The Edgeworthalean Society: Bloomington’s first female literary society

The year is 1841, you’re a resident of Bloomington, Indiana, and you would like to expand your mind … and oh yeah, you’re female. What opportunities are available to you? Indiana University wasn’t co-ed until 1867, so you cannot stretch your mind through higher education. Is it your lot to resign yourself to a life of quiet domesticity and motherhood?

These are some of the questions the charter members of the Edgeworthalean Society were asking themselves when they came together to form the first Bloomington, Indiana ladies’ literary society in 1841. Clearly these women were not resigned to keep quietly at home, and their decision to gather and learn among themselves was not without opposition,  as Mrs. M. E. Hughes, first society president, alludes to in her inaugural address. She also describes the purpose of the society as follows:

“Our object is the cultivation and improvement of the mind; and to effect this we have adopted such exercises and regulations as other societies of the same nature have found most conducive to the same end.”

Article 9 of the Edgeworthalean Society constitution states:

“The exercises of the society shall consist of recitations, composition arguments, Reading, writing, diction, analysing [sic] sentences or any such exercises as may be found to be conducive to the improvement of its members.”

Further in her address, M. E. Hughes states:

“In the progress of society the belief has been gradually gaining ground, that the station assigned to women in the social scheme, is one of much greater importance than it has hitherto been considered, and that her position in the various relations of daughter, wife, mother, mistress of a family and the acknowledged arbitress [sic] of the rules which regulate social intercourse, gives her an influence which may be powerfully wielded either for good or for evil. To enable her therefore to fulfil [sic] her destiny with credit and happiness to herself and advantage to others, philanthropists now deem it necessary to give her the aids of a solid and useful education.”

The minute book, which consists of the constitution and by-laws of the Edgeworthalean Society, as well as meeting minutes, contains the inaugural addresses of six society presidents from 1841 to the last entry dated June 1844. These speeches are rather rich in terms of early commentary on women’s education and position in society.

Monroe County Female Seminary, previously located at 7th Street and College Avenue in Bloomington, Indiana
Monroe County Female Seminary, previously located at 7th Street and College Avenue in Bloomington, Indiana

The Edgeworthalean Society met weekly, usually at the Monroe County Female Seminary at 7th Street and College Avenue, though it no longer stands. They also had fairly strict rules for entering the society, such as requiring a letter of petition with the support of two current members of the society. They aimed to remain respectable and include the role of “Censoress [sic] to generally supervise the moral character of the society” in their constitution.

Also in the contents of the minute book are philosophical/ideological questions posed for debate in the meetings.

Such questions include: Which most improves the mind: observation or reading? Which exerts the most pernicious influence over society, a Slanderer or a Murderer? Is manual labor a blessing or a curse? Which has the greatest reason to complain of their treatment, from the Whites, the Indians or Negroes? Which profession affords the best opportunities to benefit mankind — Law or Physics? Is Conscience an inate [sic] principle? Which would be most conducive to our happiness: to be at once created with all the knowledge to be acquired, or to obtain it by slow degrees? Did Napoleon exhert [sic] a good or evil influence over Europe? Is there more happiness found in the married, or in the single state? Should novels be abolished? Should capitol punishment be inflicted or not? Is happiness more dependent on the mind or surrounding circumstances? And these are only some of the questions debated through November 26, 1841!

The Edgeworthalean Society minute book is in the Indiana University Archives and has been recently digitized by the Libraries Digital Projects & Services Team! Just follow the link!

The Hesperian Society, IU’s First Literary Society for the Ladies

With such a mass of student organizations available to choose from on campus today, it is hard to imagine a time when the very first groups were established. As discussed previously on this blog, early popular student groups at Indiana University were literary societies which sought to give students the opportunity to develop critical thinking and oratory skills through debate and to establish a social identity on campus. Established in the 1830s, the two major IU literary societies were the Athenian and the Philomathean.

However, when the university accepted the first female student, Sarah Parke Morrison in 1869, male students balked at allowing women to join their organizations so the women set about to remedy the situation by establishing their own. In response, the Hesperian Society was established in 1870 to encourage the intellectual culture of women. With their first meeting on October 28, 1870 in Hesperian Hall, they quickly got down to business with their first debate: “Classes A and B debate, A affirm, and B, deny.  Question. ‘Resolved that a town or city is a better situation for a college than the country.'” The group continued to meet once a week, debating past and current issues such as whether the execution of Mary Queen of Scotts was unjust or if capital punishment should be abolished.

Lest you think it was all work and no play, it was popular for literary societies to host entertainment programs for the entire student body. The Hesperian Society hosted exhibitions and programs on campus, which included musical performers, oratory essays and poetry readings of local and out-of-town talent as well as an annual celebration honoring the groups founding on October 28th.

After nearly two decades of activity however, it seems that enrollment in the Hesperian Society was dwindling as the October 1887 issue of the Indiana Daily Student advertised the need for young ladies to join the society. It is assumed the group officially ceased in 1890.

Interested in learning more about the Hesperian Society? A finding aid for the small collection of records held by the Archives is now available!

Interested in the literary societies in general? There are several resources available to you! Search through Archives Online for literary societies – we hold several collections, including from the heavy hitters, the Philomathean and Athenian (the latter of which has been fully digitized!). Additionally, we have created an online exhibition on 19th century student life which, of course, discusses the literary societies!

As always, let us know if you have any questions!

Literary societies flex their muscle

Hot on the heels of Alison’s recent blog post about the 19th century Indiana University literary societies and student Homer Wheeler, I bring you another small collection – of just a single letter, in fact – which provides us with a peek into a major incident in the history of the organizations and student freedom.

Of unknown provenance, we hold a letter student Bartholomew H. Burrell wrote to Mortimore Crabb, of his hometown of Brownstown, Indiana, on February 5, 1864. In it, Burrell letter to Crabb, 1864Burrell relays to Crabb the troubles the campus literary societies, the Athenians and Philomatheans, were having with university administration over the level of control administration wanted to wield over the groups. Historically, the literary society halls were places where students could, within bounds, feel free to express themselves. However, due to a series of incidents the Board of Trustees became involved and adopted resolutions that placed restrictions on the group, including the requirement that the faculty were to approve any outside speakers the students wished to bring in.

This happened at a time in higher education when the idea of in loco parentis – “in place of a parent” – was firmly in place. That is, in the absence of parents, university faculty and administrators were expected to make decisions that were considered to be in the best interest of the the students. That being the case, it was not unheard of that university administrators sought to place restrictions on the students. What was unusual in this case was the response of the students.

Members of the literary societies objected vehemently to the Trustees resolutions – of which the exact wording is unknown, as Trustees minutes spanning 1859-1883 were lost in the 1883 fire. They argued their charters came directly from the Legislature and as such, their activities were outside the realm of the administrators. December 18, 1863, the Philomatheans sent a list of resolutions to the faculty, which included this strong statement, “We deem it our duty to treat with respect any recommendations or requests made by those who have control over us as student of the University, and whose duty it is to labor for our interests, but that we respectfully ask them to respect our rights….” The record indicates the faculty discussed the Philo’s resolutions before firing back with their own resolutions which stated, in a nutshell, that they did not believe the Legislature ever intended the charters to supersede the authority of the faculty and administration.

With seemingly indefatigable determination, the students continued the fight and talked about moving off campus, dissolving and forming new groups, etc. The nearly year long fight came to a head on February 5, 1864 – the same date of Burrell’s letter – when a small group of Athenians “broke” into Athenian Hall to hold its regularly scheduled meeting. Charges of trespassing, forcible and unlawful entry, and riot (and stealing oil to heat the room during the meeting!) were brought against those involved.

As with the other Society members, Burrell is called in front of the faculty to state whether or not he would accept the terms of the Trustees.

This first important fight of student rights is painstakingly documented in the faculty minute books. While the students finally acquiesced, they had the last word. Following the rules set in place, they did put forth the name of their invited Commencement speaker – one William Mitchell Daily, former IU President. Would seem a good choice, yes? It probably would be, if not for the fact that Daily had resigned from the presidency in 1859 amidst a scandal and upon his departure, called the faculty “a set of pusillanimous, narrow-minded bigots.” The faculty discussed this choice and upon learning the Societies had already informed Dr. Daily of their decision, they approved his visit. “But,” they wrote,

they think it their duty to call your attention to the fact that in future a compliance with the Ordinances of the Board of Trustees will require that you should send in the name or names for approval before sending out the notice and they consider that it would be yet better, and would save all parties trouble, if you would hand in a list of names for approval before proceeding elections.

For more information on the 19th century literary societies, please see our online exhibition “IU Student Life and Culture in the 19th Century.” To read more about this particular incident, see Thomas Clark’s Indiana University: Midwestern Pioneer, Volume 1. And finally, keep an eye out, the Digital Library Program is currently scanning the entirety of the Faculty minutes, which spans 1835-1964 and includes details of this moment on IU history!