Walesville [NY]: 1846-1854. Contemporary quarter roan over marbled boards. Spine and boards worn, with loss to foot of spine and evidence of label removal to front board. Internally foxed and soiled, but remaining legible throughout. Comprised of 53 handwritten pages in various hands. Documenting the founding of the women's group focused on local philanthropy, which allowed men entry only as silent, "honorary" members, the manuscript outlines the group's goals and structure in addition to recording officers, participants, and meetings during its first eight years.
At its founding on December 31, 1846 the Union Benevolent Society laid down its Constitution, consisting of 9 articles. In addition to naming itself, the group set out a mission to "relieve the wants of the poor of our own vicinity" and articulated that it would be run by women. "Gentlemen may become honorary members" through financial contribution, but they would have no governing say. At this meeting, the women elected their eight officers and recorded 52 members and 39 honorary gentlemen (many sharing surnames with the married and unmarried members). It becomes clear that the organization will be embedded in the community's families, and that the women in charge managed to get significant financial support from local men.
The minutes in the first few years are succinct and lacking in detail about the "much work" that the secretary reports being done. These early entries simply report on the location of meetings -- usually gentlemen's homes -- and whether there was high or low attendance. As new secretaries take on the role, the minutes change in structure. We begin to learn more about the men invited to speak, the topics on which they lecture, and the financial contributions raised at the end of each meeting. Still, we get no strong sense of the group's real work; and there is increasing evidence that the men use the meetings as an opportunity to reinforce domestic, feminine values for the group's members.
The present manuscript is an opportunity for genealogical study, and potential work to discover whether and the Society accomplished within its community. It also offers a chance for scholars to consider how the founders' and members' good intentions were watered down by such a broadly articulated mission, and whether by opening the door to men's financial contributions such groups came under the governance of those men. (Item #4539)