Exploring Equality and Difference

A year ago today, we dedicated the Khalaf Al Habtoor Archives and welcomed President Jimmy Carter as our very special guest. The Archives at Illinois College are dedicated to promoting peace and social justice through our collections. As a researcher, I share that commitment and want my work to promote social justice.

So, we begin with Jimmy Carter today because its important to stop and ask, “Why do we need to know about women in nineteenth-century Jacksonville?”

Jimmy Carter

I do women’s history because I agree with President Carter that the oppression of women is “the most serious and unaddressed worldwide challenge.” Yet we are often at a loss in knowing what to do about it. As a historian, I hope to offer insights into our past that can help us cope with the present. For example, by 1830 the Jacksonville Female Academy was among dozens of flourishing institutions for women. Newly independent Americans believed an educated citizenry was essential to maintaining their burgeoning democracy. And even though they could not vote or hold office, the educated citizenry still included women. Over the course of the century, thousands of women attended the JFA alone, demonstrating the value that parents placed on their daughters’ educations. So with all of these educated women, why did women not have the right to vote until 1920? Why, in 2015, do we still live in a world that caters to male privilege? Clearly, simply sending women and girls to school is not enough.

Educating women is tricky because with knowledge comes power. Women might start asking for greater social, economic, and political rights – thereby disrupting well-oiled patriarchal systems. Historian Lucia McMahon argues that in the years after the Revolution…

“To negotiate this thorny realm of equality and difference, early national Americans explored complimentary gender roles that celebrated certain elements of equality (intellectual and social) while simultaneously insisting that ‘natural’ distinctions (gender and race) defined the parameters of full political citizenship.”

– from Mere Equals: The Paradox of Educated Women in the Early American Republic (Cornell University Press, 2013) 5.

In other words, an educated woman is still physically a woman and therefore inferior to all men.

The exact nature of women’s education in the nineteenth century is central to historical debates on changing notions of gender and equality. Women had educational institutions, to be sure, but what were the women learning? Were these schools really on par with institutions that only admitted men? And how did the curriculum reinforce traditional gender roles?

These are exciting questions and I am addressing them in my research by comparing the course offerings at the JFA and Illinois College. In 1836, the curriculum is remarkably similar. What we see here are two schools with an emphasis on science, working procure modern equipment (from Europe no less) for teaching purposes. The greatest difference between the two is that IC focused more on a classical education, whereas the JFA leaned a bit more toward the practical. But test yourself… of these two clips from 1836 catalogs, can you tell which one is for women and which is for men?

IC Catalog 1836 -3

JFA Catalog 1836_Page_11

The only giveaway is in the second description where it says that “Chemical, Philosophical, and Astronomical Apparatus have been obtained for the use of the Academy.” So the first image is from the IC catalog, the second from the JFA. They are nearly identical. Of course catalogs only tell us so much. They are silent on how this information was delivered and consumed. We can assume men approached their courses with the mindset of pursuing careers in law, politics, medicine, or business, and we can also assume that women (for the most part) did not.

One of first ways we can discern difference is in the name: Illinois College and Jacksonville Female Academy. Education pioneer Frances Willard, who in 1820 established the Troy Female Seminary in New York, grappled with what women’s educational institutions should be called. In deciding on the title of “seminary,” she sought a term that would impart women’s “difference of characters and duties.” As one biographer wrote:

“It would never do to call it a ‘college,’ for the proposal to send young ladies to college would strike everyone as an absurdity… [A seminary] will not create a jealousy that  we mean to intrude upon the province of men.”

– From Ezra Brainerd, Mrs. Emma Willard’s Life and Work in Middlebury (1888; reprint, Marietta, GA: Larlin Corportation, 1987), 43-44. Quoted in McMahon, p. 2.

So we have to wonder, what did the men of IC think about the fact that women down the street learned the same material? If they believed educating women was an exercise in futility, were they placated by the fact that women merely attended an Academy? And what about the women? Did they believe their Academy to be any less important than the College? There is power in a name. In 1846, for example, the Methodist church opened the Illinois Female Academy (aka MacMurray College) just down the street from the JFA. Several years earlier, the Methodists offered to purchase the Presbyterian-affiliated JFA, but the JFA Trustees politely declined. The two institutions remained competitors, but the IFA survived whereas the JFA did not. Why? In 1854, the IFA closed the primary department in order to devote the institution entirely to higher education. In 1899, they changed their name to the Illinois Female College to attract more serious students.

The opportunity to explore these trends over time is one reason why I’ve chosen to look at the entire nineteenth century, rather than just the antebellum period. Some catalogs show us greater differences than others, which may be due to variations in leadership, educational policies, finances, or more general notions of gender differences.

For example, by 1846 there are more significant differences in the textbooks that men and women used. Both institutions still heavily emphasize science, but their textbooks are quite different. This means that at some point I’ll need to get my hands on these books to find out whether the women were learning the same technical, up-to-date information as the men. In 1846, women heard lectures on electricity, so that is compelling. It is also interesting to note that the scientific lessons come through “the kindness of the Professors of Illinois College.” Again, however, we don’t know if those Illinois College professors kindly simplified their lectures or omitted “immodest” information such as sexual reproduction. So now, compare the 1846 catalog from the JFA:

 JFA Catalog 1846_Page_7 JFA Catalog 1846_Page_8

With the 1846 catalog from Illinois College. Again, you’ll see that the men enjoyed a greater emphasis on classical education as well as different textbooks.

IC Catalog 1846-1877_Page_2

But then in 1877, they’re back to sharing the same textbooks. Take a look first at the JFA:

JFA Catalog 1877_Page_15

And then again at Illinois College:

IC Catalog 1846-1877_Page_4 IC Catalog 1846-1877_Page_5

Again, we can’t know whether the women moved at a slower pace through the books or approached them differently. It is still too early to draw many conclusions, so I welcome your comments and observations to help me better understand what exactly is unfolding here. While Jacksonville was a center for women’s learning and activism, it was not necessarily a center for women’s equality. My hope is that by comparing educational institutions, curriculum, and books, we can learn more about how education figures into students walking away with the power to change inequality in their own lives and the lives of others.


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