Starting a new project is a lot like deciding to declutter your basement. The idea is to take a jumble of information, keep some, throw some out, and begin to make sense out of the whole. So my first research goal in this project is simply to figure out who the women of Jacksonville were.
We know a little something about them from town histories, but I’d like to get a broader idea of where they came from, what their families were like, and what they did in their day-to-day lives. Don Doyle’s 1983 book The Social Order of a Frontier Community: Jacksonville, Illinois 1825-1870 is indispensable to American Athena. Doyle dug deep into the census, municipal records, and newspapers to describe how a town “grew up” in the nineteenth century. However, it being 1983, Doyle was one the cutting edge of quantitative history but not gender history. Women are strikingly absent from his work, leaving me to wonder what the women were up to as the men debated where to lay railroad track. Thank goodness for John Mack Faragher’s Sugar Creek: Life on the Illinois Prairie. Published in 1988, Faragher was on the right side of historiography and included a fascinating look at women’s lives… but in Springfield, not Jacksonville.
The point here is that much of the initial work that needs to be done is incredibly tedious. It’s that part of decluttering where you simply have to open boxes and see what’s in them. So meet Christian. Christian is among a small army of Illinois College students working to quantify women in Jacksonville. Starting in the February 2015, he and two other students (Esther and Rachel – you’ll hear more from them later) began work on a database of students, alumni, staff, faculty, and trustees at the Young Ladies Athenaeum and Jacksonville Female Academy (JFA). It is painstaking work that requires going through every catalog from 1836 until 1902, and then typing all of the names into a spreadsheet. We’re keeping track of who taught there, which subjects, and for how long. We want to know who attended, where they came from, what they studied, and whether they graduated. By the 1860s, Jacksonville boasted three institutions of higher learning and one small, short-lived co-educational college. The big question we hope to answer is: did educating women make a difference? What, if anything, did students at these schools gain in a society that refused to employ them? How did these schools, and in turn – their alumnae – serve their communities? Right now we’re about half way to our goal and hope to finish in fall 2015.
So far we’ve found that attending a women’s school in Jacksonville was largely a family affair. Names indicate that students came as sisters and cousins, and as various relatives of Jacksonville residents. We’re not yet sure about their economic background, but their sheer numbers (the JFA alone enrolled more than 100 students each year) implies that these schools were not necessarily reserved for the elite. In 1835, tuition was $10 per term, with room and board was $1.75 per week. According to one on-line inflation calculator, tuition translates into $226 in 2015 dollars. That was a hefty sum for frontier farm families that rarely cleared $100-200 per year (1830s dollars), but it seems many families were willing to pay at least for a short while. Christian has noted significant declines in enrollments during economic crises, as well as low retention rates that suggest the women either could not afford to complete their degrees or did not see the use of an extensive education.
That’s where we are. Just as Don Doyle found Jacksonville to have a highly transient but socially and economically ambitious population throughout the early nineteenth century, we are finding similar patterns among the female students. Its exciting stuff.