Posts Tagged ‘Domestic Duties’

“Education” from The Bonds of Womanhood: ‘Women’s Sphere’ in New England, 1780-1835.

In this chapter, Cott outlines the changing attitudes and educational opportunities for women during this time period, where women’s literacy increased 100% in just sixty years (101). Citing the famous text by Benjamin Rush (Thoughts on Female Education) that persuasively argued for the importance of “useful” education for American women as a method of social utility for the home education of sons, the moral influence of men, and the

The Domestic Women's Sphere of the 1800's

promotion of republican values, hostility toward educated, literate women slowly gave way to “a consensus on the desirability of female literacy [that] seems to have emerged during these years” (103). By the beginning of the 1800s, the general curriculum for women included writing though, according to Cott, “utilitarian education for women in American narrowed their prospects because it was based on a limited conception of woman’s role” which still held women’s primary duties to be domestic in nature (109).  At first, many boy’s schools admitted girls, though this eventually transformed into a preference for gender-segregated schools, since it was believed that men and women occupied such wholly distinct spheres in life, that to educate them similarly “had to seem either absurd or threatening” (117). Thus, women’s education tended to reinforce gender roles where “the predominant philosophy of female education encouraged women to understand gender as the essential determinant of their lives…[though]… as some opponents had correctly feared, education led many women to look beyond their domestic duties” (123, 125). In Cott’s overview of life for women at this time in history, education attempted to further ingrain divisions of sex roles, though as it put women together as comprising a “separate sphere” that crossed class, and sometimes racial, boundaries, these forces eventually came together to found the burgeoning movement toward women’s equality in future generations.

I find Cott’s work useful in examining the nature of the socially constructed “women’s sphere” of this historic moment, as well as her understanding of how practices designed to uphold the status quo “backfired” at times and served to work against the prevailing model of gender inequality in sometimes unexpected ways. In addition to offering an excellent historic framework for gender conditions in post-Revolutionary America, the subtle forces of power and resistance underscore much of Cott’s work, which makes it especially relevant to the angle from which I see composition studies working to both regulate and empower women in the nineteenth century.

Work Cited:

Cott, Nancy. “Education.” The Bonds of Womanhood: ‘Women’s Sphere’ in New England, 1780-1835. New Haven, Ct: Yale UP, 1977. 101-125. Print.

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The Letters of Jane and Jennie Williams, 1862-1867

The Letters of Jane and Jennie Williams, 1862-1867This lengthy series of letters were written mostly by Jane, but partially by Jennie, Williams during the years of 1862 through 1867. They are addressed primarily to “Dear Brother Roger,” ostensibly a younger brother who was, given the content of the letters, also working on academic studies and came from a family that did not live all that far away from Western in Paddy’s Run, about four miles west of Ross, Ohio. In these letters, Jane offers insights into the composition pedagogy at Western, mentioning the time spent working on this writing, as well as “special assignments” given by Miss Peabody where students are asked to compose a letter rather than a regular assignment. She also mentions that compositions are orally recited each week and that feedback/criticism is offered by other students; specific assignment topics, and a newspaper “called the Kailiedscope which was composed of pieces written by the girls in the first division of compositions” are also mentioned (November 27, 1863). Jane also discusses a composition assignment where they were asked “to write a letter to our little brothers about 12 or 13 years old, and tell him how to write compositions,” which is an interesting meta-cognitive reflective piece that was unfortunately not included in this collection (September 23, 1863).  Also evident from these letters is the amount of domestic work expected from the students; as time goes on, Jane complains more and more of exhaustion and it is clear that her health begins to suffer by the end of the letters.

These letters offer significant insight into the type of personal correspondence conducted by

"Dear Brother Roger"

the women at Western, as well as offering information about the composition requirements, assignments, and practices that were utilized. Also apparent is the sheer amount of writing that was regularly enacted at this time – there is often mention of a number of letters written, as well as criticisms toward the receiver if he has been negligent in his own letter writing duties. This type of writing appears much less regulated that that found in Adda Collier’s journal, the audience for which was the faculty at Western, rather than the more intimate rhetorical situation of letters sent to family members. The views expressed in student letters are often different than accounts of the school offered by faculty in their Letters to Holyoke, a difference that is important to the areas I am researching in this project.

Work Cited:

“Williams, Jane & Jennie. Letters. 1862-1867.” Western College Memorial Archives,16 Peabody Hall,  Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. Original Copies and Typed Transcriptions.

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Section Book: 1858-1859 and Composition Assignment Sheet

In the early days of Western, marks for certain aspects of the educational experience were tallied in Section Books; this particular book tracks the performance of a group of seventeen women whose last names began with the letters A through G for this academic school year. On the first pages of the book, there is a detailed list of particular regular activities (such as Weekly Reports and Payment of debts) listed, along with a considerably longer list of apparent infractions (Wardrobe not in order, Riding without permission, Taking company to rooms, Sitting or lying on spreads or quilts, Delaying in halls, etc.) that were tracked for each student on an ongoing basis.

In the front cover of this Section Book, I found a handwritten Composition Assignment that gave the directions for the weekly requirement for this course, which at this time was required during all three years of the Western education. According to this document, assignments were required to be written on composition paper, thirty lines long, and handed in at the fifteen minute bell before dinner [on Saturday]. Additionally, the document states that “the required time is 3 hrs.; more or less than that time is plus or minus. Less than two hours is delinquency. Time spent in reading or writing on subjects not finally used is not counted.” It is clear from this assignment that length and time spent writing are what is of the highest importance, though from the Section Book it is clear that other criteria were also tracked in student writing.

The Section Book has a two-page spread entitled “Composition Times” with the seventeen students listed in the far left column, along with their composition times listed for each week as plus or minus amounts of time, as in +1/2, – ¼, =,  etc. An additional two-page spread tracking the same students is entitled “Number of Mis-spelled Words” and likewise tracks this amount for each student. Time spent on Domestic Duties is also tracked in this book; these times were recorded on pages between the “Composition Times” and “Number of Mis-spelled Words.” Grades,  per say, are not recorded in this book.

Bessie Nelson’s Journal

A similar Section Book was also found for the years 1880-1881 recorded by Bessie Nelson. She, too, records “Composition Times” in her book, though in this case, she tracks times by plus or minus quarter-hour intervals, as in +60, -15, +30, etc. In week twenty-nine, the

Bessie Nelson

times are totaled and +X, -X, or = signs are indicated. Nelson’s book does not include a table of misspellings, thus it is uncertain if these were assessed or not at this time. Other aspects of student life tracked in Nelson’s journal are domestic duties, money given for missionary work, behavioral infractions, absences, tardiness, and meeting wardrobe expectations.

I have chosen to use these documents as a means of understanding the ways that composition assignments were given and expected to be fulfilled. It is interesting to note that time spent writing and the length of the pieces were of such great importance, more so even than content or (at least at some point) correctness. When composition is mentioned by students in letters, it is with an attitude of disdain and dread, much like the domestic work that takes so much time from their lives. It seems, from the way that composition scores were assessed and recorded, that these practices were placed on much the same level as domestic duties, as evidenced by both the reactions from the students, as well as the recording methods of the faculty. This is helpful in situating the practice of writing from both a pedagogical perspective and as a requirement within the lives of students at Western, giving an example of the type of prescribed, regulated, and obligatory writing that they were expected to do as part of their education, and the ways in which it was assessed.

Works Cited:

“Section Book: 1858-1859,” “Composition Assignment Sheet,” and “Bessie Nelson’s Journal.” Western College Memorial Archives,16 Peabody Hall,  Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. Original Copies.

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The Western College for Women by Nedra Nelson

Part I: 1853 – 1880


Part II: 1880 – 1905

This book is considered “the bible” of the Western College experience, according to Jacqueline Johnson of Western Archives, and details the history of Western from its first inception as a sister school of Mt. Holyoke in Massachusetts in the mid-nineteenth century through the first three-quarters of the twentieth century. The first two parts, which include eight chapters, covers the time period in which I have the greatest interest and gives an account of what life, study, and religion were like during the formative years of Western.

The information gathered to write this book came from many sources, including writing and letters from faculty at Mt. Holyoke, newspaper accounts, historical data, land records, and other various sources. It is quite unfortunate that The Western College for Women is not more thoroughly documented, as it makes tracking down many of the sources for further examination impossible. This was clearly written for a popular audience that wanted a well-researched but conversational account of the history of Western, and though many sources of the quotes are given within the text, often they are not. Additionally, there are no footnotes or endnotes, nor is a bibliographic table provided that would offer a comprehensive list of the sources used in compiling this work.

Despite these limitations, The Western College for Women offers insight into the history and experience of women at Western, though often from the perspective of more “official” channels; this is the “public face” of Western and/or that taken from the writings of faculty, who were often (in my research) given to a particular view of their institution that did not always mesh with the experiences reported by students.

An example of this discrepancy is the claim made by Western regarding the amount of time and energy that students would be expected to engage in domestic duties. Since Western kept its tuition costs at a minimum, they made up for the lessened income by requiring students to attend to their own domestic needs, rather than hiring staff to take care of cooking, washing, cleaning, etc. (This was also the model at Mt. Holyoke, from where Miss

Miss Peabody

Peabody, the first principle, and many of the initial faculty graduated and with which they remained closely affiliated for many decades.) The Western College for Women reports that concerns were raised about the young women doing domestic work at school, but that the “Holyoke System” was “vigorously defend[ed]” in an article from around 1860 in The Christian Herald as being healthful, and of an amount that any “energetic American girl” could manage. According to the official claims of the school, “domestic duties, the article explained, demand of each student a maximum of only sixty or seventy-five minutes daily,” which seems a reasonable amount for young women at a boarding school to conduct and still maintain focus on academics (60). However, this is not the experience reported in letters by students, who claimed that domestic labor was so extensive and time-consuming that studies and sleep were often neglected more than was optimal.

Though this work definitely reflects the “official account” of the Western experience, it offers valuable details about various aspects about the environment and experience of this institution, and is perhaps the only source where this overview can be attained cohesively. This book offers information about tuition rates, religious services, material history (such as when buildings were built, burned down, rebuilt, etc.), historical events (such as the Civil War and its effects upon the school), the religious focus, details of visiting lecturers and friends, the relationship with Mt. Holyoke, and the ongoing battle to keep the women of Western and the men of Miami University at a discreet distance from one another. The narrative style of this work makes it very readable and interesting, and Nelson does use a variety of well-sought sources, despite the difficulty that a subsequent researcher might have in locating or discerning some of them.  As an historic overview, The Western College for Women is integral for contextualizing other research about the lives, experiences, and academic/religious pursuits of the women at Western in the first fifty years of its existence.

Nelson, Narka. The Western College for Women.  Dayton, OH: Otterbein Press, 1967. 1-124. Print.

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