Natalie Naylor would like to tell you about some important women in Long Island's history. The "first lady of Oyster Bay"; a daredevil female pilot from Freeport; a member of one of Long Island's most distinguished families who embraced what were then considered radical politics; a Nobel Prize-winning scientist from Cold Spring Harbor.
Over the past several decades, Naylor has researched the lives of these and other notable females in Long Island's history and helped bring them to life in her 2012 book "Women in Long Island's Past: A History of Eminent Ladies and Everyday Day Lives" (History Press).
Sitting on a Zoom call with the 83-year-old professor emeritus, one gets the sense she'd be delighted to talk about any one of these prominent women.
Except for one: Natalie Naylor.
When it is pointed out that she is being exceedingly modest about her own achievements, she smiles and blushes.
"I guess so," she says. "Probably my nature."
Darn tootin', say those who have worked with her. "She's one of the most modest historians I know of!" exclaimed Jim McKenna, assistant director of operations at the Cradle of Aviation Museum and the former director of Old Bethpage Village Restoration. "She's not out there looking to be on the History Channel. She's behind the scenes. She's doing her research. She's writing. She's involved in local organizations."
Developing an archive
Naylor taught at Hofstra University for 32 years and was the first director of the university's Long Island Studies Institute, one of the area's principal archives for historical documents. She was also president of the Nassau County Historical Society for 12 years, stepping down in 2020.
She is also the author of 91 articles (and counting) and has — over the course of her 50-year career — given hundreds of presentations on local history to Long Island libraries and historical societies.
"She's a powerhouse," said Jane Mathews Swersey, a former student of Naylor's who later taught history at Shoreham-Wading River High School and who has written about one of Naylor's favorite local historical figures, Rosalie Jones. "She's the one who has kept the history of those women alive," Mathews Swersey, who now lives in New Haven, Connecticut, said of Naylor. "And in doing so, she becomes an important historical figure in local women's history herself."
Naylor will allow only that she's busy.
"I'm working today, in fact," she said when reached by phone on a recent Saturday. "I have to finish an article for the Nassau County Historical Society journal, and I have to prepare for a virtual meeting for the Long Island Studies Council, which is one of my other hats."
It's a lot of hats — especially for an octogenarian. But Natalie is a great reminder that those in some professions — like teaching and writing — are often productive later in life.
It was good teachers that drew Naylor to the study of history in the first place. "I had excellent social studies and history teachers in high school," said Naylor, a longtime Uniondale resident originally from upstate Peekskill.
There was also another influential figure in helping to cultivate her love of the past: Her father, Colin T. Naylor Jr. "He was the unofficial town historian," she said. "He wrote a book about Peekskill during the Civil War, and so I grew up visiting battlefields with him."
'Not much her-story'
Although Long Island doesn't have any Civil War battlefields, it has a long and rich history, one that Naylor was eager to explore when she arrived at Hofstra in 1968. Naylor had earned her doctorate in education at Columbia University Teacher's College and taught social studies at Tuckahoe High School (in Westchester County), before being hired by the university.
Naylor’s original appointment was as a professor in the education department. "There was no women's studies program at the time," she says. And as far as women's history, she says, "it really was his-story then and not much her-story."
In 1976, she joined Hofstra's New College, a school within the university that focused on interdisciplinary, experimental programs in the liberal arts. There, Naylor was given the freedom to introduce what were then nontraditional courses, including one that she called "Remember the Ladies: Women in American Culture."
In 1985, Naylor took on the responsibility of directing the new Long Island Studies Institute, which she headed until her retirement from Hofstra in 2000. There, she helped oversee the publication of a series of 30 books on local history — a number of which she edited or coedited — and organized 14 conferences, for both educators and the general public.
As a scholar, Naylor wanted to learn more about prominent women in the history of Long Island. She combed a standard historical reference volume, called "Notable American Women," looking for names that had a Long Island connection — and found about 200. Eventually she narrowed the list to 30 who lived or worked in what is now the Nassau-Suffolk area. She would write about many of them (she spotlights four of her favorites here), and eventually those individuals would form the foundation of her book.
She's still learning, still writing and speaking on these prominent female figures in our past.
"She's the one who has kept the history of those women alive," said Mathews Swersey. In doing so, "she's become an important historical figure in local women's history herself."
4 favorites on Natalie Naylor's list
Excerpted from “Women in Long Island's Past: A History of Eminent Ladies and Everyday Lives,” by Natalie A. Naylor (History Press, 2012).
Edith Kermit Roosevelt (1861—1948)
Edith Kermit Roosevelt was the first lady of the United States for more than seven years and lived at Sagamore Hill for more than six decades. Born in Connecticut and raised in Manhattan, she married Theodore Roosevelt in 1886 and moved to Oyster Bay, where she raised their five children — plus Alice, Theodore's child from his first marriage to Alice Hathaway Lee, who died in 1884. (Edith insisted on raising Alice as one of her own.) In addition to managing the household and estate, Edith handled the family finances (her husband, Naylor writes, was "apparently hopeless" with money) and served as host to the many guests TR invited to the White House and Sagamore Hill. Edith outlived both her husband, who died in 1919, and three of her sons. When she died, her daughter Ethel supplied the information for her death certificate, listing her mother's occupation simply as “Lady.”
"General" Rosalie Jones (1883-1978)
A descendant of both Thomas Jones (the namesake of the beach) and Lion Gardiner (for whom Gardiners Island is named), Rosalie Jones was a member of one of Long Island's oldest aristocratic families. And yet, Naylor writes, "she rebelled against that background." As a leader in the suffragist movement, Jones led a hike from New York City to Albany in 1912. Carrying "Votes for Women" banners, the walk attracted enormous publicity and led to Jones' sobriquet of "General." This was followed by an even larger march to Washington. "Jones seemed tireless," Naylor writes. "When she returned to Long Island after the hike, she organized and conducted a series of pageants and parades, including a suffrage parade from Mineola to Hempstead in May 1913." She apparently dropped out of suffrage activities after the defeat of the 1915 suffrage referendum in New York and focused on continuing her education; she received four degrees in 1919 and became a lawyer. Her home still stands in what is now Laurel Hollow.
Elinor Smith (1911-2010)
"Elinor Smith is the most famous of Long Island’s early female pilots and is well worth attention," says Naylor. A Freeport native, Smith took her first ride in a plane at age 6, flying over Long Island's potato fields in a biplane. By age 16, she was a licensed pilot. Her flights of aviation derring-do included flying under the four East River bridges in New York City in 1927 — a feat that led to her license being temporarily suspended, but that also made her famous. She set many endurance and speed records as a flyer, and in 1930 was voted the best female pilot in America. She retired to raise a family, but later piloted a jet trainer and, when she was 89, completed a successful simulated space landing.
Barbara McClintock (1902—1992)
Nobel Prize-winning scientist Barbara McClintock arrived at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in 1941 and would remain there for the rest of her long life. McClintock’s research focused on “transposable genetic elements” in corn popularly known as “jumping genes.” She achieved recognition and won many awards, including her Nobel Prize, which she won at the age of 81. McClintock lived in Cold Spring Harbor for more than 50 years, across from the lab or, in later years, on the grounds. She continued working at the lab until her death at age 90. One of the laboratory buildings now bears her name.
On May 11, Natalie Naylor will be speaking about pioneering female aviators from Long Island, including Freeport's Elinor Smith. To register for the Sayville Library Zoom presentation, "Daring and Intrepid Airwomen: Long Island's Pioneer Women Aviators," scheduled for 7 to 8:30 p.m., visit http://nwsdy.li/SayvilleLibraryNaylorTalk, or call 631-589-4440, ext. 6.