Ohio History Journal

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Women in an Evangelical Community:

Oberlin 1835-1850



Women and men joined the first coeducational college in order

to create both a model Christian community and trained missionaries

for the world's enlightenment and regeneration.' Oberlin College was

not a "feminist" experiment, for the concept of feminism did not truly

exist. It was an evangelical project, in which women were an integral

part. An understanding of why certain women came to Oberlin and

what they found there may illuminate the ways women found to satisfy

the demands placed upon them. It is not useful to merely take signs of

protest as evidence of change in their lives; change was far more subtle,

and women's experience more complex and interesting, than measures

of "oppression" indicate. Religion and commitment to community

were the central focuses in many women's lives, and thus they must

assume their proper place in the historical study of American women.2

The interest in Oberlin as a college obscures its significance as a

religious community. It is in this latter regard that one gains the most

insight into women's participation. Oberlin's founders set out for the

frontier in 1833 to create a model society, one that would demonstrate

true Christian living to what they termed the "perishing world." Women



Lori D. Ginzberg is a graduate student in history at Yale University.


1. Oberlin College is frequently mentioned in connection with women's education

and their struggle for emancipation. Discussions seek to demonstrate that Oberlin is

either to be praised for being in the vanguard on these issues or condemned for

hypocrisy. The concept of religious faith has not been given a central role. Robert

Fletcher pointed out Oberlin's positive influence on later decisions to educate

women alongside men and saw "joint education" as a significant step in America's

progress toward sexual equality: Robert Samuel Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College

From Its Foundation Through the Civil War, Vol 1 (Oberlin, 1943), 904-09. Recent

"feminist" writers emphasize Oberlin's double standard and the "masculine priorities"

with which the experiment was implemented. See Ronald W. Hogeland, "Coeducation

of the Sexes at Oberlin College: A Study of Social Ideas in Mid-Nineteenth Century

America," Journal of Social History, VI (Fall, 1972), 160-71, and Jill Conway,

"Perspective on the History of Women's Education in the United States," History

of Education Quarterly, XIV (Spring, 1974), 1-12.

2. I object to the view that the clergy somehow manipulated women into joining

churches out of self-interest. This ignores the centrality of belief in women's lives,

which was a source of strength as well as of dependence. See Ann Douglas, The

Feminization of American Culture (New York, 1977).