Creating Meaningful Lives: The Transition from Girlhood to Womanhood in Mid-Nineteenth Century Philadelphia Quaker Communities

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Haverford College. Department of History
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Sarah Wistar, Emma Jane Fussell, and Jane Gibbons Rhoads faced difficult transitions from girlhood to womanhood. As middle and upper-class girls in the mid-nineteenth century United States, their childhoods had been marked by considerable freedom to play. And as Quaker girls, they lived in communities which valued their spiritual autonomy and their education. However, once they left school, given the values of their communities, they had relatively few opportunities to create lives which felt meaningful to them. Although girls spent relatively little time on housework as children, that changed when they became women. It was expected that women’s lives would be much taken up with housework, either as unmarried daughters or siblings, caring for family members, or as wives and mothers, creating new families. However, nineteenth-century ideology ignored housework’s economic value, and celebrated housework as something to which women were uniquely suited. This ideology made women doubt the value of the housework they did, despite the immense amount of labor they put into it. Therefore, girls like Wistar, Fussell, and Rhoads worried about making their lives meaningful if all they did was housework. There was also an expectation that women and girls, especially Quaker ones, try to make the world a better place through reform work, which was tied to a belief that women were more naturally kinder and more pious than men. This work often provided women with a sense of accomplishment and purpose unmet by housework, but the expectation that women engage in reform work also caused intense worry and guilt for women who did not or could not participate in it. This can be seen clearly through the contrast between Wistar’s agonized guilt over her lack of social reform activities, and Fussell’s relatively calm diary entries, written when she was engaged in abolition work. Ill girls, like Rhoads, could not live up to the expectations of reform work, and instead struggled to be virtuous invalids. Wistar, Fussell, and Rhoads’ attempts to live out their Quaker desire to do good in the world map onto the sects of Quakerism to which they belonged. Wistar and Rhoads, the Orthodox Friends, turned inwards, while the Progressive Friend Fussell also turned outwards, towards reform work. These young women’s writings illustrate how their transition from girlhood to womanhood was both typical of girls of their place and class, but also inflected by their Quaker upbringing and communities. Their struggles to create meaningful lives demonstrate that it was almost impossible for women to live up to the contradictory and confusing standards of mid-nineteenth-century American womanhood. In addition, Wistar, Fussell, and Rhoads’ writings show how people both shape themselves with and push back against the expectations of their communities.