Thursday, April 16, 2015

Women’s History Month Lecture

On March 3rd, Cassandra Good spoke about friendship in early America. Dr. Good was a 2009 fellow at the Library Company, and we were exceptionally pleased that she accepted our invitation to deliver the 2015 Davida T. Deutsch Lecture during Women’s History Month. Oxford University Press recently published her book Founding Friendships: Friendships between Men and Women in the Early American Republic, and the Library Company was one of the repositories that Dr. Good consulted in the course of her research.

After the founding of the new nation, the idea of men and women forming friendships that were voluntary and not based on the traditional social structures was a revolutionary one, among many revolutionary ideas of the period. The Library Company’s printed advice books, friendship albums, and manuscript collections all document a phenomenon that offered opportunities and also risks.

Friendship was an opportunity for men and women who were not in romantic relationships with each other to communicate freely about important topics. In the Rush Family Papers, for example, there is a whole volume of Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson’s letters to Benjamin Rush. It may even be that Eliza Powel’s letter to George Washington was what convinced him not to resign the Presidency.

However, there was an equally significant risk that such relationships could have the appearance of impropriety. Women especially needed to guard their reputations. For example, did Benjamin Franklin run the risk of damaging Georgiana Shipley’s reputation when he sent her a lovely snuffbox with a portrait miniature on it? We were happy to hear that Franklin’s status as a celebrity made the gift socially acceptable, despite the fact that the gift of portrait miniatures usually signified romantic interest!

Snuffbox which Benjamin Franklin gave to Georgiana Shipley in 1779. (Gift of Stuart Karu to the Library Company in 2009)

On your next visit, do take a look at the lovely snuffbox on display in the Logan Room.

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