Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Female Association

In my blog post dated December 1, 2009, I provided an introduction to women's charities as well as information about the founders of the first women's nonsectarian charity in Philadelphia, the Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances. The women who met in October 1800 had ambitions for their charity, but they were also prudent. Male concerns about the delicacy of women working with the poor, the need for financial support from men and perhaps their own collective comfort zone combined to make the objects of their charity women and children of all social classes who were in need through no fault of their own. (Most often, they were in reduced circumstances due to the loss of their breadwinner.) Helping the respectable and deserving poor was less a cause of concern for the men in the community.

Since many of their potential clients were embarrassed by their fall into poverty, the founders of the Female Association planned to have a representative, called a manageress, in each ward of the city who could locate and be available to those in need. Each manageress would inform the Board of Directoresses about her clients and their requirements, and the Board would authorize such financial aid or goods as it deemed necessary. The founders also created a "select committee" to attend to "those persons whose peculiar circumstances prevent their situations from being publicly known" (i.e., women from the upper classes). This option meant that these women would remain anonymous in the organization's records.

To do all this, the Female Association needed a large number of active members -- about 14 manageresses throughout the city, a board of directoresses to make the decisions and officers to run the organization -- about 30 women who were willing and able to commit a significant amount of time to meetings, fundraising and social work. This may be the reason that the organization became nonsectarian -- one congregation could not provide enough women with both the time and inclination for good works.

We do not know how Rebecca became involved with the Female Association, but a pamphlet about the organization shows that she was a member from 1801, along with her mother, her sister Richea Hays and her aunt Bella Cohen. (Her sister Rachel joined in 1803.) Of the nearly one hundred women on the membership list in 1803--an annual donation of $3 was the sole requirement for members--several others were Jewish. Their full names are not always given, but it seems that another family of civic-minded women was among them: Rebecca Machado Phillips, a Mrs. Levy who was probably her daughter Rachel and a Miss Levy.  (We will meet Phillips family again at the founding of the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society.) Another was Miss Deborah Cohen, the daughter of Jacob Cohen, the hazzan (reader) at Mikveh Israel.

In the first years of the Female Association, Rebecca Gratz was not an officer or a manageress, but she did more than pay her dues. In a pamphlet from 1803, there is mention of the soup kitchen, a new idea from Europe, which the surprisingly adventurous Association had adopted as a way of feeding the poor. A building had to be renovated to fill this function and topping the list of Female Association fundraisers for the new soup kitchen was Rebecca Gratz with $35, not an insignificant amount in those days. Rebecca's conversational powers, so admired by Samuel Ewing in his character sketch (post dated September 8, 2009), were now being used for a good purpose. Her dedication to the Female Association would be noted.

(Information for this post came from the pamphlet cited in the previous post on the Female Association, dated December 1, 2009, and two editions of another pamphlet, The Constitution of the Female Association..., dated 1801 and 1803, which may be viewed at the Library Company of Philadelphia. Also consulted (and quoted) is a book, Invisible Philadelphia: community through voluntary organizations, compiled and edited by Jean Barth Toll and Mildred S. Gillam, Atwater Kent Museum, Philadelphia, 1995.)

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