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Oberlin College was one of the few coeducational and racially integrated colleges in antebellum America. Although their public speaking was sometimes limited, female students participated in most facets of college life. At Oberlin and beyond, female students (and their male counterparts) worked to construct a racially integrated environment, to end slavery and, after emancipation, to aid former slaves. At Oberlin and in their lives afterwards, female students sought to define the parameters of female life and to participate in a variety of antebellum social movements.


  • To explore how the Second Great Awakening and religion were intertwined with women's work in moral reform

  • To describe the education women received at Oberlin and to describe some of the outcomes of this education

  • To examine how women worked for racial harmony during and after Oberlin

  • To examine how women defined the parameters of female experience in their lives at Oberlin and beyond

  • To assess the ways in which education and moral reform work reinforced traditional ideas about (and restraints upon) women as well as to see how they broadened women's opportunities and challenged the boundaries of the female sphere

Teaching Ideas

Read document 1. What do you learn about the Female Society in Colchester--particularly its goals and operations? What seems to motivate Rudd to participate? Now read documents 6A and 6B. Are there comparisons that can be made? What change over time do you observe in the Oberlin Female Moral Reform Society?

Documents 3 and 4 reveal some motivating factors that brought women to Oberlin and provide descriptions of some of their experiences there. Read document 3. How does Sally Rudd encourage her niece to come to Oberlin? What about the religious motivations of Hannah Maria Warner? What do you learn from these letters about everyday life and education at Oberlin? Be prepared to discuss this in class.

Carefully read documents 5A, 5B, and 5C, all essays written by Oberlin student Mary Sheldon. What does Sheldon think of women's ability to influence the world? Compare what you read in these documents to what you find in document 7, an address that Sheldon later gave.

Read document 8, the bylaws of the Young Ladies Literary Society (YLLS), and document 15, and address by student Frances Hazen that was prepared in consultation with the YLLS. Briefly summarize the bylaws. Were any of the rules suprising to you? If so, which ones and why? How does Frances Hazen argue for women's place in history? Based on these documents, assess what opportunities participation in this Society provided to Oberlin women. Are there opportunities that the Society did not provide? Be prepared to discuss these matters in class.

Read documents 9A, 9B, and 9C. What is being described in these letters? Who is paying for Mary and Emily's education at Oberlin, and why? What happened to Mary? How did Oberlin affect Emily?

Read documents 10, 11A, 11B, 11C, and 12A. What do these documents reveal about the racially integrated education and environment of Oberlin? What tensions existed, and how did students work to overcome such tensions? After they left Oberlin, how did Oberlin women work for racial justice? Do you see indications that there were links between their ideas about gender and race? Be prepared to discuss these questions in class and to point to specific passages in the documents that support your ideas.

In her work at Oberlin, Emily Pillsbury Burke found herself enmeshed in controversy. Read documents 13A, and 13B. Describe the controversy. How did her dismissal affect Burke, and what does it demonstrate about the importance of female reputation in the nineteenth century?

Read documents 14, 15, 16, and 17. How did Oberlin women use public speaking to make their own case? Pay particular attention to document 17, the commencement exercises from 1861. What topics did women typically speak about, and what do their choices tell you?

In considering all of these documents, assess how Oberlin education and moral reform work reinforced traditional ideas about women. In addition, how did it challenge the boundaries of the female sphere? Be prepared to discuss these opposing perspectives in class.

Possible Assignments

  • Choose 4-6 documents from this project and use them to make a case for Oberlin education as (a) liberating for women OR (b) reinforcing society's stereotypes about women. (Or, instead of writing a paper, have an in-class debate about the issues.)

  • Research Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown Blackwell, two of Oberlin's most famous students and lifelong friends. Read the letters that they wrote to each other, reprinted in Carol Lasser and Marlene Deahl Merrill, Friends and Sisters: Letters Between Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown Blackwell, 1846-93 (University of Illinois Press, 1987). What do you learn about the Oberlin experience and these two reformers from this correspondence? How did Stone and Blackwell struggle to overcome the limitations they felt were placed on women, at Oberlin and beyond?

For Further Investigation

  • Use some of the sites in the "Related Links" section of the document project to learn more about Oberlin's history and its ties to the Second Great Awakening and antislavery.

  • An ongoing debate among historians involves the extent to which the antebellum women's rights movement grew from women's antislavery activism. In using letters and information about Lucy Stone and by examining the document project How Did Lucretia Mott Combine Her Commitments to Antislavery and Women's Rights, 1840-1860?," explore this connection.

Bonnie Laughlin Schultz
Indiana University

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