Pious women only

Last month, we looked at the story of Amanda Lucas and her relationship with male merchants/JFA trustees/poor farm administrators/county courts. While espousing the benefits of women’s education, the trustees of the JFA also forced low-income women to work off debts. Since then, I’ve cross checked the names of all the women forced to work at the Morgan County Poor Farm during the 1850s and 1860s with names on the JFA rosters. None match. This continues to perplex me as I’ve wondered: what made a woman worthy of an education? Why would the JFA not extend a helping hand to these young women in need?

The records of the Ladies’ Association for the Education of Females lends a few clues. In 1836, the LAEF provided financial aid and scholarships to forty-five women (with three of four more prospects) from twelve different counties. Morgan County, home of the JFA, was home to fourteen recipients – the most of any county. The scholarships were not merely token sums for the daughters of wealthy citizens. Recipients demonstrated a real need. One young woman, the eldest of seven children, had lost her father and helped her mother by taking in washing to support her six siblings. The LAEF noted her “uncommon aptitude to learn and more than ordinary intellect.” Once her mother saw the benefits of  an education, she came to see education as an investment and made financial sacrifices to send two more of her children.

But not all women were worthy. Members of the LAEF expected reports not only on the students’ academic progress, but their “deportment” as well. Overall, the 1836 report noted general good behavior among the young women. Only fourteen of the forty-five, however, were “hopefully pious” (or declared Christians), and two young women “were of so marked a character that the committee had no hesitancy in withdrawing from them their support” (10).

We can write this off with a chuckle and a “that’s how it was back then,” or an angry, fist-shaking shout of “Patriarchy!” But there are bigger issues at work. The 1836 report was composed by Emily Price, the new preceptress of the JFA who traveled al the way from New Hampshire to take the job and whose career depended upon the success of this very new enterprise in the west. The LAEF maintained important connections in the East, sending individuals back to places like New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts to seek donations.  One group in New York raised $450 for women’s education in Illinois, another from the same state sent $100. So avoiding scandals related to students’ behavior was essential to the LAEF’s reputation on a national scale (11).

Secondly, the LAEF expected the students to return to their communities as teachers. Price noted that these teachers “shall be a neuclus, around whom many shall cluster, to acquire principles of conduct as well as mental discipline” (emphasis in original – 16). I have a feeling they were actually less concerned with the moral development of Illinois’ children than with community members’ views on female education. Poor teachers who exhibited bad behavior could put the entire venture of women’s education on the fritz.

What we don’t know exactly is what made a woman pious, but for some reason Amanda Lucas wasn’t it. The 1836 report mentioned providing aid to two young Sioux women, so it seems whiteness was not necessarily required – though it didn’t hurt either. Being a protestant helped too. The organizers of IC and the JFA expressed strong anti-Catholic views and noted the urgency of their enterprise in order to outpace the Jesuits. Jacksonville was founded in 1825, but didn’t even offer a Catholic mass until the 1850s – if that’s any clue. But that’s not all. For example, Lucas family was not Catholic, at least not according to the burial records for the Walnut Hill Cemetery in Belleville, IL. We can also assume that the recipients of LAEF aid had to come by their poverty by unfortunate circumstances, rather than perceived moral failings. Amanda Lucas and her family moved regularly, unable to settle down. This would have made it difficult for members of the LAEF to determine her worthiness (though the county court had no issues with deciding Amanda’s fate).

My next stop in this journey is the county court house, to try and locate Amanda’s records (and others like her), to learn more about the community dynamics behind their indebtedness. That will have to wait, though. Next week, I’m off to Hartford, CT to start a research fellowship with the New England Regional Fellowship Consortium. Stay tuned for updates from the East coast…

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