Letter 2: Edith Phillips to James M. and
Mary Pusey Phillips, August 27, 18521

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Like many in the Phillips family collection, this letter was written by Edith B. Phillips to James M. and Mary Pusey Phillips, family members who took in the Phillips children after the death of their parents. The oldest of the four sisters, Edith Phillips addresses family affairs along with a number of ceremonies that she had recently attended as a part of Oberlin College's commencement celebration. Her letter provides interesting insight to the precise content of these ceremonies, and also includes her personal opinions on specific aspects of the events. For example, she takes a particular interest in the women's graduation ceremony and an oration that dealt with the experiences of the oppressed. This interest is unsurprising given Edith Philliips' involvement in anti-slavery and feminist interests at Oberlin. Also worth noting is the consistent presence of religion in her account of the proceedings, as well as her lack of objection to (or even significant commentary on) the gender roles laid out by the Bible.

Letter Text:

Oberlin Aug 27. 1852

Dear Brother and Sister.

We had a letter from John B. last night rowing us up most terribly for not writing, he seems afraid of getting something old and stale afterwhile - too ill timed to be of interest. This reminds me that I intended to write to you after Commencements and tell you about them. and if I do not do it very soon I shall be too late -- Sallie has promised me that she will write to him today - that will be as much as she can accomplish - Han is very busy with her sewing. and Philene has gone to a Political Meeting at Elyria - so they will not do it. that is positive. [...] Now I want to tell you about the eloquent times we have been having in Oberlin, and if you are not interested, why it will be all my failure -

To begin, about two weeks ago, we attended an exhibition of the "Senior preparatory Class," the class just entering College - [...] After this exhibition came the Ladies Literary - this time there were two young ladies in the pulpit, and two in the quartette, and one at the Piano - the pieces were generally quite interesting. One, especially, headed, "And he shall rule over Thee," set forth very eloquently woman's sphere, or rather what was not her sphere, and her duty to be ruled over2 --- Philene came last on the stand: her piece was on the "Symbolism of Nature", and by far the best one read. They cheered it as much as they dared to do in the church. - Pres Finney3 spoke to me after, and praised it very highly - A few days after came one of the Gentlemen's Literaries. The orations were generally good. One of them, "A Plea for the Oppressed" was finely written and delivered - nothing of the school boy about it, as indeed there should not be - for I suppose he has attained to dignified majority sometime ago - he is an Englishman - and reminded me always of Frank Taylor - tho' he makes a finer appearance on the stand - and there is a little something in his voice hardly enough to be called a brogue, which adds somewhat to the interest - His name is "Slight" - When he commenced depicting the "wrongs of man," he said it was not necessary for him to dwell long upon the abuses to which they subjected in the name of woman he would only touch them "slightly" - the people are so alive to puns here - they never fail to catch them, no matter how inappropriate they may be - I don't know what his real opinions are - I suppose that was meant for fun - the finest part of the oration was a description of a storm at sea - there was something so new and fresh about it as there was all through -- He quoted frequently from Shakespeare which he studies. They say he is preparing for a lecturer of the Emerson sort -

The day the ladies graduated, the ladies except those graduating were dressed in white and blue ribbons - they all sat in the Orchestra - about three hundred of them. They looked very pretty indeed - like so many snow clouds, or downy birds or something I hardly know what. when they all set their silvery fans in motion and blue ribbons they looked like so many butterflies. Philene and Han, Namory and Carry, sat up there in state - while Sis and I with Mrs Munroe.4 sat down in a crowded aisle lifting up our eyes modestly. --- The pieces were all good. they last one was read by a dwarf - a young girl of fine abilities. She stood on a stool - so that while she read no one could discover her deformity - She had by far the best article, and one that pleased the people. The others were of a somewhat negative character. [...] The next day we met in the morning, to see the gentlemen graduate - the music was good and the speakers too - then the degrees were conferred, upon the A.B.'s - and afterwards A.M. was conferred upon some six or seven persons5 - a young lady among them - In the afternoon there were three graduates from the theological department - their speeches were most interesting of any - the exercises closed with a farewell address to the graduates from Finney - During the evenings of the Commencements we had two grand concerts - I do wish I could tell you about that - I attended both evenings and was perfectly delighted.

The performance was "The Oratorio of Absalom"6 and performed by the Oberlin choir - there were about two hundred in the orchestra. then there were six others. Absalom, a young Scotchman - a fine looking and fine singer - then Tamar a sister of Absalom - She has the finest voice I ever heard. She goes away up trilling like a bird sometimes - You will hear of her again if she lives - she was dressed very becomingly too in white with a long white veil. [The letter goes on to summarize the details of this performance.]

[...] I am going to write to you all as often as time will permit.

As ever yours, affec.

[1] Transcribed by Adele Schumann

[2] "Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee." Genesis 3:16 (King James edition)

[3] Charles Grandison Finney was the second president of Oberlin College.

[4] Probably Julia Finney Monroe, with whom the sisters boarded.

[5] An A.B. degree is an alternative abbreviation for a Bachelor of Arts; similarly A.M. is a Master of Arts.

[6] This story comes from the Bible as well. Absalom was the charming and popular third son of David who eventually became thirsty for power and attempted to take over his father's throne. He was eventually killed for his transgressions.