This is the third post in a series of entries from the UMass community celebrating Women’s History Month.
By Amy Breimaier, Ph.D. Student, Department of History
The young woman, Sarah Ward Noyes (1792-1818), who is the subject of this post, is not the typical focus of most Women’s History Month celebrations. The reason for this is simple — she was neither famous, nor did she challenge the status quo — the two frequent prerequisites to receiving recognition during these honorary history months. Yet, I would like to suggest that while many of the women traditionally recognized by Women’s History Month celebrations are inspirational, an exclusive focus upon them obscures our understanding of how most people navigated societal expectations — not by challenging them, but by learning to conform to them.
On Friday evening, October 7, 1808, sixteen-year-old Sarah Ward Noyes and her friends attended a ball at the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Clark in Andover, Massachusetts. While there, one of the young gentlemen expressed attention in Sarah, leaving her with feelings of “doubt, fear, [and] distrust,” which “robbed [her] of much pleasure [she] should otherwise have taken [that] evening.” Feeling particularly “dull and low spirited” that following Monday, Sarah desired to confide in her classmates regarding her feelings about the young man and the ball, yet resisted doing so because she believed them to be “too nearly interested,” and feared their gossip and the fact that they might “know too much” already.
Sarah’s fear of her classmates’ gossip was well founded. As historian Mary Beth Norton has noted, gossip in the Early Republic alerted people “to potential problems in their daily interactions with others by raising questions about trustworthiness, sexual conduct, and less-than-admirable aspects of people’s lives.” Throughout the first two to three years of her diary, Sarah expressed great anxiety over the gossipy nature of her social peers. On that same Monday in October 1808, Sarah not only expressed unease with her classmates’ potential gossip, but also wrote that it would be “better to be neglected than troubled with civilities,” for they only were misconstrued by her heart and that of jealous friends.
As Sarah reached her late teens, she strove to reform herself through a spiritual awakening. Her conversion process began in response to the anxiety she felt surrounding her reputation within the community. This process of religious awakening involved not only an increased level of personal meditation, but also a transformation of Sarah’s social life, as she gradually moved away from the balls of her mid-teens and toward the creation of a female-only reading group. For Sarah, this change in social behavior was not only personal, but also public — an outward sign of her developing maturity, as she endeavored to “cultivate society, which [her] education and feelings…qualified [her] to enjoy.” The public nature of religious devotion was central to Sarah’s enjoyment of it, as she sought to exchange one form of pleasure with that of another. Nonetheless, she could not avoid her old temptations as easily as she desired, for to do so, she would have to separate herself from society completely, which her mother would not allow.
Particularly important for Sarah’s social development was her involvement with a young ladies’ reading group. As historian Joyce Appleby noted, these “informal gatherings…provided companionship with strong emotional overtones among friends of the same sex.” This group also provided Sarah (and the other young ladies) with a space in which to polish their refinement, as they cultivated both conversational and public speaking skills. The reading group also brought Sarah into further contact with Harriot Osgood, a young lady in whom Sarah found that “in everything she says, or does, she is interesting and instructive,” and desired to “imitate [her] tho’ at an humble distance.” In the same passage, Sarah berated herself for not sooner “cultivating [Harriot’s] friendship,” but recognized that it was because at that point she did see “religion as it is,” for her “heart was to insensible of its own weakness of depravity.” The cultivating of these new friendships within the relative safety of the young ladies’ reading group highlights how Sarah purposefully strove to change her public reputation while embracing the language and outward appearance of refinement and piety.
This short series of events in the life of Sarah Ward Noyes, as detailed by her diary entries — the only surviving evidence of these events — serves to highlight the significance of social customs and interactions within people’s daily lives, especially for young, single women in the Early Republic. Sarah’s diary, long forgotten in the Massachusetts Historical Society archives, provides an invaluable chronicle of this critical period in her life, as she struggled with the transition from student and adolescent, to young adult. It was at this stage in life that young women were not only expected to successfully navigate the realm of courtship, but to also experience a religious awakening. This period thus represented a critical and defining moment in the lives of young ladies as they worked to establish themselves as adults. Sarah’s diary is particularly invaluable for its emotional rawness. Her daily writings offer one window into the external, and particularly internal, struggle young women faced between the pull of their religious faith and the temptations society offered to young people.
For further reading, see:
Sarah Ward Noyes Diary, 1808-1814. Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, Massachusetts.