Skip to main content

Polly Wynn Allen Papers

Identifier: 072

Collection Overview

This collection contains diaries, articles, publications, notes, notebooks, correspondence, manuscripts, and photographs related to the professional life of Polly Wynn Allen.

The collection also contains administrative, financial, and historical files on SeniorsConnect, the non profit organization Allen founded in 1989. (SeniorsConnect was also known as Neighbor Elder Lead, Inc. (NEli) from 199x to 200X, and Neighborhood Housing Partnership, Inc. from 1989 to 1993.)

Notable materials in the collection include Allen's serman notes, the material on equal rights for women in religion (in particular Daughters of Jerusalem), Allen's Ph.D. notebooks on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, reproductions of obscure publications by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Allen's research notebooks for her book on Gilman, and files pertaining to Allen serving as a delegate to the NGO meetings at the Fourth U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing, China.


  • 1958-2014

Language of Materials


Access to Collections

This collection is open to research.

Conditions Governing Use

The material in this collection is subject to copyright and intellectual property restrictions. It is the responsibility of the researcher to understand and observe copyright law and to identify and satisfy the holders of all copyright. Researchers must obtain written permission from the copyright holder(s) if they wish to publish materials from this collection. Questions concerning copyright and permission to publish should be directed to the Cambridge Room, Cambridge Public Library Archives and Special Collections.


Pauline (Polly) Wynn Allen was born on October 2, 1936, to Pauline Llewelyn Wynn and William Fred Allen in Dallas, Texas. Allen comes from a long maternal line of Methodist clergy in Louisiana; her great grandfather, John Franklin Wynn, and grandfather, Robert Henry Wynn, served congregations there. Allen's mother, having earned two master's degrees in religion at Boston University School of Theology in the 1920's, actively practiced ministry, both professional and volunteer, throughout her life. In 1943, to accommodate her father's career in the Upjohn Pharmaceutical Company, Allen's parents moved Polly and her two younger siblings, Mary Louise and William Fred, Jr., to Kalamazoo, Michigan where the children attended primary and secondary school.

Allen received herbachelor's degree, with majors in history and sociology, from Duke University in 1958. She earned a Master of Divinity degree at Union Theological Seminary in 1962 and a Ph.D. degree from Harvard University in the Study of Religion in 1978.

Allen took leadership roles in church groups from her late childhood into young adulthood. Her professional church leadership started at Union Seminary when she served in fieldwork placements jobs (1958-60), first at the East Harlem Protestant Parish and later the Hitchcock Presbyterian Church in Scarsdale, New York. During the academic year 1960-61, she worked as an associate campus minister for the Methodist Church at Duke University. Following her 1962 graduation from Union she was hired as the Assistant Episcopal Chaplain at Cornell University in a campus ministry position in which she served for two years.

In 1960, Allen married Donald Leonard Robinson, a fellow theological student at Union. In 1961 she decided to change her religious affiliation from the Methodist to the Episcopal Church. As she launched her professional ministry in the early 1960s, she was unaware that the Methodist Church that she was leaving had already been ordaining women into its clergy for a decade while the Episcopal Church would continue a policy of a male-only clergy for another two decades. Allen was part of a women's movement in the United States Episcopal Church that eventually helped lead to the entry of women into the clergy in the 1980s and 90s. By the time of the Episcopal Church policy change, Allen was no longer interested in pursuing ordination.

In the spring of 1964, Allen was recruited by the Commission on Religion and Race of the National Council of Churches (NCC) to be a field organizer in Mississippi Freedom Summer. The NCC sent Allen to Greenville, Mississippi, to be a “white community worker,” seeking supporters of black empowerment in city’s white churches, who agreed to support a Delta Ministry program.

In 1966, Allen’s husband, Donald, joined the faculty of Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. By this time Allen had two young sons, John Samuel Allen (b. 1965) and David Wynn Allen (b. 1966). Struggling to combine her parenting and professional commitments in Northampton, Allen found no paid opportunities in professional ministry. From 1967 until early 1969, she served as an unpaid part-time protestant chaplain at the Hampshire County Jail. Mostly she worked as the full-time parent of her sons and as a grassroots activist, in feminist, Central American solidarity, and civil rights circles.

Starting in 1968 Allen convened a group of women in the Northampton area to engage in an agenda that was both feminist and spiritual. Meeting weekly in the basement of Allen's home, the group, which included an equal number of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, functioned as both a study and support group and called themselves “Daughters of Jerusalem” (DOJ). Allen prepared a syllabus entitled “The Idea of God: Beyond Patriarchy,” that served as the group’s focus. They experimented with creating inclusive language liturgies in which they invited their families and other close friends to participate. With encouragement from her friends in DOJ and her husband, Allen pursued a Ph.D. in women's studies and religion at Harvard University, spending the weekdays in Cambridge and the weekends in Northampton with her family. During her two academic years at Harvard (1971-1973), Allen studied social scientific approaches to understanding religious phenomena, with Professors Ann Swidler and Theda Skocpol in the Department of Sociology; and philosophical and theological social ethics with Preston Williams and Arthur Dyck in the School of Theology.

She was chosen to be in the first group of research associates in women studies for the field of Christian social ethics at the Harvard Divinity School for the academic year 1973-74. Allen delivered lectures and seminars on what the field would resemble without its male-centered biases, focusing on male privilege within the church and the theological and ethical language in the United States. The history of feminist protest about male privilege in the church led Allen to study Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Her dissertation project, The Social Ethics of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, examines Gilman’s vision of gender equality and how to achieve it. In writing this study, Allen was the first Ph.D. student in the Study of Religion at Harvard whose program of study and dissertation topic were based on an explicit intention to develop the field of women's studies.

After her graduation from Harvard in 1978, Allen interviewed for several teaching jobs at theological seminaries throughout the United States but she did not find a good match. Allen and her husband divorced in 1980 and she moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1983. During this time, Allen rewrote her dissertation for publication. Titled Building Domestic Liberty: Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Architectural Feminism, the book places Gilman in the context of a little known, late nineteenth and early twentieth century movement to liberate women from the investment of time and thought in domesticity. Gilman sought to achieve a fairer world for women by means of neighborhood design, one that would facilitate women's dual pursuits, securing meaningful work outside the home and delivering effective family nurturance within the home. Gilman, whose life was dedicated to freeing women from a regimen of domestic duties, advocated for large shared kitchens, community dining rooms, and child care centers. Upon its publication by the University of Amherst Press in 1988, Allen's book aroused considerable interest and was reviewed widely, including in a feature article in the New York Times and in the London Review of Books.

In 1989, inspired both by her desire for community engagement and Charlotte Gilman's efforts to address many issues important to her, Allen invited Susanna Horton and Alison Rowell to form a non-profit company, Neighborhood Housing Partnership (NHP), to develop housing with the built-in community facilities envisioned by Gilman. NHP, headquartered on the third floor of Allen’s home on Erie Street in Cambridge, received federal tax-exempt status as a 501[c]3 organization in 1992. NHP sought to acquire and rehabilitate a former parochial school building on McTiernan Street in Cambridge as well as an unoccupied office building. Because of the sudden increase in property values, NHP was unable to purchase the properties.

In 1993, NHP modified its agenda from the development of housing units to a program of community organizing - assisting neighbors in a particular locale to open their homes/yards to each other for shared events, meals, and childcare. Allen noted in her early neighborhood organizing initiatives that many working parents with young children were enthusiastic about participating in community meals and other shared neighborhood activities but unable to take any significant responsibility for such opportunities. Allen noticed that the people who did have time to take community-building initiative were often retired individuals.

In response to this realization, Allen initiated a variety of programs to teach and assist elders to build cooperative networks and connections for themselves, for example “Older Women Neighbors (OWN)” in the Cambridgeport neighborhood, “Village Elder Empowerment Program” at the Miller's River Apartments in East Cambridge, and other interventions in public housing communities, such as Roosevelt Towers near Inman Square in Cambridge, and Castle Cove Senior Housing in South Boston.

In the late 1990s and the early 2000s, NHP and its members built community life around themselves in the places they were already living. One of these initiatives was the Erie Street Neighbors Association. To reflect their modified agenda, they changed the name of the parent organization from NHP to Neighborhood ElderLead with the nickname “NELI”. Eventually they changed the name to SeniorsConnect because “ElderLead” was regularly misheard as “elderly” which didn't convey what they intended about encouraging elders to take initiative for themselves. SeniorsConnect continued to offer workshops to empower elders through wellness and fitness programs, train the trainer initiatives, and community building.

In 2015, Allen sold her home on Erie Street and moved to Putnam Square Apartments, an 11 story affordable living community for seniors and persons with disabilities on the eastern end of Harvard Square.

Allen has been a lifelong activist outside her work in the protestant church, academia, and community building. In addition, she has been involved in Re-evaluation Counseling (RC) or “co-counseling” since 1988. She became certified as an RC teacher at the local level and a regional leader of Elder Liberation in greater Boston and southern New England. Allen is a member of the University Lutheran Church and St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Cambridge.


18 boxes (15 Hollinger boxes; 1 half Hollinger box; 2 oversize)

Organization of Collection

Approximately 14,800 items organized into series:
  1. Activism, 1963-1992
  2. Sermons and Ministry, 1963-1986
  3. Graduate School, 1958-1978
  4. Book, Building Domestic Liberty: Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Architectural Feminism
  5. Seniors Connect, 1980-2014
The subseries and files within each series are grouped either alphabetically or chronologically.

Custodial History

Donated by Polly Wynn Allen on July 7, 2015.

Physical Description

XXX Linear feet

Physical Description

XXX Cubic Feet

Physical Description

14,800 Items

Processing Information

Processed by Alyssa Pacy in August through December, 2015.
Finding aid to the Polly Wynn Allen Papers, 1962-2014 072
Alyssa Pacy
December 4, 2015
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Code for undetermined script
Language of description note

Repository Details

Part of the Cambridge Room, Cambridge Public Library Archives and Special Collections Repository

Cambridge Public Library
449 Broadway
Cambridge MA 02138 USA