In honor of Women’s History Month, we are showcasing six women who are renowned for their incredible accomplishments in Newport. Their worldwide recognition is so well-deserved—it's important that we continue to keep their names alive in and out of the Newport community. From the "Bravest Woman in America" and the first female printer and editor in New England, to an Olympic champion and acclaimed artist, the legacy and contributions of women in Newport will live on forever.
Find the most iconic women in Newport history below.
Ida Lewis: Famed Lighthouse KeeperBack to Top of List
Born in 1842, Idawalley “Ida” Lewis was the second oldest daughter of four children to Captain Hosea Lewis, who was the keeper of Lime Rock Lighthouse in Newport. After he suffered a stroke, Ida Lewis helped manage the lighthouse. Since the lighthouse was surrounded by water, she used a rowboat to bring her siblings to and from school and get supplies from the mainland. She earned a reputation as one of the best swimmers in Newport.
Ida Lewis earned fame for saving 18 people from the Newport Harbor. Her first rescue, at age 12, occurred when she saved four men after their boat capsized. Her most notorious rescue involved two soldiers traveling to Fort Adams. A 14-year-old was steering a small boat, and lost control during rough waters. The boat capsized, and the young boy was lost at sea. Ida Lewis rescued the two soldiers clinging to the side of their boat.
She received nationwide recognition for her bravery and met President Ulysses S. Grant and prominent advocates for the women’s suffrage movement. In 1924, the Rhode Island legislature changed the name of the Lime Rock Lighthouse to the Ida Lewis Rock Lighthouse.
Alva Belmont: Women's Suffrage ActivistBack to Top of List
Alva Belmont, also known as Alva Vanderbilt, moved to Newport in 1888 at the height of the Gilded Age "summer colony" for New York's elite. While in Newport, Alva and her husband, William K. Vanderbilt, commissioned famed architect Richard Morris Hunt to design their summer cottage to host extravagant parties, Marble House. When it was completed, Mr. Vanderbilt gave the estate to his wife for her 39th birthday present, and it was hers to keep. After a public divorce to William Vanderbilt in 1895 and second marriage to neighbor, Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, in 1896, Alva moved down the road from Marble House to Belcourt Castle. Years later, after Mr. Vanderbilt died, Alva commissioned a Chinese Tea House to be built on the property of Marble House. There Alva, a proud suffragette, hosted women’s right to vote rallies at the property.
Aileen Riggin: Olympic ChampionBack to Top of List
Aileen Riggin was born in Newport to a military family. In her teenage years, she excelled in competitive diving and swimming. In 1920 at the age of 14, she won a gold medal in the springboard diving event at the VII Antwerp Olympic Games. She was the youngest athlete at this time to earn this honor and the only woman to ever win a medal in both swimming and diving events at the VIII Summer Olympic Games in Paris.
She wrote books about her experiences swimming, which she never stopped. After moving to Hawaii in 1957, she swam three miles a week in the ocean into her 90s. She founded the Hawaii Senior Games Association, and at 85, she broke six world records for her age group in the world master’s championships.
Ann Franklin: First Female Printer and Editor in New EnglandBack to Top of List
Ann Franklin, the sister-in-law of founding father Benjamin Franklin, became the first female printer and first female editor of a New England newspaper. She married Benjamin Franklin’s brother, James Franklin, and moved to Newport around 1727. Together they launched the Rhode Island Gazette, the colony’s first newspaper in 1732. Upon his death in 1735, Ann Franklin took over the business with the help of her daughters.
Afterwards, she successfully petitioned the General Assembly to become the colony’s first official printer. Operating under the imprint of “The Widow Franklin” she printed books, sermons, pamphlets, election ballots etc. She and her son, James Franklin Jr., launched The Newport Mercury in 1758 and it became one of colonial America’s most important newspapers.
In 1985, she was inducted into the Rhode Island Journalist Hall of Fame.
Sophia Robbins: Prisoner ReformerBack to Top of List
Sophia Robbins was born in Newport in 1799. Her father was a prominent Rhode Island politician and a U.S. senator. She was educated at Newport’s local schools and had deep religious beliefs. She was a gifted writer who published many poems and novels, and often wrote about social causes. Robbins was actively involved in the antislavery, temperance and women’s suffrage movement, although her main area of interest was prison reform. When she was young, Robbins visited prisoners in the Newport jail.
In 1874, she helped establish a Prisoner’s Aid Association in Rhode Island, which supported discharged prisoners. Robbins also started an auxiliary society in 1881. She became the first president of the Women’s Society for Aiding Released Female Prisoners. They purchased the Eldorado House in Providence and renamed it the Sophia Little Home. She also opened the Rhode Island Nursery Association for Homeless Infants. After Robbins’ death, the Sophia Little Home became a sanctuary for unwed mothers.
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