Eleanor Elizabeth was born on October 1, 1852, in Hamilton, Illinois, United States; the oldest of six children of Samuel Gordon and Parmelia (Alvord) Gordon. Her name is often paired with that of Mary Safford, as the two women are among the best known of the “Iowa Sisterhood” of Unitarian ministers in the latter part of the 19th century.
Gordon was an intelligent, questioning child who wondered about theological and practical issues not always considered proper for a female. Her father’s family had been members of an early Unitarian church in New Hampshire. When he married Parmelia Alvord, daughter of a Freewill Baptist minister, in Illinois, he joined the Baptist church and later the Presbyterian church. The varied church affiliations of relatives provided fodder for Eleanor’s inquiring mind.
Because her mother was generally in poor health, Gordon had many household responsibilities, especially for her five siblings. In spite of the hard work while her father was away in the Union army, Gordon’s intellectual curiosity was fostered by reading and studying, even as a young girl. Her intense need to learn remained a defining characteristic throughout her life. Relatives provided books, and the family subscribed to several church and other newspapers.
The family was much interested in politics, and Gordon remained committed and active in politics throughout her life. Her accounts of family, friends, and ideas in her memoirs, dictated while she was in her 80s, are lively depictions of her life and her response to events as they happened. The breadth and depth of her reading made her question conventional mores and women’s roles and inspired her to become and remain an independent person.