Becoming Sorosis

Today I say good-bye to the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College. For the past week, I’ve relished exploring their collection of records pertaining to Sorosis, a women’s organization established in New York city in March 1868. Sorosis is significant for American Athena because women in Jacksonville organized the supposed second chapter of Sorosis in November of 1868 after reading about the New York organization in the newspaper. So here I am hoping to determine to what extent the two clubs cooperated, or at least communicated. It strikes me as unusual that a club comprised of professional women, journalists, and elite members of society in the nation’s largest city would be so easily translated to a smaller city like Jacksonville. My week with Sorosis was both disappointing and enlightening as I seek answers to these questions.

First, here’s some background on New York’s Sorosis. Jane Croly, a writer who published under the name Jennie June, was denied entry into a New York Press Club event featuring Charles Dickens. She had convinced several other women to attend with her, but members of the Press Club turned them away. Shortly thereafter, she gathered her friends at her home to think about how they might organize as a means to network, support one another, and address pressing social, political, and economic issues. One woman suggested the name “The Bluestockings,” another “The Women’s Congress,” but after much debate the group went with Croly’s idea, “Sorosis,” which meant, “a multiple fruit formed by the merging of many flowers.” She found it in a botanical dictionary and thought it was a lovely metaphor to describe the rewards of encouraging women’s mutual interests in writing, publishing, science, and the arts. It is considered the first professional organization for women in the United States.

So the research was disappointing because I did not find much, if any evidence of direct communication between New York and Jacksonville. There was no mention of the Jacksonville club in the meeting minutes from 1868-1880, even though in the Khalaf Al Habtoor Archives at Illinois College we have correspondence from New York members. For example, in an 1874 letter from Hester M. Poole, a New York Sorosis member and corresponding secretary, indicated hopes for a greater partnership with the Jacksonville club. Poole lauded their mission to “educate discerning girls and develop struggling talent.” The meeting minutes for the New York chapter are quite detailed and show they they certainly communicated with women across the country, but Jacksonville never seemed to come up. Or at least no one cared to write it down.

The women in New York were by no means insulated within their own group. As early as August 1868, they corresponded regularly with the Women’s Association of Chicago and even offered them the opportunity become a branch of Sorosis. The relationship looked promising, but soured a bit in late 1868 and early 1869 after the New York women asked those in Chicago to cease the publication of a newsletter titled Sorosis. They were very protective of the name and the idea that they were the first to organize. On December 7, 1868, they passed a resolution that stated, “‘The Ladies’ Club of New York were the first to adopt the name Sorosis. The word thus applied to an association is by courtesy the property of the first association appropriating the word. Other clubs must become Branches of Sorosis, before they can assume the name.”

The only (though very significant) detail that surfaced in my research was a report of the 21st Anniversary celebration for the New York chapter in March 1889. That year, they decided to invite representatives from women’s clubs across the country so that they might cooperate in their various endeavors. The result was the creation of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. There were rumors back in Jacksonville that the local Sorosis chapter was a founding member of the GFWC, but I was skeptical. That’s a pretty big deal in the world of women’s clubs. My suspicions were confirmed when I noted that Jacksonville’s Sorosis wasn’t even on the invitation list. Women’s clubs from Quincy, Peoria, Cairo, and Chicago, Illinois were mentioned… but sadly, not Jacksonville. Then, as I combed my way through the actual report on the meeting, there she was: Miss Mary J. Rhodes of Jacksonville, Illinois. In report spanning nearly four pages, she mentioned with pride that their chapter organized only months after the women in New York (using the name Sorosis by permission of the NYC chapter). Rhodes then reported on club activities, including meeting as equals with male literary societies, noting, “we are radical and conservative, receiving with cordiality and judging the new, but refusing to part with the old which has proven worthy” (p.130).

It might seem a small thing to walk away from a week’s worth of research with only a few pages on Jacksonville’s chapter history, but again, one of my main goals for this research trip is to simply gather context. While the New York meeting minutes and other materials lacked references to Jacksonville, they teemed with details about how women’s clubs organized in the late 1860s and early 1870s. We know from the Jacksonville chapter records that the first members in Illinois felt quite brazen organizing a literary society exclusively for women. They met secretly at first in member’s homes, and took care not to draw too much attention to their activities. What I didn’t expect was a similar contentious and rocky start to the New York Chapter as well.

Unlike the Jacksonville women, those in New York were not at all quiet. They met at the famous New York restaurant, Delmonico’s, and often discussed issues related to women’s rights (not equality – just rights). To make amends, they hosted teas for the men of the New York Press Club that were well attended, but where the women were neither acknowledged or allowed to speak. Simply meeting as a group of women drew criticism, like this cartoon from Harper’s Weekly in March 1869, around the time of their first anniversary:

HarpWeek Big Cartoon-page-0

And this one a few months later:

Harp Week Sorosis Cartoon

In 1870, the Sorosis meeting minutes announced a startling innovation: the women spoke. At their annual tea for the New York Press Club, the March 21, 1870 meeting minutes noted pride “in accomplishing the unprecedented feat of making all the speeches upon the occasion, the first instance upon record when Woman had a fair chance, and the last word… They have also the proud distinction of having instituted the laudable custom of men and women dining together, and interchanging ideas upon a footing of perfect equality. An innovation we are happy to report that has been crowned with the most perfect success.”

Still, the women of Sorosis had to be careful about the resolutions they passed and the ideas they published. Consider that some of the members came of age when women did not speak in public, and organizing in this way was an entirely new experience. The previous generation had organized for the sake of education, religion, and abolition, and during the Civil War, they supported the war effort through Sanitary Commissions and auxiliaries. But organizing simply for the sake of organizing and meeting in public was something new. They experienced tremendous growing pains as they struggled to figure out exactly who they were as an organization. Choosing the name took nine months and the resignation of two members committed to the idea of a “Woman’s League.”Then there was the fiasco with their pins, designed as a symbol of solidarity as they prepared to host the New York Press Club for its first tea in June 1868. Simply set in the shape of the letter “S” with “Sorosis” engraved in Greek letters, the women were more than disappointed when the pins come back with “Sorosis” spelled incorrectly. Look again at the cartoons from Harper’s Weekly. The first was published just one month before the tea, and the second only two weeks after. These women could hardly afford a misstep.

They debated whether to be an open society or a closed one resembling that of a masonic order. Very early on, they made critical decisions about who would be excluded. On September 21, 1868, member Celia Burleigh (who was later ordained as a minister) presented text for a circular to attract members. One woman objected to Burleigh’s proposal that they would accept all women, regardless of “age, sect, and color” (with “color” serving as the hot point), and the entire membership voted to strike that out. At their next meeting, in October, they declined to consolidate with the Working Woman’s Association (WWA), a group formed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in September 1868. The WWA was open to all wage-earning women but at that point consisted primarily of female printers and journalists. It seemed like an idea fit, but it would also require bridging class divides and taking on labor issues. The women of Sorosis had other ideas.

Members put forth ideas to found schools for girls (read servants) to learn the domestic arts, or a hospitals for single mothers and “foundlings.” Ultimately, though, they opted to serve as an organization devoted to the education and support of its members. Their goal was not to pursue a single issue or object, but rather serve as a hub of networking, news, and information.

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The Sophia Smith Collection, housed in the old Alumnae Gymnasium. Here, a class is working with the papers of well-known women. On the right, they’re looking at Gloria Steinem’s papers. The research tables where I worked are just beyond the partition. It really is a lovely haven of feminist history.

The meeting minutes, programs, and histories in this collection are incredibly rich and I am excited to go back and compare them with those of Jacksonville’s Sorosis. But I’ll wrap this up because I only have a few more hours to research Sorosis before heading north to Barre (pronounced Barry), Vermont, where I’ll spend two weeks at the Vermont Historical Society looking for more connections to the Illinois frontier. A big thanks to the staff at the Sophia Smith Collection for their warm welcome and helpful advice. And as a historian of American women, it was a real joy to work in an environment not only dedicated to preserving that history, but teaching the next generation. Nearly every day the place was filled with students working with original documents. It warmed this professor’s heart. Until next week.

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