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Woolson, Abba Goold (1838–1921)

Woolson, Abba Goold (1838–1921)

American teacher, author, and advocate of dress reform . Born Abba Louisa Goold on April 30, 1838, in Windham, Maine; died of arteriosclerosis on February 6, 1921, in Portland, Maine; daughter of William Goold (a politician and local historian) and Nabby Tukey (Clark) Goold; educated in Portland public schools; graduated from Portland High School for Girls, 1856; married Moses Woolson, in 1856; no children.

Selected writings:

Woman in American Society (1873); (ed.) Dress-Reform (1874); Browsing Among Books (1881); George Eliot and Her Heroines (1886).

One of seven children, Abba Goold Woolson was born in 1838 in Windham, Maine, near Portland, and graduated from Portland High School for Girls as valedictorian of her class. Proficient in French and Latin, she later learned to speak German, Greek, Italian, and Spanish. At age 18, she married her former principal, Moses Woolson, a man 17 years her senior. Soon after, Woolson began teaching at Portland High School and writing for various publications. In 1862, she moved with her husband to Cincinnati, Ohio, where she taught literature at the Mount Auburn Young Ladies' Institute. Returning to the East after three years in Ohio, Abba spent her time assisting her husband in his duties as a school administrator and writing her own essays for publication in such popular magazines as the Home Journal, the Portland Transcript, and Boston Journal.

In 1873, Woolson published her first collection of essays, Woman in American Society, to favorable reviews. While supporting the women's rights movement, Woolson critiqued the many difficult and disadvantageous cultural situations encountered by both married and self-supporting women in America. Most prominent among the demands made of women, according to Woolson, were those involving standards of fashionable dress. Arguing that the constraints of women's clothing were not only unnecessary but unhealthy, she maintained that a reform in dress standards was a key issue in the emancipation of women. The Bloomer costume, she contended, had been resisted not because it was unfashionable, but because it had originated in America and not Paris.

In 1873, Woolson also chaired the dress-reform committee of the New England Women's Club, which endorsed what was commonly referred to as a "union suit" because it combined a flannel shirt with attached pantlets (Susan Taylor Converse later improved the design in 1875 by making it a twopiece garment and calling it the Emancipation Suit). One of the first organizations to promote reforms in dress design, the New England Women's Club sponsored a series of lectures by four important women physicians on the potentially harmful effects of such constrictive undergarments as corsets. Contributing an essay of her own, Woolson edited these lectures as Dress-Reform in 1874, and provided examples of alternative forms of dress, including designs and directions.

Throughout the 1870s and later decades, Woolson continued to publish on various topics, from smoking to popular forms of amusement. She also maintained her lifelong literary interests by presenting lectures on English literature and by publishing George Eliot and Her Heroines in 1886. She also lectured on the topic of Spain, an interest that she furthered by visits there in 1883–84 and 1891–92. Her enthusiasm for Spain inspired her in 1887 to help found the Castilian Club in Boston, of which she served as president. Among her many other activities during this time was her work as president and co-founder of the Massachusetts Moral Education Association, which addressed the social problems leading women into prostitution. She was also president of the Massachusetts Society for the Education of Women.

Surviving her husband by 25 years, Abba Woolson died of arteriosclerosis in 1921, age 83. She was buried in Windham, Maine, in the Goold family tomb. In memory of her paternal grandfather, Woolson had provided an endowment to Bowdoin College, establishing the Nathan Goold Prize to be awarded annually to the senior who achieved the highest standing in Greek and Latin studies.


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

Drew Walker , freelance writer, New York, New York

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