Project Group: Anna Bauman, Bryn Whitney-Blum, Ruby Boyd
Student Editor: Joanna Wiley
Mary Sheldon’s writings provide a unique window into her life as an early female student at Oberlin College and her socio-political engagements. Sheldon was born in Peru, Ohio in 1825 and raised in Berea, Ohio. The name “Berea” was chosen by her father, Reverend Henry Olcott Sheldon, who won that privilege in a coin toss.1 Reverend Sheldon was the Postmaster of Berea and an influential figure in the Methodist Church; he was also an abolitionist.2 Perhaps due to her father’s influence, Mary went on to write and speak out against slavery and the oppression of women.
In 1848, Sheldon enrolled at Oberlin College. While there, Mary Sheldon joined the Ladies’ Literary Society, an organization founded in 1835 by nine Oberlin women. Its self-proclaimed goal was “to improve its members in Writing, Speaking and Discussion.”3 Sheldon herself served as the recording secretary for a time. The Literary Society provided a space for women to engage in open discourse on issues like racial and social inequality.4 Sheldon graduated with a degree in literature in 1852 after accepting a position as principal of the ladies department at the Austinburg Academy in Austinburg, Ohio.5 This lasted until 1858.6 She also taught at a school in Tabor, Iowa, her last home. Tabor was named after the biblical site of Mount Tabor, a mountain near Jesus’s birthplace of Nazareth and coincidentally the name which lost to Berea in the coin toss.7
Mary Sheldon married Reverend James Vincent Sr. (1821-1899) in November 1853. He was born in England and came to the United States for his education.8 The two of them raised five sons in Tabor: James Jr., Cuthbert, Maurice, Henry, and Leopold. Like his wife, Vincent attended Oberlin from 1850 to 1853 where he too spoke out against slavery and racial prejudice. Vincent left Oberlin without graduating to travel to England with his wife to canvas against slavery. They stayed for four months. The couple also wanted to travel to Kansas to join the abolitionist John Brown, a major political figure of the period. Several Oberlin abolitionists knew and worked with Brown, notably during the Harpers Ferry raid. Vincent intended to aid abolitionist forces in “free-state conflict” characterizing the effort to fight against the settlement of Kansas by pro-slavery forces. Unable to afford the trip, the couple instead moved to Tabor, an important stop on the Underground Railroad. Reverend Vincent managed an Underground Railroad station and a school in Tabor where he, Mary and their son Henry published their own newspaper, The American Nonconformist.9 In 1887, a knocked-over lamp resulted in a house fire, badly burning Mary. The burns killed her at the age of sixty-two.10 After her death, Vincent remembered Mary as “an angel on earth.”11
While studying at Oberlin, Sheldon was an active participant in the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. Writing years before slavery was abolished, Sheldon called upon women to come to the forefront of the abolitionist movement in her essay Our Duty to the Oppressed, as did Angelina Grimké, a white, female anti-slavery activist.12 As is made evident in Grimké’s “Appeal to the Christian Women of the South,” both women believed that all people are equally entitled to natural human rights and that slavery, not race, accounted for difference in intellectual ability.13 Like Grimké, Sheldon referenced biblical passages to convey the immorality of slavery to an extremely religious society. Sheldon’s writing is a testament to the larger abolitionist sentiments among white women who believed that people of privilege had a duty to alleviate the harms done to African Americans.
To bolster her education, Sheldon kept a composition notebook full of social criticisms, abstract philosophy, and creative fiction. It is in remarkable condition, a thin, tan volume with wide pages. A few essays in it are indicate that they were written for classes. Occasionally they mention the Literary Society, referencing the fact that Sheldon read the pieces aloud at their events. The Literary Society logbook says that the ladies composed “exercises” and “assignments;” some of Sheldon’s writings are labeled as such. The notebook resembles a diary, as most of her writings are not explicitly political. Sheldon arranged her work neatly, maximizing use of each line with tiny handwriting. If the book is turned backward and upside-down, it reveals that Sheldon also used it to keep a record of personal expenses while at Oberlin.
The essays transcribed here are found in her Oberlin Archives student file. Sometimes, she made separate copies on separate pieces of paper. On one such sheet of paper, Sheldon wrote Our Duty to the Oppressed, which she later gave as a speech to the Oberlin Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society.
Sheldon often discussed women’s issues in her writings. Her essays Women in Politics and Female Education echo the pro-education sentiments pioneered by Enlightenment thinker Mary Wollstonecraft in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman.14 Like Wollstonecraft, Sheldon argued for women’s education as a means to better society. According to Sheldon, women must be knowledgeable in order to participate in public affairs and politics.15 She also reiterated Wollstonecraft’s rejection of the common notion that women were naturally inferior to men, innately unequipped to participate in intellectual discourse.16 Although Wollstonecraft and Sheldon shared many viewpoints, Wollstonecraft focused on the virtues of motherhood whereas Sheldon emphasized the serious burdens of child-rearing.17 Mary Sheldon’s divergence from Wollstonecraft marks an important distinction between her and other early feminist writers. Sheldon wrote these essays while enrolled at Oberlin, receiving the formal education denied to most of her contemporaries. Her opinions therefore represent an important variation of feminism.
Sheldon’s advocacy for both women’s rights and abolition situates her within the dominant feminist ideologies of her time. Activists sparked disputes in the nineteenth century about which cause was more pressing. The Seneca Falls Convention, held the year Sheldon began studying at Oberlin, resolved “that, being invested by the Creator with the same capabilities, and the same consciousness of responsibility for their exercise, it is demonstrably the right and duty of woman, equally with man, to promote every righteous cause by every righteous means.”18 This sense of responsibility for uplifting the oppressed is reflected in Sheldon’s writing, although her approach emphasizes women’s morality rather than the individual rights framework of the 1848 convention. Sheldon’s elevation of both morality and natural rights underline the historical moment she occupied between the morality-based feminism of her contemporaries and the rights-based feminism that was gaining ground in the mid-nineteenth century.
1Patricia M. Mote, Legendary Locals of Berea (Berea: Arcadia Publishing, 2012), 66.
2Mote, Legendary Locals, 66.
3Ladies’ Literary Society (Aelioian, L.L.S.) Records, (1846-1953), 19/3/4, series 1. Oberlin College Archives. Web address
4Ladies Literary Society Records
5Roland M. Baumann, Constructing Black Education at Oberlin College: A Documentary History (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2010) Chapter 2, Document 6.
6Mary Sheldon, “To the Alumni of Oberlin College,” 1875.
7Mote, Legendary Locals, 66.
8“Joined the Advance Guard: Sketch of a Long, Active and Eventful Career,” The Nonconformist, 14 December 1899.
9Lawrence Goodwyn, The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1978), 62.
10Goodwyn, Populist Movement, 62.
11Student File: Mary Sheldon. Records. 1848-1978. Oberlin College Archives. http://www.oberlinlibstaff.com/archon/?p=collections/controlcard&id=446
12Grimké spent her life traveling around the country lecturing against slavery.
13Angelina Grimké, “Appeal to the Christian Women of the South,” speech presented to the New York Anti-Slavery Society (New York, NY, 1836).
14Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (Boston, Massachusetts, 1792).
15Mary Sheldon, “Women in Politics,” 20 September 1848, 30/200 Oberlin College Archives.
17Wollstonecraft, 10. Sheldon, “Women in Politics.”
18Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, editors, History of Woman Suffrage, vol. 1: 1848-1861 (New York, NY: Fowler and Wells, Publishers, 1881), 2.