5 women have been President of the Portsmouth NH Athenaeum


Women were not excluded from membership in the Athenaeum, but the private library and museum founded in 1817 did not allow a woman to purchase a share in her own name until 1860.

Elizabeth Langdon Elwyn, daughter of Governor John Langdon, was among the initial group to pay a subscription to support the fledgling library in 1816. She contributed $50, double the $25 subscription and paid an annual fee of 6 $ the following year.

“As far as I know, the reason why Ms. Elwyn did not buy a share has not been recorded, but to my knowledge there is no mention of a male-only membership,” said Dick Adams, a longtime member of the Athenaeum who served as president from 1998 to 2001. Adams said the high cost of action may be a hindrance. He said a few women had inherited shares of Athenaeum from their husbands before the purchase of Eliza Wentworth Haven in 1860.

“For many decades thereafter, very few women bought shares – in 1931 there were nine women shareholders,” he said. It wasn’t until the 21st century that the Athenaeum had its first female president (Eleonore “Ellie” Sanderson, 2001-2004), but she opened a door – there were four women who led the organization since then, including Wendy Lull, Maryellen Burke, Karen Bouffard and current President Sally Gayer.

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Sanderson, 88, was introduced to the Athenaeum in 1991 by the man who would become her husband, David Sanderson. The two had both lost their spouses to cancer and had been friends for a long time.

“My future husband opened the mysterious door with his key one evening as we were strolling through what was to be my new hometown,” Sanderson said of the entrance to the Athenaeum in the heart of Market Square. “David Sanderson was a longtime member of the Athenaeum and he knew I would fall in love with the historic institution at first sight. I did!”

She moved to Portsmouth in 1992, having lived in Maine since 1968. She and her first husband Sterling Dow II, an environmentalist, raised their two children in Kennebunkport, Maine, where in 1982 Ellie founded River Tree Arts, a community arts organization. She continued to direct it until her marriage to Sanderson in 1992.

Eleanor "Elijah" Sanderson, center, holds an 1891 photo dubbed "The Boys of the Athenaeum" as she joins past and current Presidents of the Athenaeum in the Reading Room at the Athenaeum in Portsmouth.  Left to right are Karen Bouffard, Wendy Lull, Sanderson, Maryellen Burke and Sally Gayer.

“Since membership in the Athenaeum was, at the time, dependent on the death of another member, I was lucky when Dave told me he would transfer his membership to me so that I could be active in the organization,” Sanderson said. “I couldn’t have been more grateful.”

His love of history came naturally. She grew up in Exeter, the daughter of a classics instructor at Phillips Academy. She earned a journalism degree from Boston University in 1957, but it was music that inspired her the most. She began learning the piano at the age of 3 and earned a degree in music education in 1983 from the University of Southern Maine.

In the early 1990s, she helped Athenaeum caretaker Jane Porter, who died at 91 in July, “achieve her vision of enlivening the member experience with exhibitions and music and spoken word programs. “. Sanderson was also the first performance committee chair under ArtsAthenaeum.

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At first, she moved her own piano to the Athenaeum so that pianists could perform there. She said she was “eternally grateful” that the Athenaeum now offers a series of high-quality chamber music concerts.

Sanderson served on the board for several terms before becoming chairman.

“I was focused on organizing directors and communicating with members, so I was at least aware that I was breaking new ground in what had been a male-dominated organization,” she said. “Women had been members of the Athenaeum for years, and I was encouraged to serve by strong women.”

She added, “I think the fact that all the owners (members) gave their best to the general running of the Athenaeum made the difference between the sexes less important. There was a lot to do. “

She lists among her accomplishments a successful push to increase the number of Athenaeum owners, so that more people can join. The “Friend of the Athenaeum” category was created when current caretaker and executive director Tom Hardiman came on board in 2000.

Members of the Athenaeum are assigned share numbers when they become owners.  This tag from the archives shows the names of those who have held Share 11 since the founding of the Members' Library in 1817. Share 11 is currently held by former Athenaeum President Maryellen Burke.

“It remains to this day a way for a small donation (as little as $25) to allow anyone to be on the mailing list and participate in programs,” she said.

Currently, the Athenaeum has 454 members, including 177 women and 277 men.

To ensure the Athenaeum’s long-term financial stability, Sanderson helped increase the endowment and establish the Nathaniel Adams Society for planned giving. Adams served as the Athenaeum’s first president; his portrait has hung in the same place in the ground floor reading room for nearly two centuries.

In the archives of the Portsmouth Athenaeum is a copy of this 1992 York County Coast Star article about Ellie Sanderson, who after 10 years at the helm of River Tree Arts in Kennebunkport, Maine, moved to Portsmouth and later became the first female president of the Athenaeum.

Sanderson did not limit his activities to the Athenaeum. She has also volunteered with Strawbery Banke, Pontine Theatre, Moffatt-Ladd House and the Portsmouth Poet Laureate Program.

She befriended Robert Dunn, the Penny Poet of Portsmouth (1942-2008), who was the city’s second Poet Laureate and also worked as caretaker of the Athenaeum.

“He was an inexhaustibly fascinating source of wit and wisdom, and I had the honor of introducing him to Donald Hall, Poet Laureate of the United States, to the delight of both of them, when Hall came to the Athenaeum to do a poetry reading,” Sanderson said.

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She and her husband, David, still live in Portsmouth and love to see how the city has evolved.

“We decided to age in place and so far we’ve been lucky enough to do that,” she said. “With the perspective that life gives so long, we can look back over the years and marvel at how lucky we were to have been involved in today’s very vibrant Portsmouth Athenaeum.”

The Portsmouth Athenaeum, 9 Market Square, is a members library and museum founded in 1817. The Research Library and Randall Gallery are open Tuesday to Saturday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Wearing a mask is compulsory. For more information, call 603-431-2538 or visit www.portsmouthathenaeum.org.


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