"Reflections of These Jewels" : The Ladies' Library Association and Its Impact on Nineteenth-Century Women in Kalamazoo
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While women at the turn of the nineteenth century continued to gain influence within their private spaces of domesticity, the ideas about women and their intellectual abilities gave women little opportunity to break down social, political, economic, legal, and gender hierarchies. The emergence of increasing educational opportunities in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries due to Republican Motherhood "was not to provide women with the means to develop personal autonomy and ambition, but rather, to enable them to serve men and society." By the second quarter of the nineteenth century, the rapidly changing public and private spheres in society afforded women the ability to enter new educational, intellectual, and political territory. One of the first incorporated woman's organizations in the United States that sought the intellectual exploration that had previously been denied to women became known as the Ladies' Library Association of Kalamazoo, Michigan. During the nineteenth century, the members of the Ladies' Library Association of Kalamazoo constructed their organizational and their individual identities to reflect their pervasive missions and understanding of the ideal woman. These institutional and personal identities allowed the women to navigate skillfully the gender expectations that nineteenth century Americans held. The women of the LLA meticulously crafted an organizational identity that allowed women to move beyond the metaphorical bounds of Victorian America's gender definitions as well as the physical bounds of their domestic spaces and firmly into new gender identities and civil society. Through the regular purchasing, reading, and discussing of books, the women of the LLA encouraged female intellectual development, embraced opportunities for community improvement, and prepared women to use their education outside of their traditional confines. As the city of Kalamazoo moved towards the twentieth century, women's organizations came to understand the potential impact of their views and actions, and, in an effort to move women forward, began crafting new definitions, roles, and spaces for women. These efforts often put the women of the LLA at odds not only with other local women's organizations, but also within their own association. In their attempts to broaden their identities beyond wife and mother, by stressing the importance of women as human beings, the women of the LLA struggled to convince themselves as well as others that women could inhabit, and even flourish, in intellectual and civil spaces, while also changing not only the community, but communal views of women as well.