Eleanor Elizabeth Gordon was an American teacher, principal, Unitarian minister. Gordon was a leader in basic and continuing education, especially of girls and women, active on behalf of woman suffrage, an accomplished writer, and a Unitarian pastor.
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.
From 1873 to 1874 Gordon was able to attend the State University of Iowa with money her mother borrowed. While teaching in Hamilton, from 1878 to 1879, Gordon read Theodore Parker and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Preferring Parker’s views, she became ever more immersed in Unitarianism.
From 1875 to 1877, Eleanor Elizabeth taught and was an assistant principal in Centerville, Iowa, and deepened her convictions on self-sufficiency and independence.
Probably the most important person in Gordon’s life was Mary Safford, a childhood and lifelong friend who preceded her into the Unitarian ministry and who, with Gordon, recruited other women into the ministry. In 1876 they began to plan their work together. Their first joint project was establishing a Unitarian church in Hamilton in 1879. That led to the pair moving to Humboldt, where Safford was ordained and became minister to the new Unity Church. Gordon became her assistant while also serving as principal of the local school.
Gordon introduced the concept of evolution in a physiology class at the school, which caused a local stir but was not seriously challenged. She also began writing sermons as a lay preacher, which fueled her desire to become a minister. In 1885 Gordon and Safford moved to Sioux City, where Gordon ran their home and was Safford’s parish assistant while continuing her study toward the ministry. Gordon attended Cornell University during the winter of 1888–1889 and was ordained in Sioux City in May 1889, even though most male ministers still did not welcome women.
Gordon continued as a parish assistant in Safford’s shadow until 1896 when she became pastor in Iowa City until 1900. She also served congregations in Burlington, Iowa, from 1900 to 1902, and Fargo, North Dakota, from 1902 to 1904. She worked with Safford in Des Moines, from 1904 to 1906, and from 1907 to 1910 was field secretary of the State Unitarian Conference of Iowa. From 1891 to 1908 she wrote for and coedited Old and New, the journal of the Iowa Unitarian Association.
From 1912 to 1918 Gordon worked for a Unitarian church established by former Sioux City congregants in Orlando, Florida. As she aged, she became more involved and militant for women's suffrage and women’s rights. Although she had been ordained half a century earlier, she continued to fight for the recognition of women clergy in the Unitarian church to the end of her life. She died in Keokuk, Iowa, and was buried in her hometown.
"I had two hands, a brain of my own," Eleanor reflected. "No one should dictate as to ways and means."
"Since the world war," Eleanor 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."