How Did Oberlin Women Students
Draw on Their College Experience to
Participate in Antebellum Social Movements, 1831-1861?
Mrs. James Dascomb and Mrs. Charles Finney, 1855
Courtesy Oberlin College Archives.
Oberlin, Ohio, was a particularly important venue in nineteenth-century America. Founded in 1833 on Christian evangelical principles, the colony was organized to host an institution of higher education to train teachers and preachers to fan the flames of the Second Great Awakening in what was then the American west. Including women in its classes from its inception, the Oberlin Collegiate Institute (later Oberlin College) became a pioneer in coeducation, and, after a decision in 1835 to accept students of color, an avid proponent of racial egalitarianism and a hotbed of antislavery activism. Women and men came to Oberlin to promote the religious salvation of their world, seeking conversion of all people from the sins of disbelief, intemperance, licentiousness, and slavery. Female participants embraced their gendered responsibilities for domestic virtue, finding in “woman’s sphere” an empowering call to action within their homes and communities. In Oberlin, they formed social, religious and benevolent organizations, bringing to their homes and communities their influence as moralists and reformers. Well connected to national networks, they both shaped and responded to the emergent debate about the place of women in social movements, and their relation to public activities. Indeed, while Oberlin College supported education as a means to enhance the usefulness of women in their religious missions, men and women in the college and the community struggled to define the proper parameters for female labors.
Were the Protestant evangelical women of Oberlin innovators and rebels who enacted in social movements new roles for women? Did they challenge men’s dominance while broadening their realm for action? Or were they conservatives who accepted subordination while embracing their distinctive gendered responsibilities? Historians have offered quite different evaluations of women’s antebellum reform efforts. Some scholars find in them the roots of an autonomous woman’s rights movement while others argue that reform efforts reinforced the logic for the relegation of Victorian women to the private and familial sphere. Careful study of the experience of Oberlin’s antebellum women offers an opportunity to illuminate this historiographical debate, and explore the complex interplay between women’s activism and controversies over the parameters of “woman’s sphere.” At issue here as well are questions about whether the efforts of Oberlin women embodied a form of class domination or a maternally inspired attempt to nurture and empower the less fortunate. And looking at Oberlin also suggests the importance of considering whether its female inhabitants united around a single religiously inspired ideal of the “empire of woman.” Finally, women’s movements in antebellum Oberlin permit investigation of the roles of men in relation to antebellum social movements: Did men in the Oberlin community recognize and support the attempts of women to bring their particular voice into the public sphere, or did they patrol the boundaries between male and female action?
The documents in this project demonstrate that the story of Oberlin women before the Civil War was neither an uncomplicated chronicle of progress towards the realization of “woman’s rights” and interracial sisterhood, nor a tale of the triumph of gender conservatives who effectively promoted domestically-enclosed boundaries to women’s work. Rather, the historical record suggests the complexity of the evangelical construction of womanhood, and its implications for pathways to women’s empowerment. Moreover, it reveals a dynamic process, suggesting that both local and national events contributed to the reshaping of women’s social movements and their participants during the years in which the American people wrestled with the issue of slavery in a democratic society.
These documents are arranged to illuminate the experience of antebellum Oberlin women and their social movements by looking first at writings produced by women before their entrance into the community, and then at selected sources produced by women at Oberlin in conjunction with their formal associations. Next it explores questions about women’s enactment of racial egalitarianism and antislavery in this abolitionist community. Finally, it focuses on the particular struggle for women’s public voices illuminated by controversies over female activities at college commencement exercises.
Section One, "Getting to Oberlin: Backgrounds and Experiences of Early Women in Oberlin College and Colony," suggests the foundations on which Oberlin women built. These writings reveal how young women came to this outpost of the Second Great Awakening already well connected to the networks of the Awakening. Some, like Mary Caroline Rudd were literally the daughters of women active in the prior generation of women’s benevolent and charitable organizations (see Document 1). Others, like Hannah Warner, were self-conscious recruits into a social movement that provided a place for their intellectual endeavors. They embraced the opportunity to become part of an institution where they could pursue “the consecration of body, soul and spirit and a determination to do every known duty in the spirit and meekness of Christ” (see Document 4). Moreover, they hailed from all sections of the “Benevolent Empire,” including followers of Charles Finney who advocated the centrality of the religious experience of salvation, and other factions that instead foregrounded the social implication of the Second Great Awakening, particularly abolition. They recruited friends, relatives and fellow activists to nurture the community. Mary Mahan, wife of Oberlin’s first president, reached across religious lines to seek the advice of Theodore Dwight Weld on the possible employment of the Quaker-identified female antislavery advocate Angelina Grimké as a teacher with manner, mind, and morals congruent with Oberlin (see Document 2). Mrs. Mahan’s household helper and confidant Sally Rudd urged her niece Caroline Mary Rudd to seize her opportunity for a “complete education” while maintaining her domestic role by contributing her labor to the Mahan household (see Document 3). As the early compositions of Mary Sheldon suggest, female students came to Oberlin already imbued with social and religious critiques of a society threatened by the decadence of aristocratic institutions like dueling and affected pretensions like the wearing of corsets, and arguing for the political implications of the empowerment of women within their domestic roles (see Document 5A, Document 5B and Document 5C).
Section Two, "Social Movements and Social Commitments: Women and Their Organizations in Antebellum Oberlin,” explores how women came together to promote their intertwined commitments to evangelical religion, racial egalitarianism, and female education. As Oberlin grew, women established a Maternal Association for mothers to discuss and improve their practices for rearing Godly and moral children. Older women of the community, particularly the wives of college faculty, joined with their younger counterparts to establish a Female Moral Reform Society to keep at bay “that Monster of impurity” that might threaten Oberlin if male lust were left unchecked (see Document 6A and Document 6B). Interestingly, the men of Oberlin supported this organization by forming their own male auxiliary to the female group, thereby establishing the third largest male contingent in the United States. The Young Ladies Literary Society served as a proving ground not only for women’s rhetorical skills, but also for their organizational capacities (see Document 8).
Mary Sheldon’s address to the Oberlin Female Antislavery Society suggests the particular role that Oberlin women assumed in the battle against the racial prejudice that they viewed as a key component of the slave system (see Document 7). Section Three, “Oberlin Women of Color and the Struggle for Racial Equality,” offers further documents that suggest how the college and the colony daily enacted a practical approach to abolition. By educating students of color, and men and women, in the same classrooms and with the same standards, Oberlin College occupied a unique position. Moreover, it offered the most challenging educational program then available for women of African-American descent, thereby playing a particularly important role in their empowerment. Internationally known for these commitments, Oberlin attracted the support of prominent antislavery activists in the antebellum United States and England. Author Harriet Beecher Stowe turned to Oberlin to enroll two young women recently liberated from slavery; she sought to support them in their efforts to become teachers to freed people in the United States and fugitives in Canada (see Document 9A, Document 9B and Document 9C). Despite principled commitments to equality, racial tensions were not unknown in Oberlin, where, in 1851, the Ladies Board, charged with regulating the behavior of female students, found itself called upon to mediate a confrontation between young Black and white women (see Document 10).
Women of both races went forth from Oberlin committed to its goals of the empowerment of people of color. Lucy Woodcock, a white female graduate of 1852, left Oberlin to launch a career in Jamaica, where, under the sponsorship of the American Missionary Association, she devoted her life to the education of its freed people. Her letters document not only her commitment to empowerment through education, but also her continuing attention to the progress of racial equality in the United States as it entered the Civil War (see Document 11A, Document 11B and Document 11C). African American female graduates Louisa Alexander and her friend Amanda Thomas Wall are examples of the large number of women of color who attended Oberlin before the Civil War and later joined the efforts to bring teachers to the newly emancipated people of the American South. Braving the difficulties of securing placement, as well the intricate politics of race in the post-war world, they nonetheless remained determined to continue the work of racial uplift (see Document 12A, Document 12B and Document 12C).
Throughout the antebellum era, the character of women’s roles remained a point of controversy. Section Four,“Testing the Limits: Oberlin Women and the Struggle to Make Their Own Case,” illuminates some of the points of contention. Although autonomous women’s organizations provided avenues for women’s activism, women in Oberlin generally eschewed direct interventions in politics and carefully avoided calls for women's full public participation. Proper female behavior remained carefully and conservatively regulated; when questions emerged about the behavior of a young widow appointed as principal of the Female Department in 1849, no appeal to circumstances or sympathy was successful in overturning the College’s decision to dismiss her (see Document 13A and Document 13B).
Joint education or coeducation at Oberlin earned full acceptance, even while women’s roles remained circumscribed (see Document 15 and Document 16). Women learned oratorical and organizational skills within their antislavery, moral reform, and literary societies. But, while women spoke their own pieces at the special exercises marking their completion of the Ladies Literary Course, they had no public voice at the collegiate commencement ceremonies until the eve of the Civil War. Some individuals, including abolitionists Lucy Stone and Sallie Holley, as well as Antoinette Brown, a student in the Theology Course from 1847 to 1850, chafed at limitations on their activities. Stone protested the inability of women graduates of the collegiate course to present their own graduation addresses by refusing to write a composition that would have been read for her by a male member of the faculty. Yet, with Brown, Holley, and others, she took her rhetorical training into a post-Oberlin career in public speaking. Eventually, even gender conservatives recognized the shifting boundaries of women’s roles. As the documents on Mary Raley indicate, by 1859, Oberlin’s female graduates from the classical course projected their voices from the collegiate commencement podium (see Document 14). But even as they claimed the right to speak, most female graduates still clung to graduation essay topics that evoked their more domestic interests (see Document 17).
Oberlin women and their social movements thus illustrate how women empowered by education and associational activity navigated the tensions between autonomy and subordination. Early Oberlin women built upon personal and generational roots to develop notions of cross-class and especially cross-racial empowerment. African-American women did not always find full realization of Oberlin’s goal of racial equality, but they nonetheless prepared themselves for the work of racial uplift. Thus Oberlin educators, both consciously and unwittingly, trained women preachers and speakers who pushed transformatively against the boundaries of womanhood. While Oberlin alumnae generally eschewed direct confrontations with prevailing notions of gendered propriety, they left Oberlin prepared to engage in pioneering public roles.
By the time of the Civil War, Oberlin’s evangelical vision of redemption had evolved into a quest for emancipation from racial injustice in both the social and political realms. Although the town’s male “voting abolitionists” became devotees of a “higher law” in their militant struggle against slavery, Oberlin women, black and white, took their own stands in multifaceted resistance to racial oppression. In so doing, they not only claimed their place in the world of education but also found their voices. At Oberlin, definitions of evangelical womanhood changed incrementally over time. The result was a clear reworking of the definitions of “public” and “private,” and their gender implications.