Sunday, January 17, 2010

Female Ancestors - A Different Perspective

The Women of Yesteryear
Not all young women in the 1830’s were stoking stoves, washing diapers, and canning. Some were being educated.

We often forget the depth of the women’s contribution to history. We assume the woman just jumped into marriage somewhere between the ten year census records. “In 1860, they were living with parents, in 1870, they were married with 2 children.”

But if your woman ancestor was from an advantaged family know that it is possible she spent a year or two studying English grammar, moral philosophy, algebra and celestial geography at any one of the women’s institutions or academies, like that of Columbia Female Academy. She may have even studied for four years.

All are familiar with the east-coast prestigious women’s institution, but what about the Midwest. All were not being groomed for farm work. Columbia Female Academy was established in 1833 with a class of 25 women in Columbia, Missouri. And, it quickly became known for its progressive teachings with a curriculum for women. Although it began as a basic academy it later became the Columbia Female Baptist Academy, a college for women. Women traveled to the school from miles away, having their own train stop by 1855. With several name changes to follow, the school was named Stephens College in 1870.
The institution has, since 1833, provided women with extraordinary opportunities. Perhaps your female ancestor was an accomplished horsewoman. Did she attend Stephens’ equestrian program that was established in 1926. If you remember your grandmother telling you she attended college at 16 years old to finish her high schooling. It is possible, if she attended Stephens College’s four year junior college program that was implemented in 1926. If you heard Grandma was a pilot, it too is possible if she attended Stephens College’s aviation program in the mid 1940’s.

Although, we dismiss these seemingly family tall-tales, they may be worth looking into. Who would believe this fascinating college was located in a small frontier town that had “nine stores, two taverns, four grogshops and one Presbyterian meeting house.”

Oh…us mid-westerns aren’t as backward as people want to believe. And, yes, I attended Stephens College. But knowledge of women schools have led me to finding allusive female ancestors eloping with education.

Hope you remember to dig between the census years to find out what the women were doing.

Kathleen Brandt


  1. Thank you, again, Kathleen, for such a good reminder of the unconventional roles of women in our history - that are not that unusual, if we but accept that they are there. These specifics you have provided certain pique my interest! ;-)

  2. Don't forget that by the 1830s some young women also headed to cities to work in textile mills like Lowell, Massachusetts. Thousands of young ladies worked for salaries they saved to educate brothers or themselves, or they saved their wages for marriage. Many worked the mills for more than 10 years. Most mill towns have excellent Historical Societies with amazing records.

  3. Heather...thanks so much for this reminder. I will try to write a blog on this. Of course this was a practice that needs to be highlighted. In order to locate female ancestors we need all the tools we can get!