Confronting a Petty Tyrant: Patriarchy and Protest at Millersburg Female College, 1880–1884
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Confronting a Petty Tyrant:
Patriarchy and Protest at Millersburg Female College, 1880–1884

On October 31, 1881, the Reverend George Thomas Gould, a Methodist minister and president of Millersburg Female College in Bourbon County, Kentucky, announced to a gathered assembly of students and faculty that a female student from Texas had been summarily dismissed for “impertinence.” Her dismissal followed a heated exchange with Gould after he refused her request to be allowed to purchase sheet music from a local bookstore. In response to the announcement, one of the teachers, Susan Frances Hale Tar-rant, responded, “no young lady can be properly expelled without a meeting of the Faculty and the majority agreeing that the offense is sufficient for such a disgrace.” Gould responded to this challenge to his authority by summarily dismissing Tarrant as well.1

Tarrant’s advocacy of a modicum of democratic governance of the institution is particularly striking. Incorporating the female faculty directly into institutional decision-making would have been contrary to the conventional patriarchal norms of the community [End Page 349] and to Gould’s autocratic governance of the institution. Later, in a biting letter to the editor of the local paper, Gould rejected her claim as “absurd.” He asserted that he, as the proprietor of the institution, exercised exclusive control and authority, though he granted that consent of the faculty could be allowed in a non-proprietary institution.2 Tarrant responded to his letter with her own, rejecting the absurdity charge and connecting the governance issue to his drinking problem, an open secret in the community:

The absurdity he alludes to, is not an absurdity at all. When the President of a college has no control over his temper nor his language, and when he has to take “medicine” as strong as whisky [sic], if he has no guardian, he ought to consult with his Faculty, on momentous questions. I do contend that the M.F.C. has more need for such a rule than any college I know of; and I challenge the President, proprietor and sole governor of said institution to display his sense and honesty to more advantage in the future than he has in the past.3

Historians of gender relations in the nineteenth-century United States have called attention to educated women utilizing their intellectual skills and growing confidence to carve out new civic and occupational opportunities outside the home. The new opportunities that opened to educated women were generally consistent with socially accepted female roles and did not often challenge established boundaries of male authority.4 For example, women who became involved [End Page 350] in social reform causes, such as temperance, or in various women’s organizations and clubs often justified their actions as consistent with their established role as guardians of morality and of the family. Likewise, teaching careers could be justified in terms of maternal responsibility for children. Women moved out of confinement in the home and into new civic and occupational opportunities, but usually without directly confronting men in authority or questioning the patriarchal structures that kept them vitally dependent on men for their economic and personal security.5

Unlike women operating within the established norm of deference to male authority, Tarrant and the dismissed student publicly confronted a male authority figure, and Tarrant openly questioned the prevailing patriarchal structure of the institution. Other female students and faculty at this college—along with a few male faculty and community leaders—also publicly confronted President Gould over his autocratic leadership and anti-social behavior. A few years later, Gould’s spouse confronted him by providing damning testimony about his behavior, particularly his extramarital affairs, at an ecclesiastical trial. Tarrant, Mary Gould, and other women were not intimidated when bringing to public attention the behavior of a patriarchal authority figure.

Such actions do not fit prevalent images of southern women in the popular culture of the nineteenth century as passive and subservient to male authority.6 Rather, these episodes reveal women (and some male faculty members) who were not afraid to confront a tyrant in the workplace and home despite the potentially high costs of confronting [End Page 351] a patriarchal authority figure...


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