Document 2

Author: Adelia Field Johnston

Title: “The Woman Question” Lecture

Date: 10 November 1874

Location: Oberlin College Archives, Adelia A. Field Johnston Papers, Series IV. Writings and Notebooks, 1862-1994, Record Group 30/19.

Document Type: Autograph Document Fragment


When Johnston was offered the position of Principal of the Women’s Department (later Dean of Women) in 1870, she also undertook the responsibility of giving lectures to the entire female student body every two weeks, known as General Exercises. These lectures were not academic in nature, but were rather intended to help these young women live healthy, useful, and moral lives. They were also an opportunity to remind students of College rules that they had perhaps chosen to forget.1

Title: Adelia Field Johnston, Dean of Women Source: Oberlin College Archives, Adelia A. Field Johnston Papers. Series V. Photographs, 1862-1994 (span). RG 30/19.
Title: Adelia Field Johnston, Dean of Women
Source: Oberlin College Archives, Adelia A. Field Johnston Papers. Series V. Photographs, 1862-1994 (span). RG 30/19.

These lectures remained memorable to many of Johnston’s female students, who often cited her as a model of proper womanhood and a giver of invaluable advice. While few records of these lectures have survived, Johnston’s own notebook, where she evidently planned the General Exercises, does remain, and offers a few glimpses into these lectures during her first years as Principal of the Women’s Department.

The following excerpt from this journal details a lecture given on the subject of the “Woman Question.” Although the handwritten entry is difficult to read and fragmentary in nature, it is notable for being one of the few times that Johnston, in her own writings, directly addresses explicitly feminist concerns. Johnston constantly advocated for both women’s education and coeducation, and supported women’s efforts to move beyond the traditional women’s sphere, but her views about gender were very essentialist, and she tended to remain silent when it came to women’s political rights, particularly voting. Her biographer and friend, Harriet Keeler, a prominent suffragist, states that earlier in Johnston’s life, she was ambivalent about women being given the vote, feeling that perhaps it was better for women’s power to remain in their unofficial influence.2 According to Keeler, she never again made her views on voting explicit, though Keeler believes she changed her mind later in life. Given that context, this speech addressing the “Woman Question,” the question of what women’s role should be in society, becomes interesting. Of particular note is where, on the second page, Johnston cautions against making mistakes, saying that mistakes will only set women back further. Although Johnston was clearly an advocate for the expansion of women’s sphere, her more essentialist views of gender, as well as her strict policing of the behavior of female Oberlin students, highlight the possibility that in her view, the suffrage movement may have been a mistake, since it perhaps pushed the boundaries of women’s sphere too far beyond what the majority of society considered acceptable. Also of note is the particular time when this lecture was given; the Ladies Temperance League of Oberlin3 was created in November of 1874, and Johnston was a founding member.4 Johnston had been an advocate of temperance throughout her life, and along with the Ladies’ Temperance League of Oberlin, helped force the shut-down of saloons in the Oberlin area. The activities of the Ladies’ Temperance League, as well as concerns about suffrage, caused a great deal of discussion about the specific nature of the woman’s sphere in Oberlin during the fall of 1874. This agitation is likely part of the reason why Johnston felt it necessary to directly address these concerns. Her reticence around voting combined with her enthusiastic participation in the Temperance League create a contradiction that may contribute to the vagueness of this entry, since Johnston’s own feelings on the “the woman question” seem to have been conflicting.

The vagueness of this entry, as well as its fragmentary nature, make any conclusions about Johnston’s beliefs impossible, but this document does offer insight into the fact that many women, including powerful ones such as Johnston, felt that advocating for the political rights of women was less important than making sure that women maintained a respectable image in the eyes of society.

Note: As this lecture was meant to be heard, rather than read, an audio recording of it has been included in this collection, with the speech being read by R. Debus. This recording, though based on the following transcription, is intended to offer a facsimile of what this lecture may have sounded like, and is thus edited for clarity, with grammatical errors being corrected and illegible words or unfinished phrases being filled in by the recorder’s best guess. Therefore, please see the transcription below for an accurate rendering of the document.


Women. The woman question -oooo [sic]

I do not propose to take the question up in its length and breadth. An hour The time left in [sic] would hardly suffice for the statement of the question much less for a full discussion of the subject. But some features of it have been brought to my notice during recently and I [inserted above line: propose] have [sic] thought to speak [inserted above line: only] of these. And first it is a question of great interest and importance. Something is wrong. There is no doubt about it, Else there would not be this universal unrest. This clamouring after rights. This adjusting and readjusting of woman’s [sic] work and womans duties. This discussion over womens sphere [sic] This [wrangling?] about women’s wages.

[scribbled along the top margin of the second page, likely the names of students: Ceenelica Joporica -Elise Luke Rose Maple]

It is evident that we are in a transition state [sic] Old things are passing away and behold all things are becoming new.5 Your In this That finally things after all this shaking things will adjust themselves and quiet be resumed secured [sic] There is little doubt. But things will never be again just as they were. The boundary lines of woman’s horizon will be found to have greatly receedded [sic]. A broader stretch She will find it necessary to learn new rules of perspective-6 rules that make ___ account of distance than ever when her sphere was bounded by the four walls of her home + + + + [sic] But just how long [inserted above the line: The length of] this transition state will [inserted above the line: shall] last depends very largely upon will be inversely proportioned to the number of mistakes we make- the number of false conclusions we reach. That we are not Every mistake [inserted above line: we make] necessitates a backward movement -a redjustment- a loss of time – A sacrfice of feeling and vitality while we can at this time ill affordwhich can but Such transition states are not new in the History [sic] of the world- ask They have sometimes lasted for ages [sic] The [inserted above line: illegible] only [illegible][inserted above the line: pressure of the present movement is that] now is that for the first time It is woman that finds herself

1Harriet Louise Keeler, The Life of Adelia A. Field Johnston Who Served Oberlin College for Thirty-Seven Years … Britton Printing Company, 1912. Memorial Record of the County of Cuyahoga and City of Cleveland, Ohio. Genealogical Committee, Western Reserve Historical Society, 1894.

2Harriet Louise Keeler, The Life of Adelia A. Field Johnston,  230-232.

3This was the Oberlin chapter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). In the summer of 1874, large numbers of women in Ohio and New York became concerned with promoting temperance. They decided that in order to achieve their goals, they needed to become organized nationally, and so they founded the WCTU. Though they had had some temporary successes in trying to advocate temperance simply through  church and prayer, they soon felt that to achieve lasting success, they needed to become more political. As such, members of the WCTU often participated in direct protests against saloons, and engaged in politics in order to promote their beliefs, neither of which were considered acceptable for women at the time. The women of the WCTU justified their participation in protests and politics by arguing that, since intemperance often threatened the security of the home, eradicating it was a necessary part of women’s duties. However, that explanation did not entirely satisfy many people, and there was still a stigma attached to women who moved too far outside their traditional sphere (“History of the WCTU.” Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. web address, accessed 5 August 2015).

4Oberlin College Archives, Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), Oberlin Chapter Records. 1874-1976, n.d. RG 31/006/004.

52 Corinthians 5:17, the full text of this quote is “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” Here, the word “new” has a greater meaning, implying that “new” is something that has never before existed, and is entire different from all that has come before. Thus, Johnston here is not simply saying that the world is changing, but that it is becoming something entirely different from all that has come before (“2 Corinthians 5 Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary.” web address, accessed 19 July 2015).

6The “rules of perspective” that Johnston references here refer to the rules of perspective used in painting. Johnston was very much a supporter of the arts, and was one of the primary people responsible for the creation of an Art Department at Oberlin (Oberlin College Archives, Adelia A. Field Johnston Papers. 1862-1994 (span). RG 30/19).