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Girls Who Read: Oberlin’s Women’s Literary Societies

by Zach Terrillion

Staff Writer


Oberlin loves its books. English and Creative Writing lie among the most popular majors. Lorain County was long Toni Morrison’s stomping ground. Last issue, I reported on speakers brought in by the English department. Scholars like Deborah Harkness come to discuss literature, specifically regarding gender. Gender and literature are two common topics in Oberlin; they have intersected throughout the College’s history, beginning nearly two centuries ago when a group of enterprising women came together to form the Ladies Literary Societies. Amid the sexism of the 19th century, these women created a safe space to spill the tea on issues of the day, dive into books, improve their writing, and cut themselves a piece of society’s pie.

Oberlin’s first women’s society was the “Young Ladies Association of the Oberlin Collegiate Institute.” It was founded on July 21st, 1835, for the “promotion of literature and religion,” only two years after the college was established. During this time in Oberlin’s infancy, female students were often denied opportunities to learn debate and oral presentations, topics that were often the focus of men’s studies. According to club accounts, women were denied the teaching of these topics because doing so was “worse than useless.” The start of the club wasn’t easy. The club first met in the college’s newly constructed “Ladies Hall,” sharing it with the Young Men’s Lyceum Society. The Lyceum met in a bougie second-floor space with a prime view of campus. Meanwhile, the girls were packed into the tiny, dusty attic.

Ladies Literary Society, as pictured in the 1935 Hi-O-Hi

In 1846, the club changed its mouthful of a name to just the “Ladies Literary Society,” or the LLS. With this new name, the LLS hoped to boost its campus influence. Around commencement season, it was an early tradition in society to hold celebrations of female scholarship. Women would have the opportunity to read an essay. Through organizing from its leaders, the club presented their essays to open audiences that included men. They were making a case for their club’s existence. The Oberlin Evangelist, a local paper, found the society “has for its object the mental and moral improvement of its members, and judging from the exhibition last evening, it has been an efficient means in promoting both objects.” Long story short, the LLS was making a name for itself.

This first group of women produced some razor-sharp alums. There was Lucy Stone, a future civil rights activist, who refused to write a graduation essay upon news she might not get to read it. American poet and educator Emily Huntington Miller became a dean at Northwestern. There was also Catherine Moore Barrows (yes, THAT Barrows), among many other early feminists and abolitionists. Finally, you have the one-time president of the society, Lucy Stanton, who was the first Black woman to complete a four-year course of study at any college. According to club documents, “anybody who wanted to do the work could belong to the society.” No matter one’s background, so long as you did the readings and assignments, you could play a part in this space and then go on to great things.

In 1857, LLS’s rise was disrupted when it split itself down the middle. A group of ladies in the club decided to make their own spinoff group, calling themselves the Aeolian Society. “Aeolian” comes from the sun god Helios. They liked to think of themselves as “light bearers,” shedding light on issues of their times. Official LLS accounts call the Aeolians “radicals.” They were certainly debaters. The first question asked at their first meeting was, “Are social faculties detrimental to the progress of the student?” They weren’t partiers. They were possibly radicals. Discussions were key to their meetings, focusing on topics like the Civil War and Lincoln’s election.

In the 1870s, as the popularity of both groups rose, they sought a new home beyond the dusty attics of the “Ladies Hall.” The result was Sturges Hall, a new center for women’s life at Oberlin. An auditorium on the first floor played host to a variety of events. Both the Aeolians and the LLS had spacious classrooms on the second floor.

One of the major architects behind the literary societies’ expansion was Mrs. Adelia Johnston. An alum of both societies, she returned to serve as the head of Oberlin’s Women’s Department and was also the first woman to ever teach full classes at Oberlin. She sought to remove the limitations upon the opportunities of graduate women. She brought in wealthy families that helped build Talcott, Baldwin, and Peters. She also installed some of the college’s early scholarships for women students. She was among the most notable of the societies’ many girlbosses. She uplifted her fellow girls and the college as a whole. Many members liked to call her “Madam J”— their “patron saint.”

This uplift led to a pretty solid body of alumni. At the turn of the century, these alumni forged a research fellowship. They funded academic study in everything from English to Art to Psychology. They helped women receive masters degrees from the likes of UChicago and Oxford. The group even funded research for books published by mainstream publishers and periodicals.

You can see these fellow girls in the piles and piles of records stowed away in Oberlin’s archives. What stands out the most from this pile might be pages from the “Hi-O-Hi,” Oberlin College’s former yearbook that The Grape briefly revived last year. A page profiling the organization spans the 1890s to the 1930s. These pages give a human face to literary societies. You can see it in their group photos. The girls’ self-serious frowns. Their warmest smiles. Their mildly-uncomfortable half-smiles. They may not have all wanted to be in the photo. They were introverts, and that’s just great. They have done great things. Made a teeny bit of history. But these women were more than their accomplishments. They were humans with a great deal of quirks and eccentricities.

These women studied a variety of authors and books with a menagerie of themes and, from that, made a community. They liked their Irish stage dramas, threw costume parties, and made their own short stories, not unlike your average Creative Writing major. They had bridge parties, tea gatherings, and big stage plays around Christmastime. Jigsaw puzzles seemed especially popular. Despite the fun, they were never passive to the world. During World War I, they themed their readings around the countries involved and reflected on where civilization could be headed next. They were debaters and reflectors. Girls who read.

The role of women in academics evolved plenty as the 20th century continued. The culture shifted from fancy “societies” to more casual clubs and other spaces. The LLS and its spinoff Aeolians faded away over time. Their longest home, Sturges, would be demolished in 1963. Today, the Conservatory buildings stand right around where these women liked to mingle. Their legacy and values still dominate Oberlin. Publications like Wilder Voice, the Plum Creek Review, and the very one you’re reading base themselves on students’ thoughts. Oberlin, specifically its student body, values the voices of individuals. The discussions of literature and the world still sputter up every once in a while on Wilder Bowl.

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