaborated with Eldress Leila S. Taylor on the book Shakerism: Its Meaning and Message, published in 1904. At the time, it was the only published history of the movement written by one of its members. Her other interests included vegetarianism, spiritualism, and the tenets of Christian Science.

White's heavy involvement with the community did not preclude her activities in the "outside world." In the 1890s, she wrote a letter for a group of French women, "The Shaker Sisters Plea for Dreyfus," in support of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army falsely accused and convicted of selling military secrets to the Germans. She also participated in leadership capacities in such women's organizations as the Alliance of Women for Peace and the National Council of Women of the United States, both of which benefited from her efforts as vice-president. White was also a member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. She spoke on behalf of all these interests before the Universal Peace Union in Mystic, Connecticut, in 1899, the Equal Rights Club of Hartford in 1903, and a conference in the New Lebanon meeting house in 1905, with the resulting resolutions presented by White to President Theodore Roosevelt. She died at the New Lebanon community in 1910 and was buried there in the cemetery of the North Family.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Malinda Mayer , writer and editor, Falmouth, Massachusetts