Four Female Firsts: Trailblazing Women in Rochester’s history

Susan B. Anthony may be the most famous woman in Rochester’s history, but the area has also been home to a host of lesser known women who went on to become pioneers in a wide range of fields and disciplines. Here’s a look at the groundbreaking lives of four former residents.


Antoinette Brown (from: Stanton, Anthony & Gage. History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 1 (1887). 

Born in Henrietta, Antoinette Brown Blackwell (1825-1921) was the first officially ordained female minister in the United States. A member of her local Congregational Church, Brown was drawn to the ministry at an early age. After much lobbying, she was allowed to enroll in the theological program at Oberlin College in 1847, but did not receive formal recognition for completing the course. Four years later, she was given a preaching license by the Congregational Church, after which she took a position in South Butler, New York. In addition to this achievement, Brown was also active in the women’s rights movement, and spoke at a number of the movement’s national conventions. She was one of the few original suffragists to witness the enactment of 19th Amendment and cast a vote in 1920.

firsts_adamson dolley

Sarah Adamson Dolley (from Rochester Historical Society Publication Series VII, 1928)

After being rejected by 13 colleges on account of her sex, Sarah Adamson Dolley (1829-1909) went on to become the first woman in Rochester and  one of the first women in the United States to graduate from medical school. Upon earning her degree from the short-lived Central Medical College in 1851, she opened a practice with her husband in Rochester and became a prominent national leader on the topics of health and social reform. She also made a tremendous impact locally. She was helped establish the local chapter of the Red Cross, organized a free dispensary for women and children in 1866 and in 1907, became a lifetime member of the Rochester Academy of Science (the first woman to hold the honor). When she passed away in 1909, she was the oldest female physician in the country.

Nellie L. McElroy (1875-1937) became the first policewoman in New York State and the tenth in the United States when she was appointed to the Rochester Police Department on September 23rd, 1913. Her casework dealt largely with the criminal offenses of women, and she ultimately ended up serving as both a beat officer and a social worker to the many at-risk women she came to mentor.


McElroy (far left) at an army food sale in 1919.

Focused on preventing crime rather than policing it, McElroy deterred countless young people from vice and helped rehabilitate local families during her 23 year service with the Rochester Police Department.


A circa 1910 image of Blanche Stuart Scott (D&C December 14, 1969)

Blanche Stuart Scott (1885-1970), known as the “tomboy of the air,” achieved several major “firsts” in her lifetime. The automobile enthusiast—she’d been driving in Rochester since she was 13–was the first woman to drive a car across the country, completing the journey in 69 days in 1910.  She was also the first female to solo pilot a plane in the United States. Though she never became a licensed pilot, Scott conducted the first long-distance flight by a woman, traveling 60 miles in one hour. A firm believer in women’s self-sufficiency, Scott contended, “women should wake up and take serious, intelligent, articulate interest in what makes the world tick.”


-Emily Morry

Published in: on March 28, 2017 at 3:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

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