Gordon, Eleanor Elizabeth

Eleanor Elizabeth Gordon
Eleanor Elizabeth Gordon

Eleanor Elizabeth Gordon (October 10, 1852-January 6, 1942) was part of an informal network known as the “Iowa Sisterhood” of Unitarian women ministers and often a partner in ministry with Mary Safford. She was an advocate of education for women and a leader in the movement for suffrage in Iowa.

The oldest of six children of Samuel and Parmelia (Alvord) Gordon, Eleanor was born on a farm in Hamilton, Illinois, across the Mississippi River from the Iowa-Missouri border. Samuel’s family had migrated from New Hampshire, where until 1831 they had been members of the Congregational Church of Christ (Unitarian) in Peterborough. Parmelia’s father was a Freewill Baptist minister. In order to worship with his wife, Samuel joined the Baptist and then the Presbyterian church. Some of his relatives settled in the Hamilton area: of these, Caroline Reynolds and William Smith remained Unitarian. Aunt Caroline considered the orthodox doctrine of vicarious atonement blasphemous. “Two or three times a year Uncle William would visit us and then what good times we had settling once for all the opinions of the world,” Gordon wrote in her memoir. “For some reason I always decided in my own mind that Uncle William was right.”

Once in Presbyterian Sunday School Eleanor ventured a criticism of the lesson. The teacher’s reply, “We will not discuss the question,” ended Eleanor’s desire to participate in the class. She didn’t believe what she heard there and found it “not calculated to inspire mental activity.” “I went to church and Sunday School for social reasons,” she later explained.

Eleanor’s mother was an invalid. Especially during the time that her father was serving in the Union Army, Eleanor had many household responsibilities, including care for her siblings. She recalled that her life was divided into two parts, “the hard living part” and “a great intellectual curiosity.” One of her uncles, James Reynolds, a Spiritualist, bought new books which he shared with Eleanor. Reading one of these—Sir John Robert Seeley’s Ecce Homo, which presented Jesus as a noble human being with whose struggles she could identify—was a turning point in her life. “It dawned on me that I was a human soul,” she later wrote. “After this time the word ‘ought’ became part of my vocabulary.”

With money her mother borrowed, Eleanor studied a year at the University of Iowa, 1873-74. She then went to work as a teacher, 1875, and assistant principal, 1875-77, in Centerville, Iowa. There, isolated from friends and family, she read the novels of George Eliot. Comparing her situation favorably with that of the character Dorothea in Middlemarch who had “to marry a Mr. Casaubon in order to find a mission,” Eleanor realized that she would never feel the same compulsion to marry. “I had two hands, a brain of my own,” she later reflected. “No one should dictate as to ways and means.”

Eleanor’s best friend in Hamilton, Mary Safford, had from an early age wanted to be a minister. Some of Mary’s ancestors had also lived in Peterborough, New Hampshire, though they had been Presbyterians there. Under the influence of books she had found in her deceased father’s library, and supported by her friend Eleanor, Mary moved towards Unitarianism. In 1876, sitting under an old apple tree, the two young women began to plan their lives as a professional team.

During 1878-79 Gordon taught school in Hamilton, helping around home, and studying and reading in her spare time. In her reading Gordon preferred Theodore Parker to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Among Emerson’s works she was impressed only by the “Divinity School Address” and “The American Scholar.” Even in these she found Emerson’s generic use of the words “man” and “men” irritating. On the other hand, she read Parker’s works, and about Parker’s life, with a “thrill of moral and religious enthusiasm.” Towards the end of her life she reported that Parker was a hero “I have never been compelled to take down from the pedestal.”

In 1879, with the encouragement of Oscar Clute, a Unitarian minister from nearby Keokuk, Iowa, Safford and Gordon organized a Unitarian church in Hamilton. The success of this church attracted the notice of Jenkin Lloyd Jones, Secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference (WUC), who in 1880 offered Safford the new Unity Church in Humboldt, Iowa. As Gordon arranged to become principal of the school there, she and Safford were able to continue working in tandem.

At the Humboldt Unity Club, organized shortly after the opening of the new church, Gordon lectured on Herbert Spencer and evolution. Some non-Unitarian members of the Board of Education were alert for evidence that their principal was teaching evolution, which they considered to a Unitarian doctrine. When she told her physiology class that the opposable thumb made possible the arts of civilization, a Board member reported her. Asked to explain herself; she invited her opponent to have his thumbs immobilized for a day. “If at night he does not agree with me I will be glad to discuss the matter with him.” Her challenge was not accepted and the matter was dropped.

Gordon gave her first sermons as a member of a lay preaching committee, assigned to fill the pulpit on Sundays when Safford was preaching in nearby Algona, Iowa. Her first original address in church was on Theodore Parker. “All this time,” Gordon later wrote, “there had been growing in my own mind a great discontent. While I loved to teach, I felt the need of a lesson to teach greater than found in a school text book.” It had become her ambition to “win a place in the larger school, the church.”

Her partnership with Safford was altered accordingly. When Safford was called to Sioux City in 1885, Gordon came with her as parish assistant and housekeeper on condition that she would be allowed time for study every day. As the church prospered, however, demands on her time increased correspondingly and she could identify with the oppressed and rebellious housewife Nora in Henrik Ibsen’s drama, The Doll’s House. When Jones lectured on the play at the Sioux City church, he looked at Gordon for confirmation before proceeding with his feminist exortation. “For weeks afterwards I was on the defensive for the last few moments of that lecture,” she recalled.

After listening to Gordon talk privately about her dreams and frustrations, Jones said simply, “You can if you will.” These words remained with her as she struggled towards her new role, “making the dark places light, crooked places straight.”

During Safford’s sabbatical in 1888-89, Gordon was able to attend a winter term of classes at Cornell University. A few months later, in May 1889, she was ordained in Sioux City. Though Jones offered her the Right Hand of Fellowship, she wondered how many other male Unitarian ministers would second his welcome. “I could not forget,” she later wrote, “with what bold horror many of these same Unitarian ministers looked at a woman who aspires to the sacred office.”

As a member of what became known as the “Iowa Sisterhood,” Gordon, like Safford, recruited young women to enter the ministry and helped to provide a special sense of collegiality for those who did. In addition, she took an interest in any young women who wished to advance themselves through education, often helping them financially as well as with encouragement. She preached that a woman “must rid herself of the notion that she is a peculiar creature, and as such must have peculiar treatment. She must know that there is no feminine road to excellence, no woman’s way to success. … She must believe herself a human mind with only the limitations of a human mind, a part of the universal mind, with all possibilities of growth and development.”

For several decades in the WUC a division had been developing between those who thought Unitarians should be identified as “broadly Christian” and Jenkin Lloyd Jones and “the Unity men,” who thought any profession unnecessarily exclusive. Believing that radical, rather than traditional, Unitarianism offered the best hope for the advancement of women in the affairs of religion and feeling that there ought not to be a “copy-right on the word Unitarian,” at the 1886 WUC convention Gordon and other members of the Iowa Sisterhood helped defeat a motion that would have bound their movement to a liberal Christian formula. Abiel Livermore, the president of Meadville Seminary, later charged that “a company of women” had ruined the WUC. Nevertheless, after an 1894 compromise united the two groups under the banner of “the religion of Jesus,” the Iowa Sisterhood did not join the still dissatisfied Jones in the American Congress of Liberal Religion (ACLR). They wished to represent “free religion” within Unitarian organizations and to maintain as their longstanding personal bonds with other Unitarians.

From 1891-1908 Gordon was coeditor and a principal writer for the journal of the Iowa Unitarian Association, Old and New. Because of Jones’s greater loyalty to the ACLR, in 1897 the WUC replaced Jones’s paper Unity with Old and New as their official journal. This led to bad feelings between Jones and his former protegés. In the midst of their newspaper controversy, however, Gordon wrote him expressing gratitude for his having considered her and her sisters in the ministry “worth doing something for.”

Even after ordination Gordon was treated like a parish assistant. She shouldered more than her share of the burden of Sunday School and confirmation classes. Safford, more imposing in the pulpit, drew recognition not only for her own work, but often for Gordon’s accomplishments as well. For example, in 1900 when Jones referred to Old and New as Safford’s paper, Gordon replied, “Why it should be called her organ is more than I can see. Mr. [Arthur] Judy and I do nearly all the writing.” Accordingly, in 1896 she accepted a call, on her own, to be minister in Iowa City.

The years Gordon spent in Iowa City, 1896-1900, were difficult for her. She referred to her pastorate there as “solitary confinement.” The Unitarian church there was in decline and the local Unitarians, many of whom were anxious to assimilate with other Christians, were resistant to her radical message. Unable to make any positive change, she fulfilled her duties but otherwise marked time until she could decently resign.

Gordon later, and more profitably, served churches in Burlington, Iowa, 1900-02 and Fargo, North Dakota, 1902-04. Following Safford’s nervous collapse, in Des Moines, Iowa, 1904-06, Gordon teamed with her old friend again. Then, during 1907-10, she was field secretary of the State Unitarian Conference of Iowa. Gordon’s last pastorate was in Orlando, Florida, 1912-18, where a group of former Sioux City parishioners invited her to start a new church.

Along with her religious voice Gordon found her political voice. Early in her career she had advised women to wait for evolutionary social progress to bring them political equality. In a 1904 article, “Just Like a Woman,” she argued that domestic confinement created flighty and hysterical women. Women who participated in the greater world would be better equipped to teach their children citizenship and clear thinking. In 1907, after she became President of the Iowa Equal Suffrage Association, she became more militant. During her term she led a group of women who removed physical obstacles to ballot box access, started a campaign to pressure political candidates, and introduced parades and other confrontational tactics.

Old age and near blindness did not end her political and religious activity. In 1937, long after the franchise for women had been won, in a letter to American Unitarian Association President Frederick May Eliot, Gordon observed and deplored a new anti-feminist tendency, even among Unitarians, whose appeal for ministers made it “very plain that no woman need apply.” “Since the world war,” she wrote, “there has been a distinct trend in both the professional and industrial worlds . . . against woman’s place in both. Positions of trust, authority, leadership, are being taken from her and given to men.”

She died in Keokuk, Iowa and is buried in Hamilton, Illinois.


The Gordon Family Papers are in the possession of Donald R. Gordon of Hamilton, Illinois. There are typescript biographical notes on Mary Safford, containing references to Eleanor Gordon, at the Iowa State Historical Department in Des Moines, Iowa. The papers of the western Unitarian Conference are kept at Meadville/Lombard Theological School in Chicago, Illinois. The journal Old and New is on microfilm at Andover/Harvard Theological Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The first two parts of Gordon’s autobiography were published as A Little Bit of a Long Story (1934) and The Second Chapter of a Long Story (1935). “The Story of a Long Life, The Autobiography of Rev. Eleanor E. Gordon, Part 3,” a typescript and “Chapter 4,” handwritten notes, are part of the Gordon Family Papers. Many of Gordon’s sermons and articles were printed in Old and New. Others are in Unity and Woman’s Standard. Her “Our Mission to Save by Culture” and “The Worth of Sympathy,” from Old and New, are reprinted in Standing Before Us: Unitarian and Universalist Women in Social Reform 1776-1939, ed. Dorothy May Emerson (2000).

The most comprehensive secondary treatment of Eleanor Gordon is in Cynthia Grant Tucker, Prophetic Sisterhood: Liberal Women Ministers of the Frontier, 1880-1930 (1990). There is a short biographical entry on Gordon in Catherine F. Hitchings, Universalist and Unitarian Women Ministers (1975). Lisa Doege, “Reflections on Women in the Ministry: Eleanor Gordon” (Unitarian Universalist Women’s Heritage Society Occasional Papers, 1992) surveys Gordon’s writings. For more on the controversies within the Western Unitarian Conference, see Charles H. Lyttle, Freedom Moves West: A History of the Western Unitarian Conference 1852-1952 (1952).

Article by Peter Hughes
Posted October 11, 2002