The Power of Networking (or Not)

In Learning to Stand and Speak, historian Mary Kelly noted that alumnae associations from women’s schools reinforced “relationships they had forged at the intersection of female learning and female friendship.” Educational leaders of the 1830s and 1840s, like Sarah Sleeper of the New-Hampton Female Seminary, believed the combined intellectual powers within female networks could spark within the United States, “a more glorious revolution than that which gave it existence” (123-124). As we know, even in 2016 women are still awaiting that “glorious revolution.” True, we have a female presidential nominee for the first time in our history, and we can see how she arrived at this point through the help of female friends and colleagues, but there’s still a ways to go. So this begs the questions, in what ways did networks help and in what ways were they hindered in the 19th century?

This week still finds me at the New Hampshire Historical Society in Concord, pondering these networks with the records of the Young Ladies’ Association of the New-Hampton Female Seminary, for the Promotion of Literature and Missions. Located in the central part of the state, New Hampton was a relatively isolated town of approximately 1,800 souls in the 1830s. This rural setting is hardly where we would expect to find early feminists, but in 1821, the townspeople founded the co-educational, Baptist-affiliated New Hampton Academy. In 1833, Martha Hazeltine, principal of female department created the Young Ladies’ Association for the Promotion of Literature and Missions, with the explicit purpose of helping women learn – as Kelly titled her book – to stand and speak. Members gave presentations, engaged in discussions, and eventually, in 1838, began raising money to fund scholarships for “indigent pious young ladies” seeking an education. In their first year, members dove right in to topics such as:

  • The Present and Past Advantages for Female Education Contrasted.
  • Has the Colonization or the Anti-Slavery Society the greater claim upon our cooperation?
  • Are the minds of both Sexes equally endowed?
  • Poverty is not disgraceful
  • Necessary Qualifications for a Female Teacher at the West

Religious fervor motivated members of the Association, who encouraged one another to serve as missionaries in the United States and internationally. The majority stayed in New England, but these records drew my attention because of the significant number who traveled to Illinois as teachers and the wives of ministers.

With their interest in raising funds for women’s education, I hoped some of them might cross paths with the Ladies’ Association for the Education of Females, founded in Jacksonville in 1833. Members of the LAEF lived in the same communities as members of the Association, and in their letters, members of the Association actively promoted the idea of forming affiliates throughout the country. For example, in 1840, Association member Miss Clapp wrote from Washington, Indiana:

“I have not forgotten my favorite scheme of forming a Female Education Society in this vicinity. I sometimes feel that when this is accomplished I shall be at rest. My present plan is, to form a society of this kind in the Seminary I design to open in the spring. I think this would be a favorable location, although there may be others more desirable.” – Miss Clapp, February 14, 1840

Despite their religious differences (Baptist v. Congregational/Presbyterian), I thought perhaps the dearth of female teachers in the region might foster interfaith cooperation. Yet after many, many texts with Christian – who looked up the names in Jacksonville as I went along in Concord – we weren’t able to turn up any connections.

At the very least, this collection helped me think about what made female networks actually work. With the support of elite males (read: their husbands) the LAEF was incredibly successful in raising funds during the 1830s and 1840s. In fact, the organization still exists today and operates with a considerable endowment. The Association, on the other hand, provides insights into the structural faults that held members back from living up to their lofty rhetoric.

The first step in creating a network was simply finding a group of women willing to correspond on a regular basis. That was no problem for the Association since they drew from enrolled students. Within a few years, the membership numbered in the hundreds. Yet their central mission was a bit hazy. In 1838, after catalogs revealed a drift toward philosophical and domestic questions, a small group of students wanted to steer the Association back toward practical activism by proposing they raise funds for low-income women. Several members raised objections, including: “there are many whose parents are opposed from principle to any public measures in behalf of female education.” Advocates of the plan assured members that because they would provide scholarships only to their “own sex,” such activity was not “public.” 

Others got to the root of the problem, stating that “it was not a good time,” owing to the dire financial situation throughout the country. Dues were just 25 cents per year, most members were in arrears, and they feared raising dues to pay for the scheme would only serve to exclude members unable to pay. As I read this passage, it occurred to me that the historiography of American women has primarily focused on the former argument: public v. private. But more and more, I’m interested in the latter: following the funds. And even more so, how financial concerns intersect with women’s interactions with sexism. Over the years, the Association made grand plans to spend funds, but few plans to raise the money. Members eschewed plans to raise dues or open membership to those unaffiliated with the Academy. Simply collecting the funds was complicated by women’s inability to move into public spaces, keep bank accounts, and even acquire bank notes. In 1839, Hadassa Stevens, a teacher in Madison, Indiana regretted not paying her annual dues, but noted: 

“Your plan for the education of indigent females, met with my most decided approbation. It was a subject which long occupied my mind when in New England, and I hailed the formation of your society as a new era. I have regretted that it has not been in my power to aid in this benevolent object. The only reason why I have not, has been the derangement of the currency. I have, frequently, endeavored to get a bank note which would circulate with you, but have failed.”

As time went on, the roster in the back of the annual catalog showed growing numbers of member well behind on their dues, and by 1848, the treasurer announced,”There are no funds in the missionary or educational departments.” The Association had gone into debt printing their annual catalog and leaders asked all members to spend four or five dollars for a lifetime membership to bring them out. None did. Doing so likely required these women to write home and ask a father, uncle, brother, or male relative for cash (and in my studies of women writing home, they did this frequently only to receive stern replies asking the young women to be more frugal). 

In their letters to the Association, members wrote with great nostalgia of their time at New Hampton, and they were decidedly in favor of continuing the Association. But they likely lacked access to the resources they needed to support it. Husbands often didn’t see the value in such organization, especially when cash resources were scarce. Even if they became teachers, they typically made less than $300 per year and usually had dependent family members, leaving little left over.

Furthermore, the correspondence of Sarah E. Prescott, an aluma, teacher, and ultimately principal of North Hampton, reveals a turbulent moments in the late 1840s that included the departure of the much loved principal and corresponding secretary, Sarah Sleeper, to serve as a missionary in east Asia. By 1850, the new principal Miss Martha Loring wrote that she faced “many trials and perplexities” and feared the Board of Trustees had lost confidence in her. Later that year, Loring resigned after the the expulsion of a student. The school’s troubles were well known among Prescott’s friends who wrote to ask her for more details, and this may have further alarmed alumnae.

In her research, Kelly found several organizations similar to that at New Hampton, wherein women learned the reading, synthetic, and speaking skills they needed to participate in civil society. This is exciting stuff because once again, we can say with certainty that the LAEF was not unique, but rather part of a larger movement. In those organizations that did not stand the test of time, we can see internalized sexism at work, when women are not able to fully express the value of an organization by giving financial contributions to support its operations.  

I’m returning to Jacksonville next week, but you haven’t heard the last of my New Hampshire adventures. According to the Associations’ 1841 report, New Hampshire women were especially suited for teaching in the wild West not because of the state’s superior educational system, but “thanks to the granite hills, which have imparted unusual vigor,” in difficult environments. We’ll see how those Granite State women did on the Illinois frontier.


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