Phebe Ann Coffin was born into a Quaker family in Siasconset, on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, the only child of the merchant and shipowner George W. Coffin and his wife Phebe Ann (Barnard) Coffin. Both were Quakers and direct descendants of the island's first white settlers, Tristram Coffin and Peter Folger.
Phebe lived amidst women who bore the responsibilities of daily life as the whaling men were at sea. These two influences made Phebe an extraordinarily independent woman. She was educated in public and private schools on the island, tutored in mathematics and Latin and her talents were encouraged at home.
She spoke openly of her desire to be a Quaker preacher. She took the pledge at an early age and at age 18 was chaplain and treasurer of the Daughters of Temperance and Deputy Grand Worthy Chief Templar in the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts.
She taught school on Cape Cod and in Nantucket until her marriage in 1849 to Dr. Joseph H. Hanaford, a homeopathic physician and school teacher. She joined her husband's Baptist church. Their son, Howard, was born in 1841 and their daughter, Florence, in 1854.
Living in Beverly during the Civil War, her commitment as an abolitionist led her to relinquish her Quaker pacifism. As her marriage was failing she supported and educated her children with her writing. Her contact with Universalist women opened up a world of activism for the rights of women. In 1870 she began a forty year friendship with coworker Ellen Miles.
Newspaper clippings preserved in Hanaford's scrapbook reported that the disgruntlement among congregation members was, in fact, over Hanaford's liaison with Miles, whom the papers called the 'minister's wife.' Hanaford, it seems, was not simply asked to cease her women's rights activities, but more specifically, to 'dismiss' Miss Miles... their letters testify to a deep and abiding affection. The two remained life-long companions, separated after forty-four years together only by Miles's death in 1914.
After Ellen's death Phebe lived with her granddaughter in Basom, New York where she was isolated from the activities she enjoyed. Both her children predeceased her. She voted in the New York election but not in the federal election of 1920. The family moved to Rochester, New York where she died alone in her bedroom. She was buried in an unmarked grave in Orleans, New York next to her daughter Florence Hanaford Warner.