Bloomington’s First Ladies’ Literary Society

Education for American women was changing in the 19th century. Women’s schools ranged from private tutors to elementary schools. Secondary education institutions were new, and accredited colleges that could grant degrees were rare, though gaining status as states determined that a more educated female population was desirable, usually with the goal of better trained teachers and caregivers of children.

Indiana University became co-ed in 1867. If you didn’t have access to such schools and you were a woman with a curious mind, what could you do? What if you simply didn’t want to attend a school but still wished to expand your mind? Literary societies could provide a solution.

Bloomington, Ind., saw the establishment of the Monroe County Female Seminary in 1833; Indiana made state funds available to every county for establishing seminary programs, but at the time, Monroe County was the only county to use those funds to establish seminary programs for women. “Seminary” in this case was a more acceptable word than “college” or “university,” and did not mean that women were trained to be clergy. Outside of formal education, women’s literary and social clubs formed in Indiana. The first was the Female Social Society of New Harmony in 1825. The third was the Clionian Society of Vernon in 1855. The fourth Hoosier women’s group was the Minerva Club in New Harmony in 1859.

But the second women’s club in Indiana has a local home. The Edgeworthalean Society formed in Bloomington on Oct. 19, 1841. The group was formed not simply to read books, but to cultivate and improve the minds and souls of the members without disrupting their traditional roles, according to its constitution and bylaws. The organization of the literary club was similar to men’s-only societies that existed in the town.

The society was named after prolific Anglo-Irish author Maria Edgeworth, who was one of the first realist writers of children’s literature and a well-known author of novels for adults, short stories, and plays. At times her works were criticized for being too moralistic, but that also fit into the model we see in the Edgeworthalean Society’s Minute Book.

Of the 33 women listed as members in the Minute Book, 12 were charter members. The majority of the members are referred to as “Miss,” suggesting they were unmarried; this is further attested by the notations of when certain women were married during their membership in the society. Indeed, notes for the first couple of meetings suggest that Miss L. Hughs (Hughes) may have been the leader, but that her absence required her mother, Mrs. M. Elizabeth Hugh (Hughes), to take on the role. Elizabeth was formally elected president of the society on Jan. 15, 1841.

Notations in the meeting minutes give us insight into the women and the expectations of the society. While the club did charge a fee, “worthy” women could still become members. All pending memberships required recommendations from two existing members. It is likely that members were white, given the racial makeup of the small community at the time.

Three types of membership are noted: there were “charter” and “honorary” members, and then simply members in good standing who joined after the original 12. The note “honorably dismissed” seems to suggest that the women moved away from Bloomington or had to withdraw for sufficient reasons agreed to by a majority of the membership. Only one member is listed as “disowned” by the club for missing four meetings and ignoring a warning to be active.

Activity was certainly something the society was concerned with. Members read, wrote, participated in group discussions, and critiqued each other’s work during their weekly meetings. Most meetings revolved around a philosophical, moral, or intellectual question. Principal debaters were assigned for the topic, and by the meeting’s end, the president of the club chose a winner. Beyond the duties of the average member, eight officers were elected every three months, though several women were reelected.

The Edgeworthalean Society seems to have disbanded in 1844. Why? In the 1850 census, Bloomington reported 1305 citizens; 33 of those amounts to about 2 percent of the population, and possibly a higher fraction in 1844.

Bloomington had only been platted, officially mapped out, since 1818, and the University had only been around since 1820. It was not yet a city by any stretch of the imagination, so every person would have had work to do. The last few months of meetings recorded in the Minute Book show more and more missing members. It could be that the balance between life and the society was proving a challenge for too many women to justify the society’s continuing.

As often happens when we look into the lives of women in the past, we cannot know for certain what happened. Today, book clubs and women are often code for casual get-togethers, usually focused on drinking wine and talking about life as much, if not more, than the book they are all supposed to be reading. The founders of the Edgeworthalean Society might be appalled at what book clubs are today, but women are able to have such clubs because women such as the Hugh(es) family saw a need for some form of social and intellectual community.