Elizabeth A. Allen
Teacher, labor organizer
Born: February 7, 1854, in Joliet, Illinois
Died: May 3, 1919
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2018: Public Service
More than a dedicated teacher, Elizabeth Almira Allen worked tirelessly as a union leader to improve the conditions facing teaching professionals.
Allen was the oldest of five children born to Sarah Allen and her husband James, a Civil War veteran. The family moved around during Allen’s childhood, finally settling in New Jersey in 1867. At 13, Allen was enrolled in the Model School of Trenton, which was associated with the State Normal School (now known as the College of New Jersey).
After graduation, Allen took her first teaching job in Atlantic City. In 1871, she began her 48-year career with the Hoboken School District, where she served as a teacher and as principal of local elementary schools and Hoboken High School. Later in her career, Allen held the position of supervisor of the education of teachers at the Hoboken Normal and Training School.
At 28, Allen became vice president of the New Jersey Teachers’ Association. In this role, she gained recognition as an advocate for a teachers’ retirement fund and teacher tenure. According to her NJ Women’s History biography, “Allen was often thrust into the public eye and attracted a great deal of controversy because of her persistent and outspoken views.”
Her greatest triumph came in 1896, when New Jersey enacted the first statewide teacher retirement law, providing a half-pay annuity for educators with at least 20 years of service. Membership in the annuity plan was voluntary and required teacher contributions. Using flyers, speeches and newspaper ads, Allen led the grassroots effort to get teachers to sign on. Within three months, she and her team had enrolled more than half of the state’s teachers. Allen later served as secretary of the retirement fund.
In 1913, Allen became the first female president of the New Jersey Education Association, continuing her advocacy for teacher benefits and improved working conditions. She remained president until her death.
The multifaceted and multilingual Allen was an avid student of history. She wrote poetry. And despite her limited means, managed to travel much of the world.
Allen also founded the Teachers’ Alliance of New Jersey and the Teachers’ Mutual Aid Association of Hoboken. She served on the board of the Mary Fisher Home of New Jersey in Tenafly.