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  • From Social Grace to Social PowerChanging Nineteenth-Century Gender Norms in Leadership and Rhetorical Performance at Western College for Women
  • Renea Frey (bio) and Jacqueline Johnson (bio)


The latter part of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth saw multiple changes in opportunities for, and attitudes about, women and education. During this time, an all-female institution opened in Oxford, Ohio, as a satellite school for Mount Holyoke, and while scholars have conducted much research on the educational innovations offered by the Seven Sisters schools of which Mount Holyoke was a part, relatively little research has focused on Western. Because of its unique positioning, Western Female Seminary (later renamed Western College for Women) is an important site of study for scholars interested in the changes that took place in women's educational, political, and social roles during the latter nineteenth century and into the twentieth, both in the Ohio region and across the nation. Partly because Western was relatively isolated in the town of Oxford during this time period, the female students there were freer to study and develop skills in a supportive, women-centered environment, which may have led to promoting the progressive values for which Western would become known in later decades.1 By studying the documents found in the Western Memorial Archive, we are able to gain insight into how regional activities mirrored and expanded the changes in gender [End Page 32] norms taking place across the breadth of society, which demonstrates the role that local practices have in constructing and reflecting national trends.

One way women were able to gain greater social and political power through education was in their study of, and access to, rhetorical training that had heretofore been the purview of primarily male students. Unlike co-ed schools, where women were marginalized or excluded from debating with their male colleagues, in all-women institutions like Western, women were taught argumentation skills and rhetorical strategies. Access to the means of power through learning to argue one's cause effectively was an integral part in securing greater rights for women, including the eventual signing of the Nineteenth Amendment giving them the right to vote.

Leila McKee, who became the head of Western in 1888, expanded the rhetorical training of women at Western, including initiating a women's club, The Agora, to support practice of her students' debating and speaking skills. In addition to other modernizations at Western, McKee understood the importance of women learning to speak well and support their claims as they became more active social and political participants. By tracing the changes made under McKee's leadership through the lens of archival research of The Agora, it is possible to understand more fully how integral rhetorical training and practice were for women at the turn of the nineteenth century, as well as the role that institutions in Ohio such as Western played in creating new opportunities for women nationwide.

western archives and history

Archival collections provide the foundation for us to study societal mores. The mission of the Western College Memorial Archives is to acquire, preserve, and disseminate materials on the history of the Western Female Seminary during its metamorphosis from a seminary to a college. Western Female Seminary was established in 1853 by religious leaders in Oxford, Ohio, who were considered independent forerunners in the field of women's education. Faced with major financial difficulties and a diminishing enrollment, the institution closed in 1973, whereupon the existing buildings and properties were purchased by its neighboring institution. Miami began the purchasing process earlier and owned Western in 1973, but Western continued to operate until the 1974 commencement. Despite the eventual demise of the college, the Western College Memorial Archives continue to exist largely because its graduates have strong ties to the former college's legacy and preserve a sense of identity from the institution's rich history. [End Page 33]

In the latter nineteenth century, Western was viewed as the "western" embodiment of the Mount Holyoke Seminary located in South Hadley, Massachusetts. The founders of the Western Seminary envisioned an institution that offered low-cost, high-quality education with an emphasis on preparing women for missions and religious education...


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