For many American women, religion provided sanctification of their private roles as wives and mothers as well as opportunities for semi-public roles outside the home, through which they sometimes achieved fame. Especially in the 19th century, pious women often taught Sunday school, and many women served as unpaid assistants to their clergyman husbands, whether in the United States or as missionaries abroad. Plus, a minority of women became preachers or religious leaders in their own right.
Clergymen’s wives often worked in tandem with their husbands, teaching Sunday school, visiting the sick, and organizing church-related programs. In addition, the missionary enterprise took many clergymen’s wives abroad. In 1810, graduates of the Andover Theological Seminary proposed a society to organize foreign missions, and in 1812 chartered the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Later, various Protestant sects formed their own missionary societies and soon many young clergy flocked to missions in southeast Europe and across Asia. The American Board kept a list of eligible single women, and couples often married with the knowledge that they would go abroad directly. A significant number of missionaries’ wives died young, and the publication of their memoirs served to inspire others to the cause. Meta Lander, in her memorial on Mrs. Henrietta Hamlin, who accompanied her missionary husband to Turkey, writes about the genre:
Other 19th-century women became famous for their work outside the home and the mission. Isabella Graham, for example, was an important benefactress in New York City in the early 1800s and Elizabeth Seton, who founded the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph’s, was the first American to be canonized as a saint. In addition, a number of female preachers, including Abigail Roberts and Jarena Lee, challenged male dominance in the clerical field.
The print record reveals a great deal about the range of roles available to American women. We present a gallery of portraits plus short sketches of the sitters’ lives to encourage further study by religious historians and other scholars. All works cited are in the collections of the Library Company of Philadelphia. Please note that the graphic images can only be reproduced with permission from the Library Company.
The project initially emerged as part of the “Picturing Women” exhibition, a multi-institution exhibition that was the culmination of many years work by art historian Dr. Susan Shifrin. Curator of Women’s History Cornelia S. King developed the original checklist of portraits. As an intern from Haverford College’s John B. Hurford ’60 Humanities Center, Colin Yarbrough created this online resource. Special thanks to Colin for facing the challenges of summarizing these women’s complex lives. As an intern from Drexel University’s College of Information Science and Technology, Cheryl Klimaszewski added to the file, and created records the Library Company’s digital repository. Various Library Company staff members helped with aspects of the project, especially Chief Information Officer Nicole H. Scalessa, former Graphics Assistant Linda Wisniewski, and former Curator of Printed Books Wendy Woloson.