Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Rebecca Makes Use of Her Writing Skills

In biographical sketches of Rebecca Gratz she is often credited as a founder and the initial secretary of the Female Association, the first nondenominational charity in Philadelphia organized by women. As I have shown in the previous post and the one dated December 1, 2009, this is an exaggeration.

However, Rebecca did become the second secretary of the Association sometime between 1804 and 1808, probably earlier rather than later in this period because Sarah Butler Mease, the first secretary, delivered her third child in four years in 1804 and was likely ready to give over some of her responsibilities outside the home at that time.

Rebecca's election as secretary was quite an achievement. Although American girls had much more freedom than their peers in Europe, they became full adults only when they married. In social matters, the matrons held sway, and married women would naturally hold the important positions in charities. Rebecca's election to the post of secretary when she was a marriageable girl in her twenties tells us that the Association was 1) so desperate to fill the post that they took a chance on a young woman or 2) that Rebecca's work for the organization and her general comportment showed her to be a viable candidate despite her age.

Either way, Rebecca benefited because she found she had a talent for her new responsibilities. She had always loved literature -- her relationship with Samuel Ewing, a published poet, was based in part on this mutual interest -- and she was at this time part of the social set which had formed around a literary periodical called the Port Folio, published in Philadelphia since 1801. Many of the young men she knew published poetry and articles in the PF -- and at least four of her women friends were also contributors. Although she wrote poetry, there is no evidence that Rebecca ever submitted anything for publication; she probably knew that her poetical efforts did not rise above the amateur.

As secretary of the Female Association, she had a chance to try her hand at a different type of writing. Her main responsibility was the minutes of the meetings which she produced with accuracy and thoroughness. But the secretary's duties also included the creation of the Annual Report which was read at the yearly public meeting of the Association. Often charities printed up these reports as pamphlets for prospective donors or published them in newspapers as advertisements.

I have not come across a single example of Rebecca's annual reports for the Female Association, but based on her extant work for later charities, I can say that she grasped the importance of the reports' public relations and promotional function. Besides a list of good works, her reports made a clear statement of the charity's mission and explained the necessity for donations at the moment at hand. In 1824, two years after she gave up her office as secretary of the Female Association, the Port Folio ran an overview of local charities, based on their yearly reports. It stated that the Association "has published its annual address, but it enters into no particulars from which any conjecture may be formed of the present situation of the society."

Obviously Rebecca's talents were not so common. When a family tragedy caused her to try to resign as secretary of the Philadelphia Orphan Society in 1823, she was deflected from her purpose, probably by those who realized how hard she would be to replace.

Rebecca had found that she could use her writing abilities in the service of a good cause, a situation which she must have deemed very satisfactory. The office of secretary provided her with a central role in the organization and therefore the power to foster projects and help bring them to fruition. All in all, it was a congenial position for her and one she would accept again in two more of her charities.

(My assertion that Rebecca kept thorough minutes is based on information in the Crampton pamphlet, cited in my post of December 1, 2009. Ms. Crampton, writing in 1965, seems to have had more original FA material than is accessible now, and I am relying on her for accuracy. Rebecca's letter of resignation is in the collection of Philadelphia Orphan Society materials at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The quote from the Port Folio is from its April 1824 issue.)

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