Portraits of American Women Writers That Appeared in Print Before 1861 - Header and Menu

Oscar A. Lawson, engraver. “Teaching the Scriptures,” in The Religious Souvenir for MDCCCXL (New York, 1839), plate opposite p. 154.

Oscar A. Lawson, engraver. “Teaching the Scriptures,” in The Religious Souvenir for MDCCCXL (New York, 1839), plate opposite p. 154.


For many American women, religion provided sanctification of their private roles as wives and mothers as well as opportunities for semi-public roles outside the home, through which they sometimes achieved fame. Especially in the 19th century, pious women often taught Sunday school, and many women served as unpaid assistants to their clergyman husbands, whether in the United States or as missionaries abroad. Plus, a minority of women became preachers or religious leaders in their own right.

In 19th-century culture, the so-called “cult of domesticity” emphasized and glorified women as caregivers, and especially as mothers. The ideal woman made the home a sanctuary for her husband and children, a haven from the heartless world of commerce and competition. The Christian home thus became a locus of piety, and motherhood became the central work of the Christian mother. Through the posthumous publication of their memoirs, some women became well-known following their death. The advice of Mrs. Susan Huntington on child nurture appears in one such memoir:

"Not only must we exhort our infant charge [sic] to patience under their little privations and sorrows, but we must also practice those higher exercises of submission which ... are but the more vigorous branches of the same root whose feeble twigs they are required to cultivate.  Not only must we entreat them to seek first the kingdom of God, but we must be careful to let them see, that we are not as easily depressed by the frowns, or elated by the smiles, of the world, as others.  In short, nothing by the most persevering industry ... and ... the most unremitting supplications to Him who alone can enable us to resolve and act correctly, can qualify us to discharge properly the duties which devolve upon every mother."  (Benjamin B. Wisner, Memoirs of the Late Mrs. Susan Huntington. 2nd ed. (Boston, 1826), p. 73-74).

Clergymen’s wives often worked in tandem with their husbands, teaching Sunday school, visiting the sick, and organizing church-related programs. In addition, the missionary enterprise took many clergymen’s wives abroad. In 1810, graduates of the Andover Theological Seminary proposed a society to organize foreign missions, and in 1812 chartered the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Later, various Protestant sects formed their own missionary societies and soon many young clergy flocked to missions in southeast Europe and across Asia. The American Board kept a list of eligible single women, and couples often married with the knowledge that they would go abroad directly. A significant number of missionaries’ wives died young, and the publication of their memoirs served to inspire others to the cause. Meta Lander, in her memorial on Mrs. Henrietta Hamlin, who accompanied her missionary husband to Turkey, writes about the genre:

"From the publication of 'Harriet Newell,' the first American ‘missionary sister’ whose biography blessed our land, down to the last that has greeted us from the press, not one has failed of extended usefulness in the promotion of personal holiness, the increase of the spirit of missions, and the happy illustration of the grace of God.” (Meta Lander. Light on the Dark River (Boston, 1854), p. 13)

Other 19th-century women became famous for their work outside the home and the mission. Isabella Graham, for example, was an important benefactress in New York City in the early 1800s and Elizabeth Seton, who founded the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph’s, was the first American to be canonized as a saint. In addition, a number of female preachers, including Abigail Roberts and Jarena Lee, challenged male dominance in the clerical field.

As a whole, the memoirs of American women in religion use their very different life stories to emphasize similar religious themes. Many women are said to have had weak constitutions; of these, some died young and others, such as Hannah Adams, lived to an advanced age. Other patterns include the women’s martyr-like complacency in the face of death, an emphasis on their parental activities over other labors, and the accentuation of their piety. In all cases, their lives are characterized by intense Christian piety, whether from a very young age or following a specific conversion moment.

The print record reveals a great deal about the range of roles available to American women. We present a gallery of portraits plus short sketches of the sitters’ lives to encourage further study by religious historians and other scholars. All works cited are in the collections of the Library Company of Philadelphia. Please note that the graphic images can only be reproduced with permission from the Library Company.

The project initially emerged as part of the “Picturing Women” exhibition, a multi-institution exhibition that was the culmination of many years work by art historian Dr. Susan Shifrin. Curator of Women’s History Cornelia S. King developed the original checklist of portraits. As an intern from Haverford College’s John B. Hurford ’60 Humanities Center, Colin Yarbrough created this online resource. Special thanks to Colin for facing the challenges of summarizing these women’s complex lives. As an intern from Drexel University’s College of Information Science and Technology, Cheryl Klimaszewski added to the file, and created records the Library Company’s digital repository. Various Library Company staff members helped with aspects of the project, especially Chief Information Officer Nicole H. Scalessa, former Graphics Assistant Linda Wisniewski, and former Curator of Printed Books Wendy Woloson.


The Library Company of Philadelphia 1314 Locust St., Phila. PA 19107 215-546-3181 FAX 215-546-5167 Copyright 2005 All Rights Reserved. Nicole Scalessa, IT Manager, nscalessa@librarycompany.org

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