Every aspect of this study has included women, but they also deserve focused attention as a sample of half the American population that, in course of the nineteenth century, underwent fundamental changes of status. What kinds of change can be seen in the surviving record of the Pratt, Emlen, Yearsley, and Painter women? Though many women’s historians of recent decades offer helpful perspectives on the question, Joan M. Jensen has in particular offered guidance to multiple classes taught by George Franz and Phyllis Cole at Penn State Brandywine. As Jensen proposes in her study of Chester and Delaware County farm women, there was no revolution, but they still underwent a decisive “loosening [of] the bonds” of womanhood.61
The bonds in question were legal, political, and religious. According to the English Common Law, which was also practiced in the early United States, a married woman was a “feme covert,” “covered” by the identity of her husband and therefore ineligible to own property, keep her own wages and profits, or conduct a lawsuit.62 In keeping with this law, she was also a non-citizen of the nation and could not vote. And—the oldest prohibition of all—she could not preach or minister: as St. Paul had decreed and mainstream Christianity maintained, “the women should keep silence in the churches” (I Cor. 14: 34). Our group of women, as members of the Society of Friends, had already countered that Biblical rule and, following the example of their ancestors back to the seventeenth century, felt free to speak and to organize their own, self-governing women’s meetings. As we have seen, Emlen daughters might even be invited to "share and share alike" with sons in their father's legacy. But they still fell structurally within the civil law governing property, and as residents of the United States they were excluded from the rights of citizenship. The bonds loosened when they claimed new access to land and money, when they pursued education, and when they moved toward citizenship with public roles, in and out of their own Society.63
Recall the unhappy domestic argument between Thomas and Mary Worrall Pratt over her right to the land and capital she had inherited from her parents. Thomas was expecting the old ways to continue. His own father, his guardian Enos Painter, and the founder of the Darlington dynasty had all come into their land through marriage to a daughter or widow from another family, and apparently no one complained: a wife’s estate simply belonged to her husband. But the law and social climate were also shifting. The decisive change came in 1848, when Pennsylvania enacted a Married Women’s Property Act, allowing women both to retain the property they brought into marriage and to acquire more in their own name. And even before that time, a growing alternative to common law called “equity” allowed the courts to put a woman’s inheritance into a “trust” that would protect her right to it from an actual or potential husband’s decisions and debts.64
Such arrangements were clearly in play with the Worrall family, from whom Mary received her inheritance. When she reached adulthood in 1838 she inherited land—the property later developed into Cumberland Cemetery—from her father, who had died seven years before but willed it to be held in trust for her. After the death of Mary’s mother in 1858, Thomas promised her brother Sharpless to have the money that Mary also inherited “properly secured for her,” but that meant controlling it himself, even losing it to unsuccessful land speculations in Minnesota. For a long time after the Property Act of 1848, household hierarchy could make de facto coverture continue.65
Ironically, Thomas Pratt meanwhile signed as an official witness to the will of his childhood guardian Enos Painter, who in 1848 followed the liberal trend in apportioning his substantial estate. Though his sons Minshall and Jacob were to inherit the land in Middletown, Enos went to great lengths to protect the rents and profits that his daughter Sarah would receive on Chester County property from husband Eusebius Barnard; they would be “for her sole and separate use,” “notwithstanding any coverture.” These were the key phrases of equity law, and even though the Property Act had just claimed such privileges for all Pennsylvania women, Enos doubled the prohibition against this husband’s possible expectations of profit. Possibly his distrust of Eusebius actively motivated such provisions as much as confidence in a daughter’s ability. But this lengthy will also opens possibilities of ownership and economic security for other sisters, daughters, and granddaughters.66 The Painter family—even its tough-minded patriarch—seems to have been united in respect for women’s economic rights.
Ann Painter Tyler (1818-1914), the youngest child of Enos and Hannah, acted out such possibilities most fully. Married to William Tyler in 1847, she benefited directly from her brother Minshall’s will, which in 1873 left her the family home, farm buildings, sawmill, and tenant houses. There was no question of her husband William becoming the real owner; the 1875 Middletown map labels this property clearly with her name alone.67 Even more, the family’s legal papers include nine leases by which she rented out the tenant portions of her property over the years following. Samuel Byers, for instance, was mandated to “improve” the farm he rented, keep it free of “all pernicious weeds, briars and bushes,” “protect the fruit and ornamental trees,” “keep eighteen cows and four horses, but no more,” and “keep the hogs from rooting”; at the mill, Davis Williams was to “saw lumber for her” while she reserved “the privilege of entering on the above premises” to inspect and supervise repairs as needed. The legal language put this woman (now in her fifties) in charge down to the details, and it was not until 1882 that the name of her son John J. Tyler appears as agent for her.68 It was through the lineage from Ann to John J. to John’s widow Laura Hoopes Tyler that the place evolved into Tyler Arboretum.
The Painters were among the wealthiest and most eminent families in Middletown, but they were not alone in moving toward women’s agency with land and money. Mary Worrall Pratt may have died without reaching any resolution with Thomas, and Catherine Yearsley went from a “trust” that gave her no power to impoverishment by her husband’s debts. But the same 1875 map that shows Mary’s estate at the Cumberland site and Ann Tyler’s single ownership also reveals a bigger picture: just twenty- seven years after the Married Women’s Property Act, more than ten per cent of the hundred-odd landowners in Middletown were women.69
The same woman who owned and managed the Painter properties in the 1870s also learned chemistry in the 1830s. In fact we can know a great deal about the education of Ann Painter Tyler, because the family archives include her school notebooks, from arithmetic at Westtown when she was ten to a range of subjects at the West Chester Female Boarding School in her teens: French grammar, geology, the numbers in Latin and Greek, a book of extracts from poetry, and in all of them samples of exquisite penmanship. As her chemistry teacher acknowledged, “our female seminaries” were a growing concern.70
Education took many forms in Pennsylvania’s Quaker culture, extending for the community of our study from the school alongside the meetinghouse to public elementary schools for the county, from Westtown in 1799 to the seminaries and colleges of later decades. Women’s literacy and opportunity within this system was relatively strong. But the Painters offer a special case to examine by virtue of both their means and their motivation.
Not only schoolbooks but letters tell of the struggles and triumphs of girls away from home over three generations at seminaries and colleges with financial and personal backing from the Painter elders. The first Painter to attend Westtown Boarding School was Rachel, the illegitimate daughter of Enos’ sister, who subsequently wrote to Hannah about her teaching career in Alexandria, Virginia. Hannah’s four daughters (Sarah, Hannah, Sidney, and Ann) followed at Westtown, with cousin Rachel encouraging Sarah to enjoy the same opportunities she had had.71 In turn Ann kept the tradition going for the generations after her own, perhaps in special ways since her older sisters had died and their daughters and granddaughters needed mentoring. A niece, Sidney Barnard, wrote with pride in 1887 about her daughter Helen’s enrollment at Swarthmore College; later, after graduation, the daughter celebrated annually with “old Swarthmore girls” while planning a nursing career, which in the mother’s eyes promised both satisfaction and economic return. Helen herself expressed more self-doubt to Ann, complained of exams ahead, invited her to commencement, and offered thanks for “what thee has done for me.” “I think I can be a nurse but I do not know about being a doctor,” she wrote from her training school. “Time will show.” Surveying the college ventures of not only Helen but her cousins in 1887, Sidney summed up the new promise of their time: “Tis education forms the common mind.”72
The great-grandmother of such formation, however, was Hannah Minshall Painter, who had received a “liberal education” such as the 1790s offered before her marriage to Enos. The records do not tell where she attended school or what subjects she studied; there is certainly no suggestion of science or languages. But her large “Copy Book”—also in exquisite penmanship—tells of the thoughts and values that she was being taught. Also called “commonplace books,” such albums are studied today as a clue to women’s culture of the past and a kind of autobiographical expression, because the students chose for themselves (probably from shared or recommended reading) the passages of poetry and other literature they wished to include. Hannah had a sense of humor, as her “Advice to Choose a Husband” and “Last Will and Testament of Father Amity” show: the latter is a parody version of what a husband might leave a wife from the household goods that had been legally his (“A Tub of Soap/A Long Cart Rope/A Frying Pan and Kettle,” etc.) The era’s moral warning to girls is expressed in “The Heavenly Damsel,” which recounts the judgment visited upon a young woman guilty of infanticide; angels tell her she will be forgiven if she returns to let the world know what she has seen. Specifically Quaker values and vision also loom large in this selection: a prospect of the Quaker millennium of peace, the evocation of “inward light” possible to a bedridden young woman, and an elegy to the woman minister from nearly Goshen, Elizabeth Ashbridge, who left her husband and sacrificed her life to travel abroad with religious testimony.73 The selections in Hannah’s book confirmed the domestic and religious values that she had grown up with but also allowed her to see them more deeply. Joan Jensen quotes Hannah’s transcription of the poem about Elizabeth Ashbridge in pointing out that women ministers were important “models of emulation” for other young women.74 Emulation would continue through the century following, both within the family and through the models that schools and books offered from outside it.
Professions and public authority
The major routes toward public citizenship for women in Quaker Pennsylvania were teaching, ministry, and reform, all of them positions that the young might emulate. Hannah Minshall herself never took on such work, but she also knew a woman—Sarah Emlen, just five years younger than herself—who had embraced both teaching and ministry. As Middletown neighbors and fellow leaders of the women’s meeting before 1827, they must have known each other well; maybe Sarah was one of the “intimate fellow members” whose loss through the Separation most grieved Hannah.75 In any case the two women’s records of education and piety make an interesting pair. If Hannah is a foremother of education, Sarah represents public vocation. Instead of a commonplace book, Sarah offers an extraordinary body of life writing, which does not detail her means to ministry but does express the interior experience driving it. Sarah started keeping journals at twenty, in 1807, and at least sporadically through more than thirty years continued to record her travels and daily reflections in journals and letters. Her account of opposition at the Middletown meeting in 1828 was only an episode in a much more extensive life narrative, which sought to embrace both the domestic sphere of the family and the daunting requirements of a travelling ministry.
Loneliness made Sarah want to record her thoughts, and necessity made her daring. Born in rural New Jersey, she had lost her mother and father early, though early advice from her father (a teacher) to compose a journal provided Sarah with “social chat” when other company was lacking. Her other most prized setting for conversation was Westtown School, where a band of friends and a set of teachers attuned to her confidences provided new grounding in life. She herself started teaching when only sixteen. But she told such background retrospectively in the midst of a contemporary account from the Ohio River Valley, where she married, then lost both husband and child to epidemic disease. Her intense religious vocation seems to have taken root in feelings that she had loved them too much, “better than the giver,” and now “must seek something that will never die.” Travelling back across Pennsylvania with strangers, she returned to Westtown as both a haven and a place of employment as a teacher.76 Then the journal record falls silent for three crucial years, during which she met and married James Emlen, became a mother again, and simultaneously began to travel as a minister. New love and religious vocation had come to her at once, and for the rest of her life she would (like many other Quaker women ministers) struggle to fulfill both callings.77
Sarah’s certificate from Chester Monthly Meeting in 1825 declared her a “minister in good esteem with us” and recommended her “visit in Gospel love” to the meetings of New York and Rhode Island. A minister was not ordained or specially trained, but meetings had long recognized the few among them with a special gift for speaking and conferred this status as a recommendation, even to meetings far from their own. By 1828 there were ninety women ministers in greater Philadelphia, still an elite group but one growing in size and stature.78 It was surely against such stature that the Middletown Hicksites were recoiling in their profane and misogynistic slurs against Sarah that very year. But the journals themselves express the difficulty of having authority and remaining humble at once. Finding herself embroiled in a pre-Separation controversy in Saratoga, New York in 1825, she prayed to “keep down that spirit which would feed on these things,” to “keep innocent, not craving the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” Clearly one side of herself did want authority and knowledge. At least in her journal she did not hesitate to criticize people “so wrestless, and so outward,” whose hearts did not seem attuned to her words. She could judge and discriminate. Finally, and despite a constant theme of homesickness and love in the letters, Sarah also found valued associates in these travels. The last surviving letter before her death in 1849 was to a “sister in truth” in Liverpool, England, with whom she proposed simultaneous reading and reflection on Moses’ prayer to God as he led the Hebrew people.79 She had no qualms about making an analogy between this august figure and themselves.
Women’s ministry in the Society of Friends was not a new development in the nineteenth century, like property rights and higher education, but surely it gained new meaning in changing times. From her New York experiences on, Sarah had a part to play in the Quaker controversies. She was welcomed in regions far afield from Pennsylvania. She also remained close to school-teaching, at home and at Westtown, even while ceding the latter position primarily to James. In Jensen’s terms she stands as an emerging public citizen of the era, alongside Rachel Painter, who taught in the unfamiliar territory of the South, and later Helen Barnard with her aspiration to a medical career.
It is not clear from our limited research that new institutions in Delaware County opened doors very wide to women. In this neighborhood the leaders in temperance and antislavery reform, at least as reported by newspapers and official histories, were men. The Delaware County Institute of Science allowed a few women to become “Associate” or “Corresponding” Members, like the eminent Quaker minister from Philadelphia, Lucretia Mott.80 But why was there not space alongside her brothers for Ann Painter Tyler, with her passion for chemistry? Instead the Institute had a “Ladies Fair” in 1868 with Mrs. Tyler and Mrs. Yearsley on its large planning committee. Even in a changing time and place, most women remained beneath the radar of public recognition. Why was there no eulogy of Sarah Emlen in The Friend, as there were of the two James Emlens?
Still, under the leadership of Lucretia Mott, this region hosted one of the early women’s right conventions, in West Chester in 1853. Jacob Painter rather than his sisters was consulted by the radical Hicksite women planning the event. More power to him for responding; on his own initiative he had also attended the first convention in Massachusetts.81 At some point he wrote an essay on women. “With what derision men speak of a woman who assumes to have any mind,” Jacob commented; “how they ridicule their pretensions as presumptive[,] but…their scoffing denotes their little childish je[a]lousy.”82 We do not at this point know to what extent the women of Middletown attended or responded to the meeting in West Chester. One sign of long-term interest, however, is a much later report from another of Ann Painter Tyler’s nieces, Anna Sharpless, who in 1888 attended a Woman’s Council meeting in Washington, DC. Telling of the opportunity to hear “the finest women speakers we have in the United States and some others belonging to foreign lands,” she also sent her aunt a copy of the Woman’s Tribune with full coverage.83 This representative of the next generation assumed Ann’s support of her presence there and of women’s cause.