The Women Who Made New York

by Julie Scelfo, Hallie Heald (Illustrator)

Clock Icon 15 minute read


In 1639, frustrated by the oppressive religious climate in her native England, LADY DEBORAH MOODY (1583–1659), a widow in her fifties and the daughter of a wealthy, well-connected family, sailed with her grown son to the New England colonies. A member of the then-radical sect of Protestantism known as Anabaptism (which held that only adult believers—and not children—should accept baptism), she settled in Massachusetts among the Puritans, where she soon found their practice of religious persecution equally intolerable.

Moody, a single woman, was called out—and exiled—for refusing to accept the dominant church’s belief in baptizing children, so she organized a group of like-minded adherents to move far away to the Dutch colony of New Netherland.

In 1643, after an arduous journey of about 230 miles, Moody and her followers set up camp on the eastern reaches of what we now know as Brooklyn. But after being soon attacked by Native American Indians, they sought refuge even further west in New Amersfoort, an independent Dutch colony that in later years became the neighborhood known as Flatlands.

In 1645, Moody, who had by then earned the confidence of New Amersfoort governor Willem Kieft, became the first woman in the New World to receive a land grant to start her own settlement, located farther south in the then-unoccupied southern region of the borough, all the way to the Atlantic shore. That same year she officially established the town of Gravesend, writing the town charter, planning a design for the roads and lots, and starting a school and a town hall government. The town was substantial in size, and may have included what are now known as the neighborhoods of Bensonhurst, Sheepshead Bay, Midwood, and Coney Island.

Moody’s achievement was remarkable for several reasons. First, her town charter was in English, not Dutch, which indicated a willingness on the part of the Dutch leaders to coexist with a British neighbor. Second, the town patent granted by Kieft permitted complete religious freedom; a novelty in an age of religious fervor, this freedom was tested on several occasions when Moody provided refuge for visiting Quaker missionaries. And third, the physical layout she implemented—based on Kent, England, with a town square and twenty-eight equal parcels of land—made it one of the first towns in the New World with a square block plan, a model so useful it was later repeated in numerous other cities.

While the area settled by Moody remained largely rural for more than two hundred years, by 1894 it was one of the six towns consolidated into the city of Brooklyn, which was incorporated into New York City four years later. And though Gravesend today boasts a large Sephardic Jewish population, multimillion-dollar homes, Italian specialty food stores, and the world famous Coney Island Boardwalk, the town of Gravesend still retains the heart of the layout Moody established in the seventeenth century.




MARGARET CORBIN (1751–1800) and her brother were raised by an uncle after a violent Native American raid on her family’s Pennsylvania homestead left them orphaned—her father killed and her mother captured—when she was only four or five. Years later, it was perhaps fear of losing another loved one that led Margaret to follow her husband, John Corbin, to New York to join the fight underway for independence from Great Britain.

On November 16, 1776, at Fort Washington, near the northern tip of Manhattan Island, twenty-five-year-old Corbin stood with John at his cannon when approximately 2,900 Continental troops, led by General George Washington, tried to defend New York from an onslaught by roughly eight thousand British and Hessian soldiers.

The Battle of Fort Washington was fierce. Corbin helped her husband repeatedly clean and load the massive weapon before he fired. As Hessian troops ascended the ridge, overpowering the Continentals with force, John was fatally shot, crumpling to the ground. But instead of collapsing with grief, Corbin continued to arm and fire the gunnery, displaying what a later report would describe as “fortitude and virtue enough to supply the place of her husband.” The battle was said to have lasted more than two and a half hours.

Despite being vastly outnumbered, Corbin and the other Continentals continued to hold off their foes—during which time her husband’s body still lay dead at her feet. She was eventually hit by grapeshot, a cluster of small cannon balls, which tore through her left breast and shoulder, nearly severing her arm.

When the Continentals ultimately surrendered Manhattan, Corbin and fellow surviving soldiers were captured and taken prisoner. At some point she was paroled and received medical treatment in Philadelphia. She remained crippled for the rest of her life, having lost the use of her arm.

In 1779, Congress determined that Corbin, who was unable to bathe or dress herself, deserved a regular pension, and granted her “one half of the monthly pay drawn by a soldier in the service of these States, and that she receive out of the public stores one complete suit of cloaths [sic] or the value thereof in money.”

She was also assigned to the Corps of Invalids, a regiment of soldiers unable to perform battlefield duties but who could work as guards and provide training to new soldiers. “Captain Molly,” as she came to be known, was assigned to West Point; she lived nearby until her death in 1800.

Corbin received recognition from her military contemporaries—as evidenced by both correspondence between military officials and their eventual awarding her a full monthly ration of rum and whiskey, despite the half ration of pay. And yet, sadly, she died poor and in obscurity, likely owing to what locals described as heavy drinking, infrequent bathing, and a cantankerous personality.

As the result of efforts by the Daughters of the American Revolution, Corbin’s remains were discovered and identified by the wounds she had sustained in battle. She was then reburied with full military honors at the cemetery of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. A bronze plaque commemorating her courage—and her status as the first woman to fight as a solider in the Revolutionary War—was installed near the battle site in what is now Fort Tryon Park.


DR. ELIZABETH BLACKWELL (1821–1910), the first female MD in the United States, hung out her shingle on University Place in 1851. Unfortunately, she did not attract patients, and so endured abject poverty and disapproving remarks from passersby—all while Madame Restell (a.k.a. Ann Trow), an abortionist with no medical training, accumulated a vast fortune from her practice. Finally, Blackwell managed to open a free dispensary serving the impoverished slum-dwellers of the Eleventh Ward, a teeming neighborhood of squalid tenements on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The one-room dispensary, near what is now Tompkins Square, was immediately inundated by scores of mostly Irish and German immigrants suffering from cholera, tuberculosis, and typhoid. In addition to seeing patients and making deathbed house calls, Blackwell also began sending nurses into slums to teach residents about personal hygiene.

After several years of hustling and fund-raising—she was said to possess such a sterling character that many leading male physicians and philanthropists agreed to back her—in 1857 Blackwell established a full-fledged hospital: the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, which would eventually serve more than one million patients over its 139 years. After a number of mergers and acquisitions over the years, it still exists as part of New York-Presbyterian/Lower Manhattan Hospital.

Within the hospital, Blackwell also established a training facility for female doctors; in 1868, it expanded into a medical college for women—the first four-year medical program in the nation, as it happens. Some of her graduates would go on to make even greater strides in public health. One of them, in fact, would become one of the most important innovators in medical history: Sara Josephine Baker.

At the turn of the century, the medical profession was devoted mainly to treating sickness; preventing people from getting sick in the first place wasn’t physicians’ primary focus. DR. SARA JOSEPHINE BAKER (1873–1945), who joined the City’s health department in 1901, was among the first to fully appreciate the strong connection between hygiene and the spread of disease. And so, she devised public health programs that made heavily populated neighborhoods more sanitary and, indeed, livable.

Early on, Baker was charged with ensuring residents of the Lower East Side got smallpox vaccines, but transients on the Bowery refused the shots. So Baker, an intrepid problem-solver, led a team on rounds at flophouses long after midnight—so they could inoculate the men before they were awake enough to protest.




In 1907 Baker was tasked with apprehending Mary Mallon, a typhoid-carrying cook known as Typhoid Mary, who refused to believe she carried something called a “germ,” and so continued preparing food around the City. Baker chased her through the streets until she caught her; once the patient was installed in the back of an ambulance, Baker sat on top of her all the way to the hospital to ensure she didn’t escape.

Soon after, the health department became concerned with the City’s extraordinary infant death rate. Wanting to test her prevention hypothesis, Baker sent thirty nurses into a “complicated, filthy, sunless, and stifling nest of tenements on the Lower East Side” to teach immigrant mothers about hygiene, ventilation, safety measures (like not putting babies to sleep in long Victorian gowns in which they overheated and sometimes strangled themselves while sleeping), and breast-feeding; by the end of the summer, the area had reported 1,200 fewer infant deaths than the previous year. As a result, the City created a Bureau of Child Hygiene, installing Baker as its head; during her tenure there she solved so many problems the bureau became a model replicated by other states and the federal government.

By the time Baker retired in 1923, New York City had the lowest infant mortality rate of any major American city, making it a place where people could survive and thrive—despite the crowded conditions.

A doctor wasn’t always required to address the plights of early city-dwellers.

In 1806, two years after Alexander Hamilton, a founding father, was famously killed by Aaron Burr in a duel, ELIZABETH HAMILTON (1757–1854), Alexander’s widow and a member of the state’s prominent Schuyler family, joined with two of her friends to cofound an organization devoted to caring for some of the hundreds of orphans then roaming New York City streets.

Through the Orphan Asylum Society (OAS), Hamilton, together with Isabella Graham and Johanna Bethune, rented a two-story frame house on what is now known as Barrow Street, hired a married couple to live there, and took in sixteen children who, like Hamilton’s husband, had been orphaned at a young age.

OAS was among the first institutions to implement caregiving in what’s known as the “cottage system,” a method that roughly approximates family life in a home setting instead of forcing individuals to live warehoused in an institution—a change that would have lasting consequences for a wide variety of New Yorkers who require extra support.

It took about three more decades before other progressive city-dwellers mobilized to assist a more diverse array of needy children. In 1835, the Society for the Relief of Half-Orphan and Destitute Children was established to support poor kids of single parents. In 1836, Quaker women opened New York’s Colored Orphan Asylum Society, the first orphanage in the City for black children—who, according to historian William Seraile, may have been parentless in even greater numbers than were white children.

Six decades later, in 1889,MOTHER CABRINI (1850–1917), the Catholic sister who would later become a saint—Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini—arrived in New York with several of her missionary sisters to assist struggling and impoverished Italian immigrants, who, viewed as nonwhites, faced relentless discrimination. But their intentions encountered immediate pushback: although Pope Leo XIII had sent Cabrini to work in New York, once they arrived the local archbishop told her fellow Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which Cabrini had founded in 1880, to return to Italy. With no helpmates, money, or institutional support, Mother Cabrini traversed the streets of Manhattan on her own, begging for alms. Before long she also organized catechism classes at St. Joachim’s Church in Little Italy and provided necessities to orphan children. Within a few years, she opened an Italian orphanage, a tiny hospital, and a free school.

Her peaceful demeanor was such that acolytes claimed everything she did had the quality of a prayer. And yet, she also demonstrated savvy entrepreneurial skills, despite suffering ill health for most of her life. She established a residence for orphaned children on East 59th Street. In 1899, she opened a boarding school for girls (which eventually became Mother Cabrini High School) in Washington Heights, an area now home to many immigrants from the Dominican Republic. She died in 1917 at the age of sixty-seven.

Mother Cabrini’s accomplishments and legacy weren’t limited to her work in New York; her impact extended across the country, as well as to Central and South America. In 1946 she was canonized as Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini; in 1950, the Vatican declared her patroness of immigrants. Today, 130-plus years later, the nuns of the Cabrini order remain at the forefront of the Catholic social justice movement in fifteen countries on six continents, while thousands of Catholic pilgrims visit the St. Frances X. Cabrini Shrine in Upper Manhattan, which contains a recently restored glass tile mosaic, as well as her corpus (with a wax head) displayed in a glass coffin.

In 1932 CLARA HALE (1905–1992), twenty-seven and newly widowed, wanted to give her children the same nurturing and support she and her four siblings had received from her own widowed mother in Philadelphia, but the handful of cleaning jobs she relied on for financial support greatly limited that possibility. So she quit those jobs and opened a day care in her Harlem home.

Given the high poverty rates among her neighbors, and how many of them were forced to travel long distances for work, Hale had no shortage of customers. But Clara’s day care was more than just a safe place, and Hale had a generous spirit and a gift for understanding children’s needs. She offered such a nurturing environment that many of her charges—whose parents, often single mothers themselves, were perpetually exhausted—remained with her for the entire work week, returning to their own mothers only on the weekends.

In the 1940s, Hale began fostering a number of children in her Harlem community. She also taught parenting classes and helped find permanent, quality placements for homeless children. She continued this work throughout the 1950s, eventually taking in and lovingly raising more than forty foster kids.

In 1969 Hale’s biological daughter, Lorraine, brought home a drug-addicted mother and child; Hale nursed them back to wellness. As word of this care spread, more babies born with drug addictions were sent to Hale for similar aid, and a year later, in 1970, she founded Hale House, a fully licensed child-care facility. A few years after that she purchased a five-story home and opened her doors, free of charge, to any addicted child. She cared for these children until they were healthy, at which point she tried to reunite them with family members, or, if that wasn’t possible, helped them find families interested in adoption. Many of these children have since reflected on how assiduously “Mother Hale,” as she was known, ensured every adoptive family was the right match for each child; she wasn’t above turning away families she considered not good enough for “her” babies.

Beginning in the 1980s, she expanded her care to include infants who’d lost their parents to HIV/AIDS—or who themselves were born with HIV. She later also provided assistance to troubled teens, and started a variety of programs to help keep women on track after detoxification. In all her years of work, Hale helped over one thousand young citizens of New York, her Hale House serving as a beacon to countless families during some of the City’s darkest periods.


In 1869, construction began on John A. Roebling’s design of the Brooklyn Bridge. That same year, Roebling died as a result of an injury sustained on-site, at which point his son, Washington Roebling, assumed the role of chief engineer. When Washington fell ill three years later, in 1872, several politicians called for his ouster—the project, considered the greatest construction and engineering feat of the nineteenth century, had already seen exorbitant cost overruns and the deaths of numerous workers. But all the builders knew a change in command would have inevitably created further delays and even more complications.

Enter EMILY WARREN ROEBLING (1843–1903), Washington’s wife, a graduate of the prestigious Georgetown Visitation Convent—today called the Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School—and, according to her husband, “a woman of infinite tact and wisest counsel.” Initially, she served as Washington’s secretary, taking dictation and making site visits so as to deliver his notes and gather updates. But in short order Emily became so well versed in subjects like catenary curves, stress analysis, and cable construction that she began solving all manner of site problems on her own—eventually earning the respect of the many bigwigs associated with the project, and, many believe, actually embodying the role of chief engineer, even though her husband retained the title.


Upon the bridge’s opening in 1883, Emily received the honor of being the first person to cross it; later, a plaque honoring all three members of the Roebling family was installed on the east-side tower of the bridge, where it remains today. It reads: “Back of every great work we can find the self-sacrificing devotion of a woman.”

In 1893, LILLIAN WALD (1867–1940), a native of Ohio intent on becoming a doctor, was led by a child to attend to a gravely ill woman in a dilapidated tenement on the Lower East Side. The needs in the neighborhood were so great that she jettisoned her career plans and immediately moved to the impoverished area. Two years later, with her nursing friend Mary Brewster, Wald opened what became the legendary Henry Street Settlement, a neighborhood center on the Lower East Side where educated women lived and worked among the poor; it was also the first organization in the United States to staff nurses who treated at home those too poor or ill to visit a doctor.

Wald learned a great deal from her time living among the poor. Ever insightful, she recognized that children’s difficulties in school didn’t result from a flaw in character but were a byproduct of their impoverished, wretched living conditions. (At one point, the Lower East Side had the highest population density in the world and was said to be more crowded than the slums of Calcutta.) So she undertook a series of measures to provide them with better health and well-being. To prevent sick children from spreading disease, she first installed a nurse in one public school—then successfully lobbied the City to follow suit in all others. Recognizing how hunger causes an array of emotional and behavioral problems that interfere with learning, she convinced the City to provide school lunches. When a boy complained that he couldn’t do his homework because his sister was always using the family’s one table, she allocated rooms at Henry Street for study halls and pressed the Board of Education to provide study halls in schools. She also devised and brought about public playgrounds, special classes for children with extra needs, and summer camps in the country.

Wald’s concern about the welfare of poor New Yorkers stemmed as much from her belief in democracy as it did from altruism. “As a nation,” she said, “we must rise or fall as we serve or fail these future citizens.”

In short, Wald invented the idea of growing human capital as an essential civic task, in turn paving the way for the field of social work. In her fight against child labor, she proposed—to her friend President Roosevelt—a federal children’s bureau to protect child welfare, which was realized in the subsequent administration. The nonprofit home health care service she created at Henry Street in time became the Visiting Nurse Service, which over the decades played a central role in containing city outbreaks of polio, influenza, and AIDS.



It wasn’t just individuals who benefited from disease no longer being the dire threat it had always been; the City itself benefitted from having a more reliable workforce. With that workforce in place, which was essential to the second industrial revolution, the City burgeoned into a base for numerous industries, like finance and fashion. Ultimately, as nurse and creative visionary, Lillian invented an array of practices, including the career of public health nurse, that enabled the City to become a flourishing, functioning metropolis.

Every visitor to NYC — even those who just fly over it—have seen the handiwork of commercial real estate broker MARY ANN TIGHE (b. 1948) (pronounced “tie”).

An Italian American raised in the South Bronx, Tighe is the CEO of the New York Tri-State Region of CBRE, the world’s largest commercial real estate services firm; she has also been repeatedly named, by Crain’s New York Business, one of the City’s most powerful women.

In her thirty-one-plus years in the real estate industry, Tighe has been responsible for ninety-three million square feet of commercial real estate transactions. One example of her impact: Christie’s auction house is headquartered in Rockefeller Center, the site of an old garage, because Tighe envisioned its possibility—and then convinced numerous people to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to make it happen.

Tighe has also orchestrated several projects that transformed the City’s skyline, including the move by chic publishing behemoth Condé Nast to 4 Times Square during the mid-nineties—an era when 42nd Street was still ruled by skells and derelict peepshows. That deal was widely viewed as the cornerstone to the City’s efforts to clean up and “revitalize” Times Square, a transformation that successfully ushered in the banal—but decidedly cleaner and safer—Disneyfication of the neighborhood.

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