Letter 1: Philena Phillips to her sister, March 18521

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This letter, addressed from Philena Phillips to one of her sisters, offers an insight to life at Oberlin as a female student in 1852. Philena Phillips attended Oberlin from 1852 to 1855, during which time she corresponded regularly with her sisters. In this letter, she describes aspects of her daily life in Oberlin, including her challenging and difficult courses, such as Greek. She briefly mentions a period when she and her sister "boarded [themselves] on the road home," but does not elaborate. Interestingly, Phillips also expresses growing discontent with the lack of a participatory role for women in the Young Men's Anti-Slavery Society. While Phillips seems to admire independence and wish for greater female participation in progressive societies, she nevertheless inserts the occasional commentary on what she finds proper and virtuous in women, either criticizing or praising her peers. Despite these conservative moral views on how women should conduct themselves, it is hard to ignore the undertones of feminist thought in this letter.

Letter Text:

Oberlin Ohio March 1852

Dear Sister:

I have just laid down my Greek books in despair for I am so tired I cannot study. [...] Now for Oberlin as it is, now for all kinds of remarkable events -just in the order in which I may happen to recall them, which have occurred here since you left us. There my candle is out and it is ten o'clock.

7th day afternoon2 Mr. Ian Amridge lectures this afternoon before the Young Men's Anti-slavery Society,3 but really I have grown so tired sitting on those wooden benches, hearing other people talk, preach, pray and lecture, that I am always ready to escape such inflictions when that thing is possible; this afternoon I much prefer to talk myself.

I will go on with the news I was commencing to tell. - Mrs. Hopkins has left us and Mrs. M. P. Dascomb has taken her place.4 She seems like a very amiable good kind of a woman, and I suppose she will give satisfaction. She is wonderfully particular, fussy, and fidgety. I am made to feel very uneasy for her always at our general exercises she has so many undignified twisting and turnings.

We wrote a confession5 which was read before assembled ladydom: heard afterward of one young lady in the pale expressing her opinion that it wasn't much of a confession, as much however as she expected of them. It was willful disobedience, she thought it was so, so it was. Let them say what they would. - Why the dear young lady has formed such an opinion of them is more than I can tell. Cravath has returned and boards at Mrs. Field's with Miss Will and Miss Thompson; these young ladies it seems still continue the practice of making some of their absent friends the subject of table conversation. I resume *some members of the French Class [footnote in original: *there are some board there] have been duly informed of the character of their new classmates; judging from their conduct towards us, however, I shouldn't suppose that they were as yet any more than "rationally convinced" as Porte would say. All Oberlin as she boldly asserts would not be sufficient to convince her ladyship Miss (Tabitha) Hill that we did not commit that grievous error knowingly. Of course then she thinks that we must have told any amount of falsehoods in defending ourselves. Miss Thompson agrees with Tabitha and yet finds reason to "admire their course;" our "independence," our holding fast to what was not good6, seems particularly to have called forth her admiration. Such a course must have been admirable indeed. I admire the girl's taste I must confess. I think we'll get along. I did not intend to tell thee anything about this but somehow it came. I must say now to close it, that the unlucky consequences of that three months trial of "boarding ourselves" have at length ceased to be visited upon us, such things no longer trouble us, we no longer feel that "every man's hand is against us, and ours"7 etc. "Old things are passing away and all things are becoming new."

There are more than 600 students here at present; the members of our class I believe have about all returned, and we have a nice class, if it were not that I feel somewhat tired from not having had a rest from study lately, I should feel exceedingly interested in study, it is such a pleasure to attend such recitations. We had an examination (Han and I) the first week after Commencement. Prof. H. P.8 and Fairchild were the examining committee; got along better than we expected, were examined in Virgil, Cicero, Livy, Gymnopaedia and the Harmony.9 - Miss Baldwin and Miss Minor have both returned. Miss M- is very poor student, Miss B quick as ever. The most critical accurate scholar in the class is Mr. Hayes, a short thick set Irish looking fellow. There is a Mr. Wright also who is very good. Prof Monroes has now ten boarders including Edwin. Mr. Kendall is the only gentleman besides E. The ladies are Misses Pellet10 Fuller, Nixon Roberts and two country girls, young clever good agreeable and quaker like. [...]11

Anne told us that we must not tell the Ladies Board12 that you have boarded yourselves on the road home.13 That we must be sure and not give her love to them. Miss P says that Hannamay might possibly get excused from going to church more than once a day.14

[...] Tell us of May and the children. It seems to me I never can stop.
in haste

[1] Transcribed by Kaïa Austin

[2] Philena Phillips here uses the Quaker system for identifying Saturday.

[3] From her language here, it would appear that Philena often goes to guest lecturers at the Young Men's Anti-slavery Society. Perhaps the Female Anti-slavery Society was not as active.

[4] Mrs. Mary Cook Sumner Hopkins (1810-1897) served as Principal of the Ladies Department, 1850-1852 Mrs. Marianne Parker Dascomb (11810-1879) was the Principal 1835-36 and 1852-70.

[5] This appears to be a confession about the "grievous error" discussed later in the letter.

[6] Although Philena never fully discussed this "grievous error," it appears related to the sisters' efforts to "board themvelves" outside of approved housing for three months, as noted later in the letter.

[7] Also very vague, but perhaps they were met with disapproval and opposition from men while boarding themselves.

[8] Probably Henry Peck (1821-1867), professor at Oberlin College and later U.S. Minister to Haiti.

[9] Her examination on ancient Roman poets shows the difficulty of the courses she was taking, certainly not common for a woman of the time period.

[10] Probably Sarah Pellet, (1824-1898) took classes at Oberlin until 1852 at the urging of her North Brookfield, MA, neighbor Lucy Stone. She later campaigned for women's rights, and subsequently taught school.

[11] The sisters appear to be boarding with Professor James Monroe (1821-1898) and his wife Julia Finney Monroe (1837-1930). The Monroes were active in the antislavery community.

[12] At the time, women students were under the direction of the Ladies Board rather than a dean. The Ladies Board was mainly composed of wives of professors, and was headed by the Principal of the Ladies Department.

[13] At the time traveling was seen as dangerous and improper for a young woman, and the conservative Ladies Board would have certainly disapproved. The fact that she travelled by herself despite this shows her independence and agency.

[14] Going to church only once a day was unusual, showing the importance of religion at Obelrin in the 1850s; the exception may have been made because the Phillips family was Quaker.