One of my big questions in American Athena is: What happens when you have a community of educated females? Do women agitate for and enjoy more social, political, and economic rights? Does it affect how they shape their institutions and move in public spaces?
The records of the Ladies’ Association for Educating Females provides an excellent case study in the difficulties of historical interpretation of women’s sources. In 1833, several women from around Illinois met in Jacksonville to discuss the woeful state of education in frontier communities. Their solution was to provide for the education of female teachers, who would be relatively inexpensive to hire and who could be “easily spared from home to engage in the business of instruction.” They formed the Ladies’ Association for Educating Females and dispatched members throughout the state to raise funds for scholarships and recruit promising young women. By the time they formally organized at their second annual meeting on September 18, 1834, they had raised $246.40 and provided $29.58 in scholarships to five women for tuition, books, and stationary. They also assisted these women by finding families willing to accept two or three hours of labor per day in exchange for room and board.
They worked under the pretense that their efforts would have far reaching implications for the entire nation. Caroline Wilder Baldwin, the first secretary of the LAEF, estimated (from her reading in the Annals of Education) that approximately 1,400,000 children in the western states were “destitute of common school instruction.” This generated an instant demand for 40,000 new teachers, with an annual increase of 2,500 thereafter. Members across the state reported wide interest in female education and through their network, they discovered other women working in small towns and villages to start their own schools for women. One such entrepreneural woman looking for pupils in her area wrote to Baldwin, “In this way, I think much good might be done, and we might soon have good female schools in most of these small settlements” (10).
The LAEF’s enthusiasm is infectious and but it is quickly tempered by the obvious limitations they encountered. According to the minutes of their first meeting, women did not actually organize the LAEF. Men did. The document they left behind shows that even before members elected female officers, men chaired the first annual meeting and passed three resolutions proclaiming the importance of the group. The Rev. Thornton A. Mills (seconded by Mr. Theron Baldwin), resolved “that the favorable circumstances under which the important effort to promote Female Education is now made, demand of all its friends, the most vigorous and untiring exertion.”
If you think about it, this makes sense because the female officers LAEF needed men to execute many of their basic functions as an organization in a public space. Married women (and most of the officers and members were married) could not own property, enter into legal contracts, or directly and publicly deal with financial matters. During the Second Great Awakening, women made themselves indispensable as volunteers and fundraisers within in churches, tract and missionary societies, and benevolent organizations. Male leaders readily tapped into women’s enthusiasm and resourcefulness, but they hesitated to recognize women’s work as equal to their own. After all, raising, maintaining and distributing funds was all very public work that would require a significant overhaul of existing legal, economic, and social systems.
The recorded minutes of the LAEF detail only the spoken remarks of men: Edward Beecher (then president of IC), Rev. Thornton A. Mills, and William Brown, esq., a local attorney. A remarkable set of prescriptions for the women’s work, Beecher lauded the women’s efforts as “labors of love,” noting the appropriateness of the work for the gentle sex. To his knowledge, it was the first organization of its kind anywhere (a supposition still asserted today) but it was especially important to educate females in frontier communities because as teachers they would be:
“…better qualified to enter into the feeling, and understand the circumstances, and prejudices, of those whom they instruct, or with whom they associate. They are also more accustomed to the privations incident to a residence in new communities, and can better adapt themselves to the prevalent, and often inconvenient modes of living” (15).
Brown similarly praised the women for extending opportunities to those without means. He said:
“Among this class, are persons of the strongest intellect, and the rarest genius. But for the want of means, they exert no softening influence upon their species and are unknown and unhonored. This association is laboring to correct that evil. It says that poverty shall no longer freeze ‘the genial current of that soul,’ and that the flower that would have bloomed and breathed its fragrance upon the wild air of the prairie, shall be transplanted to the cultivated garden.” (22-23)
But as laudatory as the remarks may have been, the men made it very clear that the women were to work within definite social and cultural parameters. For example, Brown asserted that women’s moral sensibilities suited them for teaching young children to be good citizens. He said, “Upon the establishment of such schools, the successful operation of our government much depends…” but then he added, “and for such schools, female teachers are the cheapest and best” (20).
Beecher was even more straightforward on this point.
“Each sex was designed by God for the attainment of great and obvious ends, and ought to be trained with reference to their attainment, and that to woman have been assigned domestic duties, and the office of forming and training the mind in its earlier stages, and not the business of legislation, commerce, or professional life. Hence, to qualify her to act in her appropriate sphere, her education, though it should be thorough and complete, need to be so extensive as that of man, and of course may be obtained at less expense” (16).
He’s basically saying that its cheap to educate females because they really don’t need that much education.
Ouch, Rev. Beecher. Ouch.
He ended his remarks on a high note by entreating the women to continue. Beecher concluded, “Perserevere, then, in your glorious enterprise. With glowing hearts and fixed purpose, move on. Let not apathy in any who ought to feel, discourage you, or quench the fire of your own hearts. Your cause is great, and good, and must prevail” (16).
The thirty-two founding members members of the LAEF were hardly meek and lowly and we have to wonder how they received Beecher’s restrictive message. Christina Holmes Tilson served as the first president. Sarah Choate Crocker, the first precepretor of the JFA, was the vice president. Other members included experienced educators including Abiah Chapin, Ellen Spencer, and Isabella Beecher (wife of Edward). Secretary Mrs. C.W. Baldwin spoke for the group in her first report. First, her name alone tells us that she is willing to assert her individual identity. Most women used their husband’s entire name, but C.W. stands for Caroline Wilder. Her husband was Theron Baldwin, who seconded the motion mentioned above and who three years later became the principal at the Monticello Female Seminary in Godfrey Illinois.
Caroline began her statement by declaring that the “world is on the eve of some important revolution,” with the increasing interest female education as “the most encouraging sign of the times” (7). Without learning, women would be consigned to a”mental and moral midnight,” and reduced to “a mere play thing [to] perhaps grace a parlor, or flutter like an insect in the circles of fashionable amusement” (8). She asserted that education “prepared its possessor for the highest state of happiness and usefulness, in this and a future world” (9). Baldwin does not directly challenge Beecher. In fact, she readily agreed with his points. On the other hand, Baldwin spoke more to the universal benefits of women’s education, leading me to wonder whether these women had grander plans, but scaled them back to suit cultural expectations. Consider Baldwin’s final sentence:
“Let us take possession, and labor till we have a nation of educated mothers and well qualified teachers; till the cloud of mental darkness which now hangs over us is rolled away, and the light of science and religion shines in unbroken splendor”
The First Annual Report of the Ladies’ Association for the Education of Females, 1834, 11.
Caroline Baldwin was hardly radical. She wrote her report fifteen years before Elizabeth Cady Stanton read her Declaration of Sentiments and demanded equal legal recognition at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. Still, Baldwin recognized that she lived in a period of sweeping change and would have been immersed in similar writings on women’s new roles. I believe she intentionally framed her arguments as a compromise. In order for the LAEF to be successful, they could not agitate for too much change. As married women, they could not legally build and sustain the kinds of institutions they envisioned. It isn’t that the women’s vision was limited. Their society was.
I rely on feminist frameworks to make these determinations, but my scholarship is informed by a fantastically broad definition of feminism that is best summed up by historian Estelle B. Freedman who suggested that feminism is a flexible, malleable concept based on cultural expressions and expectations. Therefore, even if women refuse to identify as feminist, they are “living and breathing [feminist] politics whenever they stand up for themselves, their families and their rights” (see Estelle B. Freedman, No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women (2002), 21–28, 124, 346.
While most feminist scholars readily embrace ambiguity and competing identities, a handful of my feminist scholar friends find my interpretations endlessly frustrating as they try to persuade me that feminism has specific boundaries, boarders, and identifiable characteristics. But I’ve yet to find any women whose lives are clearly defined by those specific boundaries, boarders, and identifiable characteristics. Context is key to studying women’s history and making effective judgements about women’s actions.