Little has been written about one of the country’s first feminist financial leaders, Elizabeth “Nancy” Morgan (1818-1901).
From her groundbreaking article “The Gentle Woman’s Guide to Appreciating Your Husband’s Generosity” to her long career as financial editor of Ladies’ Home Companion magazine, Morgan stands as one of the titans of the early feminist movement.
Born Elizabeth Van Buren, Morgan did not begin life as an advocate for strength in femininity. At age 16, upon hearing that patriot Betsy Ross had died, Morgan was quoted as calling Ross a “flag-stitching rag hag” and is credited for spreading a short-lived rumor that, while repairing soldiers’ uniforms during the American Revolution, Betsy Ross often requested soldiers “await their stitching unclothed.” Morgan later laughed off the incident as a “youthful indiscretion” inspired by Ross’ three marriages and “whore-like” behavior.
At the age of 17, after being asked in ladies’ stitching circle how she planned to secure her future, Elizabeth replied “Marry well.” Misheard as stating “Marry Will,” the stitching club girls believed Elizabeth intended to marry Will Thorton, the poor, but wildly handsome son of her father’s stable man. The entirely impractical, but romantic idea of marrying for looks instead of money enchanted Elizabeth’s peers, and she soon found herself revered for her revolutionary ideas on female financial independence.
Such was Elizabeth’s fame, that shortly after her marriage to wealthy businessman Richard Morgan, she was asked to write a financial column for women in the Ladies’ Home Companion. Before penning her first story, Elizabeth changed her nom de plume to “Nancy” after a male co-worker at the burgeoning periodical told her the derivation of the word “finance” came from the Latin “Fi” meaning “blood of an Englishman” and “Nance” short for “Nancy.” Determined to dedicate her life to women’s financial independence, and to ensure her husband would not be embarrassed by her work outside the home, she wholeheartedly adopted the nickname “Nancy.” A feminist star was born.
Morgan’s first article, “The Gentle Woman’s Guide to Appreciating Your Husband’s Generosity” caused quite a stir in her home town of Concord, Massachusetts. In it, Morgan suggested that “demanding extra spending money” in order to “better represent your husband and father of your children” was perfectly acceptable. This bold statement soon led to other groundbreaking articles in Ladies’ Home Companion, including “Household Ideas to EARN Your Keep” and “Spending Wisely, Spares the Rod.”
Nearly fired after suggesting wives “stow” extra finances for future needs, such as surprise anniversary gifts and special holiday meals, Morgan instead struck another blow for female financial independence by following her husband’s suggestion to quit the magazine in order to “better attend to her family.” Their bluff called, dismayed publishers watched as Ladies’ Home Companion circulation dipped to dangerous levels following the loss of their star columnist. The magazine would have folded, if not for the serendipitous discovery of new writer Fanny Pipton and her delightful column, “That’s What Wives are For!”
Elizabeth “Nancy” Morgan’s bravery in the face of oppression paved the way for movements ranging from women’s suffrage to the end of daily corset wear. She is an American feminist hero overlooked by male history book authors, most of whom would rather spotlight the frivolous and fanciful stories of flashy tarts like Betsy Ross.