I’ve decided to tell this story in eight chapters, each focusing the life of an individual and their interaction with a specific institution or role in the community. Here’s a general summary:
- Chapter 1: A comprehensive overview of the women’s colleges utilizes the database from college catalogs and alumni listings to set the scene and make generalizations about retention, curriculum, family networks, social mobility, and migration. In 1835, the JFA attracted sixty-six students and sustained enrollments of over one hundred students each year from throughout the Midwest and New England. Ridiculed by some locals as the “Jail For Angels,” the JFA enjoyed support from local elites. Early leaders, including Isabella Beecher (wife of Edward) and author Christina Tillson, formed the Ladies’ Educational Association of Jacksonville (LEA) to raise scholarship funds from donors in New England and recruit students. They banked on connections with Mary Lyon and Catherine Beecher to secure female faculty, confronting as they did a frontier mentality that glorified masculine ambition and labeled them as “bluestockings.”
- Chapter 2: The story of Elizabeth Duncan, her daughter Julia Duncan Kirby, and their multi-generational cookbook provides glimpses into reproductive labors within a domestic sphere, and leads to discussions of the women who labored as domestics in the homes of wealthy citizens. Both Duncan and Kirby were highly engaged in the LEA and in JFA alumnae networks and they often took courses at the Young Ladies’ Athenaeum in humanities fields such as history and literature, all the while depending on domestic servants for the operation of their households.
- Chapter 3: The third chapter considers those domestic servants in greater depth. Emily Logan was among four enslaved women in Jacksonville known to have sued for their freedom during the 1840s. Logan’s story is especially telling about the dynamics of race because she won her case but secured legal representation by promising two years of servitude to her attorney, Murray McConnel.
- Chapter 4: Belle Woods was one of the first instructors at the Illinois School for the Deaf, which then leads to discussions about women’s roles at the schools for the visually and hearing impaired. In their correspondence, male superintendents defended their practice of hiring women, as they believed females to be more adept at dealing with disabled students.
- Chapter 5: Here is where readers learn about Emma Smith, whose story brings together the intersections of women’s education and mental illness in a period when the Illinois legislature began to recognize the rights of the mentally ill. This chapter traces Smith’s education at the Young Ladies’ Athenaeum, her struggle with severe depression, her treatment at Oak Lawn Sanitarium by Dr. Andrew McFarland (former superintendent of the Illinois State Asylum implicated in the aforementioned Elizabeth Packard scandal), and her death in 1887.
- Chapter 6: This chapter considers women’s roles as civic reformers through the story of Elizabeth Ayres and her efforts to found an institution for impoverished women and children in the abandoned Berean College building after the Civil War.
- Chapter 7: Elizabeth Orr Jones was a founding member of the nation’s second chapter of Sorosis. Jones and her husband, Dr. Hiram K. Jones, helped to found the Concord School of Philosophy and served as mentors to William Jennings Bryan (IC class of 1881). The women of Sorosis hosted Bronson Alcott at their meetings twice during the 1870s, participated in the first Summer School in Concord in 1879, and openly debated ideas with men as full members of American Akademe, a local philosophical society.
- Chapter 8: Finally, the last chapter explores the connected lives of two female physicians. Dr. Ann McFarland Sharpe, the granddaughter of Dr. Andrew McFarland, who oversaw the Oak Lawn Sanitarium from 1891 until 1916. At that time, Dr. Josephine Milligan, one-time resident physician at Hull House, and her partner Dr. Emma Dewy, repurposed the sanitarium for the treatment of tuberculosis. Their development of a controversial sex education curriculum and their work in politics speaks to the legacies of the women’s academies and the enduring sexism that shaped their lives.
This all comes together in the early 20th century, when the female academies closed (with the exception of the Illinois Female College, which later became the co-educational MacMurray College). The conclusion focuses on a fight to retain the JFA’s collection of Native American pottery, previously secured from the Smithsonian Institution. The women struggled to retain their identities as their institutions, and their town, entered a period of instability and transition. My hope is that although the book focuses on one Midwestern town, we can better understand how women’s networks develop, grow, interact, and encounter challenges that are common to women throughout the United States.
Historians write books and articles (and blogs) as a way to make conversation. To get a better idea of how conversations on nineteenth century women have evolved, see the link to my GoodReads account at the bottom of the page (click on the American Athena shelf). Women’s education and public discourse were a popular topic in the late 1970s and early 1980s, then again in the mid-1990s. In the last few years, scholars have begun revisiting the subject again this time with an eye on descriptive sources, rather than prescriptive (I’ll post more about the difference later).
The two books that have influenced my thinking this far are Lucia McMahon’s Mere Equals: The Paradox of Educated Women in the Early American Republic (Cornell University Press, 2012), and Mary Kelley’s Learning to Stand and Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life (University of North Carolina Press, 2008). McMahon sets the scene with a comprehensive study of how men and women reconciled new opportunities for women’s education with the stark inequalities that defined women’s lives. Following women through the life course, McMahon uncovers the experiences of ordinary women, and thereby “the social and political heritage with which women’s rights activists would contend for the rest of the century.” Kelley’s study of antebellum women’s academies and literary societies posited that these institutions imparted notions of gendered republicanism that empowered women to act within a participatory democracy. American Athena continues the conversation by looking at an emerging Midwestern community.