Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Women's Charities, Philadelphia 1800

Philadelphia had always been a progressive city, and by the last decade of the eighteenth century, it had produced numerous charities, some run by religious organizations, some by ethnic groups, others by professions, but all created and organized by men.

The first charity developed by women was the Female Benevolent Society at the African Church (now the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas). A mutual aid society introduced in 1793, the organization was made up of subscribers who could call upon it for help if and when they were in need.

The second women's charity, founded by Anne Parrish, a member of the Society of Friends, and administered by the women of her Meeting, also originated during the difficult period 1793-1995 when Philadelphia suffered through two yellow fever epidemics. Shortly after its formation, the Female Society of Philadelphia for the Relief and Employment of the Poor (as the organization came to be known) received a letter from a male Friend who was concerned about the "indelicacy" of women working with the urban poor. The Secretary copied the letter into the minutes, and the group proceeded with their endeavors. In the early years of the nineteenth century, they were best known for their Hall of Industry, where they paid poor women to spin.

What is noticeable here is that these are good works attributable to outlying groups, not the women from the socially and politically prominent families who attended the Dancing Assemblies. It would not be until October of 1800 that a group of such women met in the parlor of the minister of the Second Presbyterian Church to begin their efforts for the needy. Among them were Hannah Boudinot, whose husband had been president of the Continental Congress in 1782-83; her daughter Susan Bradford, widow of an Attorney General of the United States; Sarah Butler Mease, a daughter of a signer of the Declaration; Sarah Ralston, a daughter of Mayor Matthew Clarkson whose leadership during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793 fostered calm and produced effective action in the city; and Miss Sproat, probably a daughter of the Rev. Mr. James Sproat of Second Presbyterian who died ministering to the sick during the same epidemic. Although they met under the auspices of a religious congregation, these women came from families with a tradition of civic responsibility as well. In the new republic they may have seen their actions as not simply a way to live their faith, but also as their contribution to nation-building. In a republic, who better than they to see the needs of poor women and take up the task of helping those in difficult circumstances?

Nearly 40 years later, Dr. Ashbel Green in whose parlor this meeting took place would remember: "It was at that period an untried experiment for the female to attempt extending the sphere of her exertions beyond the narrow limits of her own household." Yet these women were about to found an ambitious citywide organization, the first to go beyond a single congregation and become truly nonsectarian in its membership. Among the first women to become members in the organization's first full year were a number of Jewish women including twenty-year-old Rebecca Gratz.

(The information about the earliest charities is from Bruce Dorsey's 2002 book Reforming men and women: gender in the antebellum city. Information about the founding of the Female
Association is from a pamphlet by Eleanor S. Wistar Crampton, "The Female Association of Philadelphia for the Relief of Women and Children," published in Philadelphia in 1965. I found it among the Female Association papers at Haverford College's library.)

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