Dr. Marenda Briggs Randall
“A Woman Before Her Time”
The name Marenda Briggs Randall does not appear in Henry Swan Dana’s History of Woodstock, despite the fact that Marenda was by all accounts one of the most accomplished women in Woodstock in the mid-1800s. Marenda was a doctor, a women’s rights advocate, a suffragette, a spiritualist, and an educational reformer.
Marenda’s story begins in 1815 when she was born and raised in a “little brown mill house” on what is now Rose Hill. Apparently, when young, she was told that she was “a good child enough, but will never be hung for her beauty.” Perhaps such early comments influenced Marenda’s desire to succeed and be judged for her abilities.
When Marenda was twelve years old, her mother passed away. Marenda, not finding the affection and understanding that she sought from her father, turned to Nathaniel Randall, a young man who was visiting family in the area. Eventually, against her father’s wishes, Marenda married Nathaniel. She was soon to regret her decision.
Nathaniel was, according to Marenda, verbally abusive and controlling. While there appeared to be some relatively happy times - including when Marenda was living in a progressive community in New York (where she was appointed to be the Director of Education, and thereby one of the five leaders for the entire organization). However, much of Nathaniel and Marenda’s marriage was punctuated by periods of extreme unhappiness. Eventually, Marenda sought a way out of the marriage. The key was education.
At a time when most women did not attend college, Marenda not only attended but graduated from Pennsylvania Medical College in 1854.
Marenda’s reasons for pursuing a medical degree appear to be so that she could extricate herself from her marriage and have the means to care for her children. After her graduation, she returned to Woodstock. In 1857 her divorce from Nathaniel was finalized.
Despite her education and medical training, many people in town refused to be treated by her, perhaps because of her gender or perhaps because of her iconoclastic ways. In addition to being a divorcee, she wore the “American costume,” and was an advocate for women’s rights and abolitionism. Marenda’s great granddaughter wrote: “it has been said that she [Marenda] had a station in the Underground Railroad in Woodstock before the Civil War.” The site where Marenda lived, which is presently occupied by the Woodstock Elementary School, was close to the area on South Street where most of the town’s black families resided.
Marenda had three children who survived to adulthood: Eliza (who was called “Lizzie”), Eloise (who moved to Chicago and, like her mother, became a medical doctor), and George, a captain of the Vermont Volunteers, who was killed in the Battle of the Wilderness, during the Civil War. The local GAR organization, George C. Randall Post, was named in his honor.
Marenda also “adopted” a daughter named Olive, although there is a family tradition that Olive was Marenda’s natural daughter born after the divorce. The census records show that in 1860 “Olive Howard” (who was born in Pennsylvania) was living with Marenda in Woodstock.