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  • Reform Work and Politics in the Writings of Mid-Nineteenth-Century Quaker Girls
  • Abigail Corcoran (bio)

girlhood, Quakers, reform work, diaries, nineteenth century

When researchers look at Quaker family archives, they are often searching for abolitionist correspondence or the financial details of family life, not the emotional reflections of teenage girls. Yet, within the Lewis-Fussell Family Papers at the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College and the Sarah Wistar Rhoads Collection at Haverford College Special Collections, the diaries and letters of teenagers Sallie Wistar, Emma Jane Fussell, and Jane Gibbons Rhoads offer a window into how young Quaker women in the mid-nineteenth century located a sense of purpose and use in serving their community. Although these young Quaker girls were not involved in partisan or electoral politics, their desire to serve their communities meant they defined their self-worth in a nascently political way.

Sarah (Sally) Wistar Rhoads's diary illustrates how a young woman's desire to do something useful for her community could push her toward reform work. About six months after graduating from school at age eighteen, Sallie Wistar agonized in her diary: "I do nothing, of any account. Sewing for myself does no one any good, my reading benefits no one but myself. I do very little or nothing for the "general good" at home, and I am quite sure I do nothing for anyone but of the family circle; and yet I expect people to love me. … I hope all my life will not be as useless as it is now."1 It was not enough for girls like Wistar to help their mothers run households and to try to improve their character through reading. Wistar's lament shows that girls, especially Quaker girls, may have felt a push from their communities to act for the general good of the world. Her guilt about her "useless" life illustrates that reform work could make [End Page 375] women's lives seem meaningful. At a minimum, Wistar's diary shows the shortcomings of a life confined to housework and the desire to be an active part of the public sphere. Wistar's guilt did eventually lead her to the kind of reform work appropriate for a young woman of her station—in 1866 she recorded in her diary her work with the Catharine Street House of Industry, an organization run by young Quaker women to provide sewing work for deserving poor women.2

Emma Jane Fussell's diary and letters also reflect the life of a girl finishing school and contemplating her social and political roles. Despite the lack of evidence in Fussell's own writing, Fussell's life encompassed both paid labor as a teacher and reform work in the abolitionist movement. Fussell faced danger in doing so. In one notable instance when she was twenty, Fussell attended a lecture given by the abolitionist George William Curtis: "Whilst there a shower of vitriol [sulfuric acid] was thrown into the audience and it fell chiefly on her face and dress. She was so terribly burned that for weeks her face had to be excluded from the air wrapped up in wet cloths."3 This description, coming from an account of the Underground Railroad written in the late nineteenth century, might be slightly overblown, however, since Fussell made light of her injuries in the diary that she started about two weeks after the lecture: "This morning early I received such a dear kind letter from Janie and Ellen. They wrote to me so sympathetically thinking I had been burned much worse than I was."4 Regardless of the severity of Fussell's injuries, her willingness to attend a lecture points to her staunch commitment to abolition. Fussell's serene description of the incident in her diary illustrates that abolitionist work, though dangerous, was satisfying, and it contrasts noticeably with Wistar's emotional diary entries about her sinfulness for not helping other people inside or outside her family circle. This abolitionist work helped Fussell feel she was being productive in the world.

Jane Gibbons Rhoads's desire to engage in political and social reform was mediated by the significant health problems that often kept her...


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pp. 375-377
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